HOLLYWOOD -- Once a dumping ground for Hollywood's dregs, August has become a key month in an increasingly competitive, year-round business at the box office.
Proof came this weekend when Universal Pictures' thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, starring Matt Damon, opened to an estimated $70.2 million in the United States and Canada - a record for a movie launched in August and one of the best starts ever for an action film.
"This year, in particular, there are a lot of good movies coming during August," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of domestic distribution. "If you ever doubted this was a 52-week business, you've seen how summer creeps up earlier and earlier starting in May, and now you've got several potential mega-hits coming at the back end of the season."
The Bourne Ultimatum easily topped the weekend box office, as The Simpsons Movie fell 65 percent to No. 2, taking in $25.6 million, and Walt Disney Co.'s live-action Underdog fetched $12 million to finish No. 3.
The Bourne Ultimatum opened 34 percent higher than the previous installment of the franchise, 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, and dwarfed 2002's original, The Bourne Identity, which began with $27 million.
Bourne was one of five major new movies with openings over the weekend. Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and distributor MGM recently moved the comedy Charlie Bartlett from its scheduled release this past weekend to look for a softer spot.
Directed by Paul Greengrass, The Bourne Ultimatum stars Damon as an amnesiac assassin being hunted by government agents as he tries to piece together his mysterious past. Critics have called it a two-hour adrenaline rush, ranking it with Ratatouille and Knocked Up among their favorites of the year.
Bourne, which cost an estimated $110 million to produce, including reshoots, starts rolling out overseas next weekend.
Rocco said New Line Cinema's Rush Hour 3, coming Friday, and Sony Pictures' raunchy, buzzed-about comedy Superbad, due Aug. 17, also are shaping up as hits.
Hollywood's summer started with a trio of hits with the third installments of the Spider-Man, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean movies opening in May and performing well. Each topped $300 million domestically and $700 million worldwide at the box office.
After a lull, industry totals have perked up again thanks to such successes as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - the newest member of the worldwide $700 million club - Transformers and The Simpsons Movie. Revenue for the summer to date is up 6 percent from 2006, and attendance is up 1 percent.
Already this summer, 11 films have topped $100 million at the domestic box office, matching the total from all of last summer.
The Bourne Ultimatum and Universal's Adam Sandler comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry soon will reach the $100 million mark, and New Line's musical Hairspray could get there.
For Bourne, the August opening-weekend record could be short-lived.
Initial reviewers have been tepid on Rush Hour 3, but director Brett Ratner always has been much more popular with mainstream moviegoers than with critics. Consumer tracking surveys indicate widespread interest in the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker smash-'em-up vehicle, this time set in Paris. Rush Hour 2, which opened to $67.4 million in 2001, had held the box-office record for an opening during August. It was the first of several films in recent years that helped show that this month could be highly successful for new releases.
Other August hits included the supernatural thriller Signs in 2002 and the comedy Talladega Nights in 2006.
Josh Friedman writes for the Los Angeles Times.