Summer can't come soon enough for studios and movie theater owners looking to break the box office out of the slump it's been mired in for much of 2013.
Despite a few hits like "Identity Thief," the movie industry has lacked the "Hunger Games" size blockbuster needed to convince droves of moviegoers to put down their iPads and joysticks and head to the multiplex. Through last weekend, the domestic box office was down 12.6 percent from the previous year and this weekend was soft as well.
The studios are banking that the age-old formula of mixing a franchise-heavy slate with a couple of star-driven blockbusters from Will Smith and Johnny Depp will prove irresistible to moviegoers who've been staying at home.
Barring any last minute shifts in scheduling, 17 sequels will unspool over the summer, the most since 2003. That includes follow-ups to such popular franchises as "The Hangover," "Iron Man" and "Fast & Furious."
"Studios are hoping that audiences get franchise fever, because that's what they're doling out this summer," Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. "Hollywood increasingly relies on sequels as a safety net. Usually there's an ebb and flow, but this year you're seeing them hit all at once."
Indeed, every month except June features a weekend when not one but two sequels are opening against one another.
There are also several would-be tentpoles debuting, such as Guillermo del Toro's giant monsters versus giant robots film "Pacific Rim" and Brad Pitt's duel with the zombie apocalypse in "World War Z." With a dollop of R-Rated comedies like "The Heat" and a dash of animated fare like "Turbo" and "Epic," studios believe there will be enough diversity to appeal to audiences of varying ages.
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They argue that the box office can make up the difference and match last year's record-breaking haul. (But they would, wouldn't they?)
"I think it will be a bigger summer than last year," Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony Pictures Entertainment, said. "There’s one or two monsters opening every week from May to the end of August and if you look at the slate, there's something for everyone."
Exhibitors and studio executives say lack of variety was the glaring flaw in the lineup of winter films. A glut of violent movies like "A Good Day to Die Hard" and "Texas Chainsaw 3D" left little at the multiplex for audiences eager for stories excluding big guns and gore.
"We just stumbled out of the gate," Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, said of the industry's winter doldrums. "The January and into February landscape was just littered with R-rated movies. There was no balance or breadth and ultimately there was too many forgettable movies."
This summer is the industry's best chance to re-ignite the public's passion and pick up steam if they want to match or surpass 2012's high-water mark of $34.7 billion at the international box office. Though records fall last year, the summer box office was actually down 2.1 percent from the previous one. Prior to blockbusters like "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises," the summer started slowly with flops like "Battleship" and "Dark Shadows."
In contrast, the winter of 2012, when the box office was up nearly 20 percent, and the holiday, up 16 percent, made the difference.
So how does this years lineup shake out? "Iron Man 3" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" appear to be as close to a sure thing as the mercurial movie business can count on. Moreover, buzz is building for films like "Man of Steel," which reboots the Superman character under the guidance of "300" director Zack Snyder, and "Despicable Me 2," the sequel to Universal's animated hit.
Analysts predict that at least one of this year's crop of R-rated comedies (besides 'The Hangover Part III)" will break out in a big way. That could be good news for the Seth Rogen apocalypse movie "This is the End" or Paul Feig's follow-up to "Bridesmaids," "The Heat."
To be sure, there are some big question marks, perhaps none more ominous than "The Lone Ranger." The Western reunites "Pirates of the Caribbean" collaborators Johnny Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, but was beset with reports of budget overruns and production delays. Analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG has already told clients that the film, which cost in excess of $215 million, will be the year's biggest box office disappointment.
For its part Disney is expressing confidence that the Pirates team will overcome any negative buzz.
"Jerry, Gore, and Johnny are a proven combination at the box-office and everything they’ve put together on 'The Lone Ranger' has been nothing short of incredible and we’re excited for audiences around the world to see this film," Dave Hollis, executive vice president of Walt Disney Studios Theatrical Distribution, said.
Not everyone is bullish about this summer, as a report this week by credit rating agency Fitch Ratings concluded that the box office will fall short of last year's mark. It also predicted that the contribution to the overall box office by 3D films like "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel" will decline for the first time since 2009.
"Fitch views the expected film slate as favorable, but believes it will result in slightly weaker attendance compared to the 2012 film slate," the study's authors write.
Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the exhibition trade group, the National Association of Theatre Owners, is not ready to wave a white flag. Though perhaps no studio will hit a home run as big as "The Avengers," they could produce similar numbers with a variety of moderately successful films produced on smaller budgets (like "Kick-Ass 2" and "We're the Millers).
"We need to have we like things that play out for a long time, but we also need fresh movies week in and week out," Corcoran said. "Audiences get hot and cold on certain types of movies, like superhero or comic movies, so if studios have too few arrows in their quiver and people cool off on a type of movie, it's a problem because they haven't got anything else. They had too many eggs in that basket."
Bock is blunter. He maintains that for the summer to work, films like "The Hangover Part III" and "Despicable Me 2" have to build on the goodwill earned by previous films in their franchises.
"It all comes down to how popular are these sequels going to be," Bock said. "Will they equal or out-gross their predecessors?"