Hollywood's studios have some good news as the summer movie season kicks into high gear: Business is up.
The movie industry is on track to beat last year's box-office record. The Memorial Day weekend's blockbuster opening of "X-Men: Days of Future Past" grossed an impressive $111 million, and studios hope upcoming flicks on giant fighting robots, animated dragons and hyper-intelligent apes can keep that momentum going.
FOR THE RECORD
Summer blockbusters: A May 27 Section A article about the summer box-office season referred to Greg Foster as the chief executive of Imax Corp. Foster is senior executive vice president of Imax Corp. and CEO of Imax Entertainment.
Box office revenue is up 3.3% so far this year compared with the same period in 2013, and that's a strong sign given that ticket sales have generally been trending lower for the last decade. Audiences have thinned out amid heightened competition from video games, TV and other forms of entertainment.
But Tinseltown's saving grace has been the blockbuster, and this year's there has been no shortage of them. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "Godzilla" have lured people into theaters this year. Even "Frozen," which was released in November, was still doing a brisk business early this year.
"Every week there's something big," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures. "Our industry is content-driven, and the content has moved the needle."
But it's not just the big-budget movies driving returns; there's been a shift in strategy too.
Hollywood is getting better at spacing out its offerings. Just like airlines try to no longer fly half-empty planes, studios are trying to reduce congestion on the release schedule to help clear the runway for their best prospects.
DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. was squeezed last year when too many animated films were released in quick succession. That hurt the bottom line for its big summer offering, "Turbo," for which the studio took a $13.5-million writedown.
"We just ran into a perfect storm of way too many movies," DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg said at the time.
He predicted the studio's results would improve this year and next when movies such as "How to Train Your Dragon 2" will face less head-to-head competition.
Studios are also releasing big films in months not usually considered box-office prime time. One notable example was Warner Bros.' decision to release "The Lego Movie" in February. The low-budget animated comedy went on to become one of the year's highest-grossing titles, generating $255 million in the U.S. and Canada.
"You can open a movie any time in the year, with a couple exceptions, and reach near blockbuster levels," said Greg Foster, chief executive of Imax Corp.
Americans have bought $4.01 billion worth of movie tickets so far this year, up from $3.88 billion during the same period in 2013. The number of tickets sold in the first three months of the year was up 5.2% from the same period last year.
Now, Hollywood analysts are waiting to see if this year's slate of big movies will eclipse the $10.9 billion the industry raked in all of last year.
Although studios are releasing fewer movies, they are relying more than ever on big returns from blockbusters. This category, also referred to as tent pole movies, also helps studios make up for some of their smaller-budgeted films that are typically less profitable.
There is no denying that summer films put the most cash in Hollywood's coffers.
The season has consistently delivered studios about 40% of annual grosses for the year. The industry raked in $4.752 billion in ticket sales last May through August, fueled by such hits as "Iron Man 3," "Despicable Me 2" and "Fast & Furious 6."
Beyond blockbusters like "X-Men," there have been some surprises so far this year. Universal Pictures' "Neighbors," a raunchy comedy that stars Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, has grossed an unexpectedly strong $117 million.
This bodes well for other R-rated comedies that could make a strong showing this summer. Among them is Seth MacFarlane's "A Million Ways to Die in the West," the Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum sequel "22 Jump Street" and Melissa McCarthy's "Tammy."
Hollywood is also banking on DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon 2," the sequel to the 2010 original that brought in $218 million domestically. Paramount Pictures' "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and 20th Century Fox's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" are also on tap for the summer.
Another one to watch is Disney's "Maleficent," the Angelina Jolie film that could pull in big numbers when it opens Friday. It will be one of only a few family-focused films this summer, including Disney's "Planes: Fire & Rescue" and DreamWorks Animation's "Dragon" sequel.
"We will see fewer families going to the movie this year than last year because last year we had more to offer them," said Elizabeth Frank, chief content and programming officer at theater chain AMC Entertainment. "But the family films we do have will do really, really well."
Not every movie takes off, though. Over the next three months, the big-budget science-fiction movies "Edge of Tomorrow" and "Jupiter Ascending" appear to be headed for trouble, according to industry observers. They are also keeping their eyes on the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" reboot set for August release.
But overall, the summer lineup looks varied enough to make for a big season, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.
"It's all about the diversification of the slate," he said, "and the myriad choices that people have at the movie theater."