Hollywood is a land built on illusion, so maybe it shouldn't surprise anyone that the film industry painted a record-breaking economic picture this summer - or that the portrait may not be as pretty as it first appears.
For the season that concluded Labor Day weekend, ticket sales were up 11 percent over last year, to $4.15 billion. That total set an all-time record, besting the previous best summer - 2004's $3.86 billion - by 8 percent.
For the first time, Hollywood films earned more than $4 billion in domestic box-office revenue. For the first time, four films - Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End - pulled in more than $300 million. For the first time, 15 movies earned $100 million or more.
And it was a record-breaking summer from beginning to end. Spider-Man 3 enjoyed the best opening weekend ever ($151.1 million) when it premiered May 4, while Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween had the biggest Labor Day ever, slashing its way to a $31 million opening.
"People still love going to the movies," says Paul Dergarabedian, head of the box-office tracking firm Media By Numbers. "The theatrical moviegoing experience is alive and well."
But that rosy outlook isn't entirely without thorns. The actual number of tickets purchased - 610 million - did not match the peak summer of 2002, when audiences gobbled 653 million tickets.
There's still the open question of how often audiences will settle for recycled characters in rejiggered plots, as the summer's totals were racked up by a release schedule filled with "threequels," third chapters in popular franchises. Clearly, audiences responded just fine this time; but will there be a similarly successful summer of "four-peats" down the road?
"You have to ask, 'When do we reach the point of diminishing returns?'" says Dergarabedian. "They do tend to burn out at No. 3 or 4."
There's also the potential for a strike by Hollywood's labor unions, which are deep into tough negotiations with the major studios. A similar labor situation in 2004 did not lead to a strike but did prompt the studios - anxious to have enough films completed to weather a work stoppage - to jump-start production of some movies of questionable quality. Their release over the next couple of years, to considerable audience disinterest, may have contributed to such fallow periods as 2005, when total revenue fell more than 5 percent over the previous year.
"There is an acceleration of projects in Hollywood," says Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday, noting that such projects as the fourth Indiana Jones film and the second Christian Bale Batman movie, The Dark Knight, should be in the can well before the Writers Guild'and Directors Guild' contracts expire next spring. "Next summer's movies are well under way. If there were a strike, it would really impact moviegoing in the summer of 2009."
Since 1977, when Star Wars opened in May and set box-office records, the major Hollywood studios have been honing a summer-business model. The concept is based on producing big blockbusters - known in industry speak as "tentpoles" - to attract audiences in their teens and early 20s and rake in large amounts of money, with other movies hoping to piggyback on their success. In all, about 40 percent of box-office revenues are earned during the summer.
In summer 2007, that model worked almost to perfection, even producing a new blockbuster franchise with Transformers: Transformers 2 is tentatively slated for 2009.
"The box office is not telling the studios to stop making sequels," says Dergarabedian. "If those sequels are making tons of money, and the people are lining up around the block to see them, why stop making them?"
Still, even he acknowledges that no one knows for certain how deep the sequel trough is. Spider-Man 4 has been announced for 2009, and DreamWorks is full-steam-ahead on plans for a Shrek 4. While there are no plans yet for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, star Johnny Depp has suggested he'd be willing to play Capt. Jack Sparrow once again.
Sequels may bring in the bucks, says Howard Suber, founding co-chair of the Producers Program at the University of California, Los Angeles' department of film, television and digital media. But artistically, they're something of a black hole.
"There's not a tentpole film that's come out in the last decade that I think anybody is going to want to see 10 years from now," says Suber, who has been teaching film at UCLA for 43 years.
For years, Suber has been asking his students - many of whom plan careers in the movie industry - to choose a film they want to study, and it used to be they would pick one that was in current release. About seven or eight years ago, he says, they started choosing older films.
"So I said to them, 'Does it tell you anything that you, who want to be in the film industry, don't want to see any of the films coming out of said industry?'
"They laughed and then voted to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."