With ‘Avengers,’ ‘Dark Knight,’ ‘Men in Black,’ Hollywood Eyes Record Summer

Some of the biggest film franchises in history are returning, but adult movies like “Ted” and “Prometheus” look primed to compete

For Hollywood, summer is Prozac, Propecia and Viagra rolled into one.

With Spider-Man, Batman and the Men in Black all hitting theaters over the next four months, exhibitors and studios are feeling downright cocky these days.

“It will be the biggest box office on record,” Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. “It’s not every summer we see this kind of firepower.”

Just how big will become clear on May 4 when Disney opens “The Avengers,” which brings together Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and assorted other Marvel superheroes. Reviews have been strong, and analysts predict that the movie could unseat “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” as the highest grossing opening weekend of all time.

If it does, it might not hold onto the crown for long, because Warner Bros. brings out “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20, 2012 (pictured left).

“This is what a summer popcorn movie is all about,” Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros., told TheWrap. “I don’t want to oversell it, but this has elements that are ground-breaking and are really a thrill ride.”

That doesn’t even factor in Sony’s return to two of its most beloved franchises, “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Men in Black 3,” Pixar’s girl warrior movie, “Brave,” or Universal’s fairy tale action film “Snow White and the Huntsman,” all of which enter the season with big budgets and major expectations.

Also read: From 'Prometheus' to 'Dark Shadows': The 10 Most Anticipated Summer Movies

“In this industry, the lifeblood is the films, and this year we’ve got the product,” Mitch Neuhauser, managing director of the theatrical exhibition trade show CinemaCon, told TheWrap. 

It is a departure from last year, when the movie business limped into tentpole season, badly bruised by a spring that saw the overall box office down by double digits thanks to costly flops like “Mars Needs Moms” and “Sucker Punch.”

After a lackluster 2011, when ticket sales slid 3 percent to $10.2 billion and attendance fell to a 16-year low, the box office has hit its stride again. Thanks largely to smash hits like “The Hunger Games,” the domestic box office is up nearly 20 percent to $2.89 billion through last week.

Also read: 'The Avengers' Most Anticipated Summer Movie, Fandango Finds

Success breeds success, studio executives and analysts say, and that’s partly why they’re confidant the cash registers will keep ringing as warm weather hits. As more people go into the theaters throughout the spring they’re exposed to trailers and ads for summer tentpole films, which helps generate excitement, they argue.

“I think this business is all about momentum,” Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment, told TheWrap. “What the marketplace keeps saying is that more of the same doesn’t work, and I think last year there was an awful lot of more of the same. Fortunately, this year it’s the exact opposite.”

On paper, it looks like a bumper crop of would-be blockbusters, but every summer has its share of turkeys like “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Conan The Barbarian.”

After “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland,” it would seem like Johnny Depp and Tim Burton can do no wrong. Yet, their jokey update of the “Dark Shadows” television series looks like it could be polarizing.

Likewise, “The Bourne Legacy” revisits the amnesiac spy franchise that has racked up nearly $950 million worldwide. However, Matt Damon opted not to do the film, which will instead feature a new hero played by Jeremy Renner. If it works, it could extend the franchise into a new decade. If it doesn’t, it could mean bye-bye Bourne.

Then there’s “Battleship,” an alien invasion film that sails into theaters with a budget of more than $200 million. It has performed well in its early release overseas, racking up $100 million, but it will need to be a brobdingnagian hit to break even.

Even this season’s “sure things” have risks attached to them. “Men in Black 3” has the most popular star on the planet in Will Smith, but the last film in the series was released nearly a decade ago. Moreover, Smith hasn’t made a movie since 2008’s “Seven Pounds,” an eternity in a business with a short attention span.

(Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" pictured right)

Likewise, “Spider-Man” features one of the most popular superhero characters in film history, but swings into theaters with a new cast and director, after Sony pulled the plug on Sam Raimi’s proposed fourth film.

“I think it’s the biggest gamble of the summer,” a rival studio executive told TheWrap. “To me it hasn’t been that long of a time since the last ‘Spider-Man,’ so I'm not sure there's much of an appetite for a reboot.”

But Rory Breur, president of worldwide distribution at Sony Pictures, thinks that both are strong enough brands to fill theaters. He argues that the 3D in “Spider-Man” will provide an immersive experience that will appeal to fans and the time travel plot in “Men in Black 3," in which Smith is sent back to the 1960s, will bring something fresh to the table.

“I can’t think of a property that is better suited to 3D than Spider-Man flying through the streets of New York,” Breur said.

“I’ve rarely met a kid who doesn’t know about ‘Men in Black’” he added. “This franchise is so much fun and this story is so in Will Smith’s wheel-house.”

Even Warner Bros. “The Dark Knight Rises” may have trouble matching the $1 billion worldwide take of it predecessor. Analysts say that the tragic death of star Heath Ledger made the film an even bigger event than it might have been otherwise.

Regardless, the conventional wisdom is that “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Avengers” will vie to be the top grossing films of the season, with “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Men in Black 3” jockeying for third or fourth place.

But there is always room for surprises.

One in particular is 20th Century Fox. After being maligned in recent years for taking few creative risks, the studio is unveiling one of the most ambitious slates this summer. Yes, there are sequels to its popular “Ice Age” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchises, but Fox is
also fielding an adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror film “Prometheus,” and the Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller comedy “Neighborhood Watch.”

“I think we’re going to all see that there’s a huge appetite for original content and we’ve really answered the call,” Chris Aronson, executive vice president of domestic distribution and general sales manager at Fox, told TheWrap. “There are sequels and reboots, but
there’s a lot of new material and that’s what’s going to make this summer fascinating and successful.”

Of these, “Prometheus,” which returns Scott to the futuristic world he created in “Alien,” seems poised to attract crowds even though it will likely earn an R-rating, traditionally a stumbling block for studios eager to bring in teen audiences.

“It’s not the kiss of death,” Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, told TheWrap. “‘The Matrix’ films were rated R.”

Plus, he says, Fox has cleverly marketed the film with viral videos featuring the android character played by Michael Fassbender and with a chilling trailer that provides lots of scares, but keeps the plot closely guarded.

The other risky R-rated bet that analysts think will pay off handsomely is “Ted,” a raunchy comedy from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane (pictured left). Conventional wisdom among exhibitors and analysts is that it has the potential to be a breakout adult comedy in the tradition of "Horrible Bosses” or “The Hangover.”

“It is that unique brand of humor that Seth MacFarlane brings to the table,” Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution at Universal, told TheWrap. “We are hearing that the trailer is getting a great response from our friends in exhibition and Seth has a very loyal fan base.”

Of course, it’s all just speculation until audiences actually see the films. At this time last year, “Green Lantern” smelled like a smash and barely anyone had heard of “Bridesmaids."