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Summer comes early to the cineplex
'Gladiator,' 'U-571' among films getting early start to blockbuster season
HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- Summer doesn't officially start until June 21, but don't bother telling filmmakers.
The entertainment industry is turning up the box-office heat early this year, releasing blockbuster action films whose premieres you'd typically expect around the time kids are out of school.
That's because summer has become "very elastic," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., a Hollywood firm specializing in tallying box-office sales.
"In other words, the start date for 'summer' just keeps moving up and up and up. And now it's at the point where even late April has become almost the start of 'summer,'" in movie studios' perception, he says.
James Cameron, who brought in boatloads of cash with "Titanic," agrees. Though his 1997 film debuted during the Christmas holidays, Cameron says he appreciates the summer-flick phenomenon.
"I think it's just a hunger that happens in late spring for some: That first big lightning bolt, you know, that first big piece of entertainment that's going to come along and blow everybody away," he says.
This year's "bolt" appears to have struck two weeks ago when the summer-style, submarine thriller "U-571" opened nationwide. It's been No. 1 at the box offices since it debuted.
"We're hoping to be the movie that gets the action of summer kicked off," said "U-571" star Matthew McConaughey.
Another big film trails in that movie's wake. Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible 2" opens Memorial Day weekend, often considered an unofficial start of the summer season. The holiday, which creates a three-day weekend for many workers in the United States, is May 29 this year.
"U-571" isn't the only film trying to get a jump on the Cruise franchise:
There also are logistical reasons for getting films released early.
In spring, there's much less competition for available movie screens than during the summer glut. There's also a lull in new movies -- a fact that last year's "Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace," exploited when it opened May 19, several days before the Memorial Day weekend.
Other blockbusters in recent years -- "The Matrix" and "The Mummy" last year, 1998's "Deep Impact" and the 1996 tornado tale "Twister," to name a few -- also broke out after Easter and before Memorial Day.
"Twister" took advantage of its early start and turned a nice profit as a result, Dergarabedian recalls. "(It) earned over $40 million in its opening weekend, went on to make $241 million," he says. "That was a film that didn't open in the traditional summer period, but was a huge hit."
Will "Gladiator" whack "U-571" from the top spot on Friday, or will an underdog emerge? Stay tuned.
Review: 'U-571' an underwater thriller
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