Friday, April 06, 2007

2007 box office is smoking

It has been a tough year for film critics.

They haven't been crazy about many movies the first three months of this year and have urged moviegoers to avoid a lot of Hollywood's early action and comedic fare.

No matter. The box-office year is off to a blistering start, thanks primarily to movies reviewers hated and audiences gave a big thumbs up.

Through Sunday, ticket sales are at $2.1 billion, a healthy 6% ahead of the same time last year and 5% ahead of 2005, according to estimates from Nielsen EDI.

And with summer crammed with such showcase movies as Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, studio executives already are crowing that 2007 could be a record breaker.

"We're probably going to challenge for the biggest year" in ticket sales, says Marvin Levy of DreamWorks. The record was set in 2004 with $9.54 billion in the USA, although 2002 holds the record for most tickets sold at 1.6 billion.

"It's hard not to be optimistic," Levy says, "particularly when people thought this would be a slow time of year."

Already, three films released this year —300, Wild Hogs and Ghost Rider— have brought in more than $100 million. And Eddie Murphy's Norbit nearly hit the mark with $94 million. Last year, no movie crossed the blockbuster mark in the first quarter, according to Box Office Mojo.

"There's almost a summer feel to the first three months," says Rory Bruer, distribution chief for Sony Pictures, which released Ghost Rider.

And like most summers, critics are grumpy. Of this year's biggest movies, only 300 earned recommendations from more than half of the nation's movie critics, survey site shows.

Meanwhile, films like Zodiac and Alpha Dog, which earned endorsements from more than half the country's critics, have gone largely unseen. Zodiac has earned $32 million and Alpha $15 million.

"People want to laugh, be inspired or be thrilled by a movie," says Box Office Mojo's Brandon Gray. "And even if the critics aren't liking (2007's early films), audiences are coming from a different place."

Studio executives believe they've found that place.

"There used to be a stigma in the industry that the first quarter was where you put a movie you didn't believe in," says Rob Moore, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Paramount Pictures. But studios "have learned that people don't look at a calendar and say: 'Oh, it's February. We can't go big star-driven movie until summer.' "

Hollywood also is cranking out more material. So far this year, 49 movies have arrived in wide release, compared with 48 by this time last year and 35 in 2005.

Moore says the crowded summer slate may have helped 2007 to burst out of the gate.

"We had to look at other dates on the calendar, because there was no room in the summer," he says. "And this has paid off. But we can't save our movies for certain parts of the year. This is a year-round business."

Ghost Rider— $113.7 million

Wild Hogs— $135.4 million

300— $179.7 million

Zodiac—$32.1 million

Alpha Dog—$15.2 million