Hollywood is only marginally ahead of its lackluster 2005 in terms of dollars and cents. Studios are miles ahead in terms of summer hits and misses, though.
With "Superman Returns" pulling in a solid $84 million in its first five days, Hollywood revenues this year are at $4.6 billion, 5 percent ahead of last year's, though, factoring in higher ticket prices, attendance is up just 1.7 percent.
Since the first weekend in May, the start of the industry's busy summer season, revenues have climbed only 2 percent over last summer's, while attendance actually is down 1 percent.
Yet the picture generally looks rosier because studios avoided a repeat of their stinker-of-the-week performance of 2005, when seemingly every Friday brought a big new movie that audiences stayed away from.
Critics and fans alike were turned off by such summer offerings as the action bombs "Stealth" and "The Island," the comedies "The Honeymooners," "Rebound" and "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo," the historical epic "Kingdom of Heaven" and the remakes "House of Wax" and "The Bad News Bears."
Weekend after weekend, the box office was down compared to the previous year, a wake-up call that studios needed to make better movies to compete with consumers' big-screen televisions, video games and other entertainment choices.
"You're going to see part of it this year and more of it next year, but I do think that everyone puts forth their best effort and takes notice of these things, and absolutely more than ever is committed to making better movies, better stories," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony, which released "The Da Vinci Code."
Since climbing to a modern peak of 1.6 billion tickets sold in 2002, movie attendance has fallen each of the last three years, dropping to 1.4 billion in 2005, a steep 8 percent fall from the year before. In Hollywood's golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, up to 4 billion tickets were sold annually, before television eroded the movie business.
While business is up a bit this year over last, 2006 admissions are running 8.4 percent behind those of 2004, when Hollywood had a strong year with 1.52 billion tickets sold, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
At their current pace, 2006 ticket sales would come in slightly below Hollywood's average of 1.46 billion a year over the last decade.
"This is more of a normal year. If every year for Hollywood in terms of box office was like this, I think it would be fine. Everybody would be content," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations.
"It's not the best year, but certainly in the wake of the fear created in the marketplace in 2005, this is exactly where we want to be. Sure it could be better, but at least it's not that repeated downward spiral we had in 2005."
This summer's top-grossing films collectively have brought in revenues about on par with those of last year, though nothing so far has come close to 2005's biggest hit, "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," which took in $380 million.
Summer 2006 has produced two $200-million smashes, "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "The Da Vinci Code," plus a solid undercard of $100 million hits, "Cars," "Over the Hedge" and "The Break-Up." "Superman Returns" is expected to hit that mark by Tuesday.
Still, there have been disappointments. Though a sturdy hit, Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible III" will top out domestically at about $135 million, $45 million less than the 1996 original and $80 million behind the 2000 sequel.
Since "Mission: Impossible III" scored generally favorable reviews, the weaker returns apparently had more to do with a backlash against Cruise's odd behavior regarding his romance with Katie Holmes and his Scientology preaching.
This summer's only notable commercial duds among big-studio movies have been "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties" and "Poseidon," though the latter still has managed to pull in almost $60 million.
Down the homestretch, this summer has a near-certain blockbuster in Johnny Depp's sequel "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," which could become the year's top-grossing movie if it comes close to matching the $305 million haul of the 2003 original.
There's a fair lineup of other potential hits, led by Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell's crime thriller "Miami Vice."
Competing for the faithful family market are three animated tales: "Monster House," "Barnyard" and "The Ant Bully." The superhero craze turns lighthearted with Uma Thurman's comedy "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" and Tim Allen's romp "Zoom."
Will Ferrell hits the NASCAR circuit with the comedy "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," while Owen Wilson, Kate Hudson and Matt Dillon aim for laughs in "You, Me and Dupree" and the Wayans brothers team up for "Little Man."
Also coming are Samuel L. Jackson's "Snakes on a Plane," a mid-air thriller that began receiving unprecedented Internet buzz long before its release, and the fantasy "Lady in the Water," from director M. Night Shyamalan, whose summer hit parade includes "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs."
"With `Superman' this week and `Pirates' right behind it, I think it'll be a big boost to the box office," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution at Warner Bros., the studio behind "Superman Returns" and "Lady in the Water." "Films are contagious. You see one good one, and you want to see another. That's the trend I think that's going to happen."