Hollywood lived its own second-chance "Rocky" story this summer as a business that looked to be going down for the count two years ago rebounded with record revenue and an unparalleled string of blockbuster hits.
The movie industry had its first $4 billion summer and will finish with a haul of about $4.15 billion from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, according to box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
That was up 8 percent from last summer and surpassed the previous high of $3.95 billion in summer 2004.
Hollywood did not set a movie attendance record, though. Factoring in annual rises in admission prices, about 606 million tickets were sold this summer, up 3 percent from 2006. But the season was only the sixth-best for modern Hollywood, whose biggest summer for attendance since the golden age of the 1930s, '40s and '50s came in 2002, when 653.4 million tickets were sold, according to Media By Numbers.
Still, it was a sharp turnaround from summer 2005, when attendance plunged 11.5 percent compared to the previous summer and critics predicted the movie industry would continue to decline as consumers turned to home theaters, video games and other entertainment choices.
"Everyone should be very happy with the result. The movie industry is alive and well, in comparison to maybe what was being said a few years ago," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony, which started the summer with a record-breaking $151.1 million opening weekend for "Spider-Man 3" and also released "Superbad," which is on its way to becoming a $100 million hit.
"Spider-Man 3" was quickly followed by DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third" and Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," the third installments in those three franchises all shooting past $300 million domestically.
It was the first summer ever to start with three such huge blockbusters, yet Hollywood lost momentum in June. The month had hits with Universal's "Knocked Up" and 20th Century Fox's "Live Free or Die Hard" and "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer."
Though packing in solid audiences, the star-studded Warner Bros. sequel "Ocean's Thirteen" and Universal's "Evan Almighty," a follow-up to the blockbuster "Bruce Almighty," failed to live up to their predecessors, contributing to a soft box-office month.
Then Disney's "Ratatouille," Paramount's "Transformers" and Warner's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" reignited movie fever. Quickly following were hits such as Universal's "The Bourne Ultimatum," New Line's "Hairspray" and "Rush Hour 3" and 20th Century Fox's "The Simpsons Movie," providing a surge to the second half of summer, when the movie business usually slows down as fall approaches.
While there were a couple of box-office underachievers, Hollywood was conspicuously free of outright bombs this summer, unlike two years ago, when the season was littered with flops such as "The Island," "Stealth" and "The Bad News Bears."
"It's a tribute to the fact that we as a collective group paid attention to the audience and made sure that what we put out was satisfying," said Chris Aronson, senior vice president of distribution for 20th Century Fox. "At the end of the day, it says that if it's good, they're going to come. The demise of the movie business is very premature. It's a healthy business as long as the quality of the movies is there."
For the full year, movie revenues are up 7 percent and attendance has risen 2.5 percent compared to last year.
But the movie business is fickle, and that momentum could falter through the fall and holidays, when the film schedule is unusually barren of big franchise flicks.
The one major sequel is "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," but that does not come out until late December. If Hollywood hopes to maintain its strong year, audiences will have to turn out in big numbers for such original films as Johnny Depp's musical "Sweeney Todd," Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig's fantasy "The Golden Compass" and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe's crime drama "American Gangster."
"Look how important sequels were to summer of 2007. If we're counting on that for the fall and holiday season, we're going to be out of luck," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers. "It's going to be about originality having to win out over franchise films."
Originality certainly had its place over the summer, with such R-rated comedies as "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." Both came from the same creative team, with Judd Apatow ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") directing "Knocked Up" and producing "Superbad."
Apatow has found big-screen success with the sort of smart comedy that failed on television, as networks quickly pulled the plug on his critically acclaimed shows "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared."
"It makes me feel like I was not crazy for yelling and crying at everybody when those shows got canceled," Apatow said. "I'm always happy to have these films do well enough that they'll just let me make another one. So everything else is gravy."