This summer's crop of movie blockbusters are already shattering box office records and driving up attendance at the nation's movie theaters, giving big returns to major Hollywood studios and theater owners before the official start of the summer popcorn movie season this Memorial Day weekend.
Walt Disney Studios' (DIS) "The Avengers" has already surpassed $1 billion in international ticket sales since hitting theaters earlier this month. The superhero flick smashed opening box office records, raking in $200.3 million at North American theaters to beat out the "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2."
"The Avengers" has already become the fourth highest grossing film of all time in the U.S. and Disney's biggest movie ever. It's expected to vanquish its box-office rivals yet again this weekend, beating out the highly-anticipated "Men in Black III" starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin.
While "The Avengers" has held on to the #1 spot for three consecutive weekends, a strong batch of contenders are ready to conquer Marvel's action heroes for good. In addition to "Men in Black III"-- the third installment of the alien-action thriller that is back after a 10-year hiatus -- Universal's "Snow White & The Huntsman" starring Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth and Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man" are expected to attract big audiences when they open in July, putting pressure on this season's frontrunners "The Avengers" and "The Hunger Games," which has taken in $392.6 million domestically since its release in March.
Comic book heroes and sequels will continue to draw audiences to the theaters according to Matt Atchity, the editor in chief of RottneTomatoes.com. He says the most profitable (and popular) movies this summer will be "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spiderman," which all cater to a core audience (teenagers, males) and have established their movie prowess in previous years.
Sony (SNE) and Disney are both poised to make profits this summer but the pressure to deliver hangs most heavily on Universal, notes Atchity. Disney's "John Carter" may have flopped with audiences but the venerable movie studio will recoup its losses with "The Avengers" and the soon-to-be released Pixar movie "Brave." Universal has seen its first summer blockbuster "Battleship" tank with theater goers, and its upcoming slate "Snow White & The Huntsman," "The Bourne Legacy," "Ted" and "Savages" could provide a mixed bag for the embattled movie studio, which celebrates 100 years in moviemaking this year. If these movies don't meet industry expectations, Atchity says, there could be a management shake-up at Universal.
A multi-millionaire dollar movie and marketing budget does not always guarantee big success at the theater and several smaller movies could steal some thunder from the major blockbusters. Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," a favorite of critics at the Cannes Film Festival in France, opens on limited release this weekend. The movie centers on two precocious 12-year olds who run away and Anderson employs the ingredients found in many feature films: love, heartbreak, grand pursuits, adventure and death. "Moonrise Kingdom" could be this year's sleeper hit, Atchity says.
This summer's movies could attract record crowds but movie theater owners have seen their receipts fall as Americans continue to cut back on discretionary expenses, like going to the movies. The summer movie season begins in May and ends Labor Day weekend and typically accounts for 40 percent of the industry's annual ticket sales, according to the New York Times.
Last year 543 million people went to the movies and ticket sales totaled $4.38 billion, making it one of the worst years for the movie industry since 1997. Ticket sales for 2012 have rebounded slightly from last year but movie theater owners are still struggling, Atchity says. 3-D ticket sales have boosted profits and theaters are streaming live Broadway and Opera performances to keep attendance up.
"Theaters are trying to do anything they can to get people in the theaters and away from their TVs," Atchity says.