Summer is the season for blockbusters at the box office, and this year Hollywood is going all in.
Midway through a year of declining attendance and ticket sales, the major studios are betting heavily on big-budget spectacles that can fatten the bottom line if they succeed — or lead to write-offs and management shake-ups if they don't.
Of the 45 films being released from this weekend to Labor Day, at least 18 cost more than $100 million each to produce — and five of them were in the $200-million neighborhood. In summer 2012, just 12 of 40 pictures had budgets of $100 million or more.
"Hollywood seems to be recognizing what works and serving it up: superheroes, computer-animated movies for kids and sequels," said Barton Crockett, a senior analyst with Lazard Capital Markets.
The summer rollout comes as the movie business is slumping from four straight months of bad box office, with revenue down roughly 12% compared with the same period last year, according to Hollywood.com.
For help, the studios are banking on comic book characters, 3-D cartoons and the crew of the USS Enterprise.
This weekend, the summer kicks off with "Iron Man 3," the latest entry in the Marvel Studios' superhero series about tycoon Tony Stark. The sequel is expected to rake in about $170 million during its first weekend — making it the biggest opening of the year and probably the biggest of the summer.
The superhero spectacular will have lots of company — and competition. Every weekend from May to August is crowded with high-cost, high-risk sequels, prequels and franchises, including the Superman reboot "Man of Steel," a new "Star Trek" and a fresh "Hangover."
Also in the cards are animated family films such as "Despicable Me 2" and "Monsters University," as well as a 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," which is generating particular interest among young women.
"We always wait for summer — but this year, especially, we're holding our breath," said Phil Zacheretti, chief executive of Phoenix Big Cinemas Management, which operates 25 theaters in 15 states. "Revenue being down a couple of percentage points would be one thing, but when you're in double digits, you really need those blockbusters to get going to sell the tickets and the food."
Summer is traditionally the high season for the film industry. Last year, about 40% of overall revenue was generated during the four-month-long period. But last summer produced "The Avengers," which became the third-highest-grossing film ever in the U.S. and Canada, pulling in more than $1.5 billion worldwide and accounting for 15% of the summer's domestic ticket sales.
Not even "The Avengers" and a host of other hits could save the 2012 summer box office, which was down 3% from the previous year. Despite that, Hollywood ended up reversing more than a decade of falling revenue and attendance last year thanks to a strong showing of fall and Christmas movies aimed at more sophisticated audiences, including "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Skyfall."
The shadow of "The Avengers" hangs heavily over summer 2013, said Shane Black, the director and co-writer of "Iron Man 3," which like "The Avengers" stars Robert Downey Jr.
"'The Avengers' set this ridiculously high benchmark, which is daunting," Black said. "But at the same time, it's very helpful, because whoever saw 'The Avengers' is going to want to come out and see our movie."
They won't come see all of them. For every runaway hit, there are big disappointments, such as last year's "Battleship." This year, box-office handicappers are keeping a close watch on "The Lone Ranger," from Walt Disney Studios and action producer Jerry Bruckheimer, arguably the most costly release of the summer.
Recent western-themed pictures have found mixed results at the box office: "Django Unchained" and "True Grit" were successful, but "Cowboys & Aliens" and "John Carter" were flops. "The Lone Ranger," due out over the Fourth of July weekend, also had a troubled production during which shooting was temporarily halted because of budgetary concerns.
One Disney executive said that shouldn't keep people away.
"I think the buzz about that is dying down naturally," said Asad Ayaz, Disney's senior vice president of global marketing. "Our international teams that have seen the footage know its a big, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced blockbuster, and in the same way that 'Pirates of the Caribbean' defied that genre, this really transcends the western genre."
Theater owners who gathered at the industry's CinemaCon annual convention last month said that a lack of diversity in the marketplace was partly responsible for the poor box-office numbers this year.
But if exhibitors remain uneasy about "The Lone Ranger," a handful say they spot breakout hits in raunchy, lower-cost R-rated comedies "The Heat" and "This Is the End."
Sony Pictures' "This Is the End," meanwhile, stars James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill as exaggerated versions of themselves facing the apocalypse.
"We've done a lot of preview screenings, and I think it plays better than any movie I've ever done because the audience is so shocked at what we have some of these celebrities doing," said Rogen, who wrote and directed the picture with his longtime collaborator, Evan Goldberg. "Being in a theater with 300 people laughing their asses off is something exciting for people to head to the theater for. People want to laugh as well as see skyscrapers getting torn up."