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Why Breaking Box-Office Records Matters to Hollywood More This Year

As the U.S. movie industry gets its swagger back, many believe that making history will send a message to the world

Ask a film executive or moviemaker about box office records and they’ll typically react like an awkward baseball slugger. “Shucks,” they’ll mutter. “We’re going to take our best swing and if it happens, it happens.”

That isn’t the case this summer, or this year, both of which have historic implications for Hollywood.

When Disney and Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens on May 1, it’s likely to go over $207 million and be the biggest opening weekend for a movie ever. It’s the first in a string of super sequels expected to drive a record $4.75 billion in grosses this summer. And that will put 2015 on pace for the biggest year ever at the domestic box office, topping $11 billion for the first time.

“I say, let’s hit it out of the park,” said Greg Foster, IMAX Entertainment’s chief executive, and he wasn’t just cheerleading.

His confidence is based on a muscular summer slate stocked with sequels that include the long-awaited “Jurassic World” and “Ted 2” from Universal, “Terminator: Genisys” and Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” from Paramount and Warner Bros.’ Plus there’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” from George Miller starring Tom Hardy.

mad max“Ours is very much a momentum business, where a run of hits can get people talking and it snowballs,” Foster said. “On a larger scale, that’s true of this year, because such a big deal was made out of 2014 being down, and the fact that if 2015 didn’t work, it would be a really big problem,” Foster said.

Last summer was a bummer at the box office, down 16 percent from the previous year, and 2014 finished six percent down from record-breaking 2013.

“Well 2015 is hardly over, but so far so good,” Foster said. That’s an understatement, given the blockbuster runs of “American Sniper” in January, “Fifty Shades of Grey” in February and “Furious 7” in March that have this year running six percent ahead of 2014.

The effect of taking a run at the record isn’t all about numbers, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at box office tracking firm Rentrak.

“It’s good for Hollywood’s collective psyche because it allows everyone in the industry to feel good about themselves and what they’re doing,” he said.

“It also helps consumers see the movie business as a success, and makes them a little more willing to get off the couch and go to the theaters, because they want to be part of something big,” said Dergarabedian, noting that other entertainment options have taken a toll on movie attendance.

Rewriting the record book would also send a message to the world, specifically, that Hollywood has successfully realigned in the aftermath of the financial crisis and is a global powerhouse that will remain the world’s creative entertainment hub for years.

“You can feel a real sense of confidence right now, and people are making movies, and marketing and distributing them, with a bit of a swagger,” Foster said. “They’re making films that play best in movie theaters, which is our strength.”

Movie theater chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark are licking their chops over a summer they’ve known would be strong since last summer’s CinemaCon, according to Patrick Corcoran, the National Association of Theater Owners’ chief communications officer.

“You don’t want to get overconfident, because you never really know how movies will play until they’re out there,” he said. “But we’ve felt really good about this summer for a while.”

southpawThe Weinstein Company normally focuses on smaller, prestige titles and isn’t a big summer player. But this year it has the Antoine Fuqua-directed boxing drama “Southpaw,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, set for July and the animated “Underdogs” the next month. Erik Lomis, TWC’s head of distribution, is pulling for a record, too.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we?” To be sure, if this summer does indeed top the $4.75 billion standard set in 2013, a lot of companies will make money. And it won’t all be the super sequels.

“I think we’ll see a record,” said Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures’ distribution chief. “And that’s good because it lets people know that we’re strong and thriving.” July’s sci-fi action comedy “Pixels,” starring Adam Sandler and directed by Christopher Columbus, is his studio’s best bet, along with the Cameron Crowe romantic comedy “Aloha,” starring Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, in May.

Action sequels and superhero fare traditionally play best with young men, but women will have a lot to say about whether this summer is a record or not, according to BoxOffice.com senior analyst Phil Contrino.

“It’s not getting a lot of attention, but appealing to female audiences this summer was clearly on Hollywood’s mind,” he said.

pitch-perfect-2No less than eight female-centric comedies will roll out, some from big names like Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara (“Hot Pursuit”) and Meryl Streep (“Ricki and the Flash,” others from upstarts like Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson (“Pitch Perfect 2”), Melissa Rauch (“Bronze) and Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”).

Disney’s distribution chief Dave Holllis said women were one reason that “Age of Ultron” was tracking even better than the original “Avengers.”

“That’s something that Marvel and our marketing team have done very well,” he said. “The base has broadened far beyond fan boys and comic book readers to include both younger and older women.”

As much fun as the record run may be, IMAX’s Foster said one year will probably be enough.

“You don’t want to put pressure on yourself to deliver results that are impossible to sustain, and you can’t top yourself every time out,” he said. “When we’re done with this year, I hope we can go back to just trying to making great movies and marketing and distributing them as well as we can.”

In the meantime, let’s see if history is made.

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