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Summer 2007: The ultimate movie battle

The beaches are empty, kids are back in school and working grunts everywhere have returned to the daily grind. But the movie studios, like great chess players always thinking five steps ahead, are already talking about next summer. By Stuart Levine
/ Source: contributor

Sadly, summer is history.

The beaches are empty, kids are back in school and working grunts everywhere have returned to the daily grind. But the movie studios, like great chess players always thinking five steps ahead, are already talking about next summer.

But for them, it’ll be no vacation. Far from it. They’re petrified about summer 2007, and for good reason.

Many films released from January through April are of marginal quality, at best, and fairly inexpensive to produce. Production costs range anywhere from $20 million to $50 million and if these movies somehow make a nice profit, it’s considered gravy. October through December is the slot where Oscar hopefuls are brought out, those films that might hit big on the awards circuit and play for awhile, not only in theaters but on DVD as well.

So it’s important to understand that while a studio wants its movies to succeed every weekend of the year, those big summer popcorn releases pay the bills and can make the corporate bosses — and stockholders — very rich.

Shrek vs. Spidey
Which leads us to May, when the third installment of three of the biggest movie blockbusters of all time converge over a four-week span. The collective anxiety of Hollywood’s biggest powerbrokers will be felt all the way from the tony restaurants and shops on chic Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles to Wall Street in New York, depending on how these films fare.

DreamWorks, which merged with Paramount last year, will be releasing ogre saga “Shrek the Third”; Sony sends out another edition of its webbed wonder with “Spider-Man 3”; and Disney tries to loot more of the public’s gold in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

Think “War of the Worlds” was scary? This war of the tentpoles is downright frightening to anyone with a stake in the financial outcome of the pictures. And you don’t have to be working on any of the films to be affected. If one of these movies crashes, burns and disappoints financially, which is entirely possible, it could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs. From the chef in the commissary to the projectionist in the screening room, studio employees all across town will have sweaty palms as the opening dates arrive.

There are two ways to try and determine how this will play out. Here’s the optimistic view of what’ll happen come May:

“Spider-Man 3” opens on May 4 to huge numbers, way over $100 million for three days. Compared to the original Spidey’s $114 million opening in 2002 (on the first weekend of May as well — and who says studio bosses are superstitious), this is certainly possible. By the following weekend, the gross is over $200 million and on May 18 “Shrek” comes out of the gate strong, bringing in beaucoup family bucks.

Captain Jack spices things upOnly seven days later “Pirates” arrives fresh from its 2006 take of over $1 billion — yes, that’s billion — in global ticket revenue. The film concludes its trilogy and fans fork their hard-earned cash to see how, and with who, Captain Jack ends up with.

But here’s what makes the studios nervous: What happens if any of these movies get burned by bad reviews and audiences decide to wait for the DVD? Will consumers want to spend another $50 (tickets, parking and concessions) on “Pirates” after spending that same amount, if not more, for “Spider-Man” and “Shrek” only a couple of weeks before?

Having three movies of this magnitude come out at relatively the same time is new territory, so nobody knows for sure how it all might play out. But those unchartered waters probably feel like a tidal wave to a studio that has paid way north of $200 million to produce each of these movies, which includes skyrocketing marketing costs and first-dollar percentage deals for the actors.

And May, which for many years was a great time to open a big movie, wasn’t kind to either “Poseidon” or “Mission: Impossible 3” this year. Despite director Wolfgang Petersen’s pedigree of edge-of-your-seat sea flicks (“Das Boot,” “The Perfect Storm”), “Poseidon” sank, grossing a hugely disappointing $61 million for a film that cost about $160 million.

That was only the beginning of a brutal summer for Warner Bros., which also saw disastrous results from “The Ant Bully” ($26 million), M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” ($41 million) and the under performing “Superman Returns” ($198 million).

Warners, by the way, won’t be caught in the May fray for next year and could actually bounce back to have a nice summer.

Ocean's boys vs. a kid named PotterThe third edition (gee, this really is the season of the three) of “Ocean’s Thirteen,” starring a couple of no names like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Al Pacino, comes out June 8. A month later will be the return of the Hogwarts gang in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Since the lowest of the four “Harry Potter” pictures grossed $249 million domestically and book sales aren’t slowing down anytime soon, chances are “Phoenix” and Warner Bros. will be just fine.

“Phoenix” and “Ocean’s” are only two of a seemingly endless supply of sequels arriving next summer. Besides the May troika previously discussed, Fox has the “Fantastic Four 2” and Bruce Willis’ tough-guy cop John McClane in “Live Free or Die Hard”; Universal replaces Jim Carrey with Steve Carell in the “Bruce Almighty” follow-up, “Evan Almighty”; New Line sees what type of commotion Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker can make in “Rush Hour 3”; and Universal gets re-Bourne again in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” with Matt Damon.

And, finally, one of the great TV families of all time takes its act to the big screen with “The Simpsons Movie” at the end of July. Whether it will bring in the “d’oh” is tough to say at this point — will people pay $12 at the movies to see what they can watch at home for free? — but it sure will be fun to see if the “Simpsons” writers allow their characters to be a bit more expressive with coarser language as they’ll be free of network censors trying to ruin every hysterical double entendre, and worrying about who the show might offend.

So enjoy those Oscar hopefuls that are now starting to hit multiplexes on a weekly basis. They’ll enlighten, create discussion and, for the most part, prove your money’s worth.

And while they might make critics happy, they probably won’t do too much for shareholders of Sony, Viacom and Disney. They’ll rely on Spidey, Shrek and Captain Jack next summer for that.

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety. He can be reached at .