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Hollywood banks on banner year at box office

Soothsayers were big in the ancient Greek era depicted in the blockbuster “300,” and Hollywood hopes that flick portends one of the biggest years in modern times for the movie business.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Soothsayers were big in the ancient Greek era depicted in the blockbuster “300,” and Hollywood hopes that flick portends one of the biggest years in modern times for the movie business.

Unlike a year ago, when the industry was recovering from a dismal 2005, the annual ShoWest convention of theater owners opened with high spirits Tuesday, Hollywood riding a wave of recent hits and looking ahead to a summer with an unprecedented lineup of potential box-office smashes.

“I’ve been in the business 50 years. I think it looks like the best product year I can ever remember since the days of ‘Titanic,’ ” said Marvin Troutman, president of Cinema Centers Inc., which has 66 theater screens in central Pennsylvania.

Troutman spoke while strolling past a line of movie posters promoting such summer blockbusters in waiting as “Shrek the Third,” “Spider-Man 3” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

At ShoWest last year, theater owners groused that Hollywood had let them down in 2005 with a string of boring movies. The industry rebounded with a solid though unremarkable year in 2006.

This time, cinema operators are buzzing with the early success of last weekend’s “300,” which opened with a record March debut of $70.9 million.

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Going into the weekend, 2007’s movie admissions had been lagging 1 percent behind last year’s because of a sleepy January and February at cinemas. Then the comic-book adaptation “Ghost Rider” and the road comedy “Wild Hogs” heated up the box office, a prelude to the huge opening of “300,” the success of which helped put admissions nearly 2 percent ahead of 2006’s in a single weekend.

More important, say Hollywood executives, the industry is offering a range of films that capture all audiences, young and old, not just the teen moviegoers whom studios target with many of their summer popcorn flicks.

“Last weekend, I went to the movies, and it was sold out. I was trying to see ‘The Last King of Scotland.’ Then I tried to see ‘Amazing Grace.’ Sold out,” said Dan Glickman, who heads the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s key trade group. “Most people would have been upset. I was thrilled.”

As ShoWest opened, theater owners were shown previews of two major Disney summer releases, the trailer for “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and a 12-minute clip of “Ratatouille,” the latest cartoon comedy from Pixar Animation.

Other major summer tales include Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker’s “Rush Hour 3,” the sci-fi adventure “Transformers,” George Clooney’s latest heist romp “Ocean’s Thirteen,” Adam Sandler’s comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” the superhero sequel “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” Steve Carell’s “Bruce Almighty” follow-up “Evan Almighty,” the animated penguin story “Surf’s Up,” Matt Damon’s new spy caper “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and “The Simpsons Movie,” a big-screen adventure for TV’s favorite cartoon family.

Might the overload of movies cut into one another’s business?

“Not if they’re good movies,” said Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of the “Pirates” trilogy, whose second chapter was last year’s biggest hit. “When you have a down year and people didn’t come, it’s not because they don’t like movies. It’s because the movies we put out there didn’t engage them. Not that they were bad movies. It’s just audiences didn’t respond. Hopefully, this summer we can prove them all wrong.”

In 2006, domestic revenues were just under $9.5 billion, with about 1.45 billion tickets sold. That was up solidly from 2005, when admissions plunged and some critics predicted doom for movie houses because of home-theater systems and other newer entertainment options.

Admissions in 2006 were on a par with the industry average over the past decade, though far below Hollywood’s golden age of the 1930s and ’40s, when estimates put ticket sales as high as 4 billion a year before TV began eroding movie audiences.

Hollywood’s revenue record of $9.53 billion came in 2004, while the best year in modern times for admissions came in 2002, with 1.6 billion tickets sold.

With such a heavy-hitting 2007 lineup, some think those modern revenue and admissions records could fall this year.

“You never know until people start buying tickets for the big pictures, but we’ve never seen a slate like this before,” said John Fithian, who heads the National Association of Theatre Owners. “So we have guarded confidence that it’s going to be a huge year. We’ll see when they come to the theaters.”

Theater owners offered rousing applause after viewing the footage of “Ratatouille,” the story of a gourmand rodent who teams with a lowly human janitor to cook grand dishes at a fancy French restaurant.

“Ratatouille” director Brad Bird said he has gotten over fears that his film could get lost in the onslaught of sequels with familiar characters and story lines.

“We feel very confident as a story that we’ll be able to stand with anybody. And we think you can’t live on sequels alone, man. You’ve got to get some fiber in your diet,” said Bird, who also directed “The Incredibles.” “We’re thinking that the idea of doing original films is going to catch on, because after all, where do sequels come from?”