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Summer flicks to end box-office blues?

Hollywood counts on blockbusters to lure moviegoers back

By Todd Leopold

Star Wars
Will the last episode of the "Star Wars" series help pull the movie industry out of a box-office sales slump?

(CNN) -- Summer in Hollywood usually hits in early May, when the big-budget action-adventure flicks, comedies and epics start hitting the multiplex. Between then and Labor Day weekend, the movie industry makes more than half its money.

This year, summer can't start a day too soon.

Indeed, early May has come and gone, and still the movie business is mired in the funk that has dominated since the beginning of the year.

Even ruling out last year's anomalous "The Passion of the Christ" -- a sleeper that dominated the spring of 2004 to an unprecedented degree and became one of the top 10 grossing movies of all time -- ticket sales are down from last year, although ticket prices have gone up.

This year's early summer movies, such as "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (which actually came out in April) and "Kingdom of Heaven," haven't helped matters much. Both led the box office their opening weekends; both already have dropped down the chart. Not exactly the kind of "legs," as the studio bean counters call long-run capability, that carry films to $200 million and $300 million paydays.

So Hollywood is looking to a number of places for help. Most notably, a pair of galaxies -- one perhaps close by but full of angry aliens, and the other far, far away.

Return of the Force

That latter galaxy is the home of the summer's big event, "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," the final film in the "Star Wars" series.

The George Lucas movie, which opened at midnight on May 19, already has prompted sighs of relief from industry observers -- since, unlike its predecessors "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones," advance reviews have indicated it's good.

Not that critical huzzahs have played a role in the "Star Wars" box office. If "Sith" lives up to the other five films in the series financially, it will make the industry and studio 20th Century Fox happy indeed. The other films are all in the box office top 25, and all -- with the bare exception of "The Empire Strikes Back" -- have topped $300 million domestically. ("Empire," No. 22 on the all-time list, is about $10 million short -- about the budget of "Star Wars" in 1977.)

"Sith" opens the week before Memorial Day, leaving that traditionally big weekend to the remake of "The Longest Yard," starring Adam Sandler, and "Madagascar," a computer-animated film from DreamWorks.

Though critics have ranked DreamWorks' animated films such as "Shark Tale" and "Shrek" second to those of rival Pixar ("The Incredibles" and "Toy Story"), DreamWorks has had the last laugh most recently: "Shrek 2" was the No. 1 film of 2004 and No. 3 of all time, with $441 million in domestic box-office grosses.

The end of June brings "War of the Worlds" from Lucas' old friend, Steven Spielberg. The latest version of the H.G. Wells classic stars Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and a rather manic-looking Tim Robbins facing down aliens in the present-day United States.

Spielberg, who has shown aliens as friendly sorts in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," told Parade magazine he was inspired to make them villains by the impact of September 11.

Though the film cost $135 million and is full of big special effects and bigger explosions, Cruise sees it as "a very small, emotional movie," he told Entertainment Weekly.

"It's a story ... about a dad and his kids and their struggle to survive," he said.

Comics, remakes and explosions

Batman Begins
"Batman Begins" explores the origins of the Dark Knight and how Bruce Wayne became the Caped Crusader.

Also struggling to survive in June are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who play married assassins assigned to kill one another in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."

The film has been overshadowed of late by the alleged romance between its two stars -- both of whom deny a relationship -- but industry watchers still have high hopes. The director is Doug Liman, who had a big hit with "The Bourne Identity" in 2002, and previews have been promising. Besides, Vince Vaughn (who goes back with Liman to "Swingers") provides comic relief.

June also brings Russell Crowe, reteaming with "A Beautiful Mind" director Ron Howard for "Cinderella Man," the true story of 1930s boxer James J. Braddock; "Bewitched," starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, a feature-length update (with some meta touches) of the 1960s TV series; and Cedric the Entertainer in a film version of "The Honeymooners."

Comic books -- long a summer staple -- are present and accounted for in 2005. Most eagerly awaited is "Batman Begins," starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader. The new "Batman," the first since 1997's "Batman & Robin," goes back to Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" source material and attempts to bring back the sense of doom missing from the Joel Schumacher camp-fests of the '90s.

In July, Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing -- that is, "The Fantastic Four" -- make their big-screen bow. "The Fantastic Four" is not to be confused with "The Incredibles" (or, for that matter, "The Fantasticks"), but 20th Century Fox is hoping for some fantastic box office.

July isn't short of explosions -- or remakes. Michael Bay, the master of the point-of-view camera, directs "The Island," with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson; Johnny Depp takes over Gene Wilder's role as Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which is supposed to be truer to the original Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film; and Billy Bob Thornton brings the Walter Matthau role up to date in "The Bad News Bears."

By August, with school beckoning and fall on the way, the releases calm down a bit. Steve Martin tries to step into Peter Sellers' "r-r-h-eumm" in a remake of "The Pink Panther"; Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott are "The Dukes of Hazzard"; and Steve Carell is "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

In the midst of all the money thrown around in summer, there could be some sleepers. Bill Murray stars in the new Jim Jarmusch movie, "Broken Flowers"; Diane Lane and John Cusack team up in "Must Love Dogs"; and Owen Wilson and Vaughn (yes, he's also a popular man this summer) are "The Wedding Crashers."

Will any -- or many -- of these films break Hollywood out of its box office doldrums? You never know.

But if not, there's always the DVD.

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