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Will this be the first $5 billion summer at the box office?

By Kelley L. Carter, Special to CNN
"Shrek Forever After" is one of several sequels with potential to bring in major box-office dollars this summer.
"Shrek Forever After" is one of several sequels with potential to bring in major box-office dollars this summer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The summer box office could hit or exceed $4 billion, as it has done for the past three years
  • 'Iron Man 2' made $128 million in the U.S. during its opening weekend
  • Hotly anticipated summer films include "Robin Hood," "Sex and the City 2" and "Shrek Forever After"

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- What's old is new again -- and both are bringing in the big box office dollars.

This summer, a smattering of sequels and 3-D films will be dominating the theaters, and they are likely to produce a box office total that's on par with the past few years. Industry watchers are already predicting that the summer box office will hit or exceed $4 billion, as it has done for the past three summers.

"Iron Man 2" kicked off the summer movie season last weekend. It dominated both domestic and international box offices by a long shot, raking in $128 million in the United States alone.

It was a nice start to a highly anticipated summer season, one which will be filled with familiar characters, familiar franchises and of course familiar storylines.

"The blockbuster will continue to be the mainstay of the summer film season, especially with the emphasis on 3-D, a very old gimmick that has been given new life with the help of advanced technologies," says Christopher Sharrett, professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University.

"Unfortunately, (that) means an emphasis on spectacle and a de-emphasis of script and direction. Summer movies are made with the notion that the spectator has diminished expectations and sees the cinema as the source of a fleeting cheap thrill."

Video: 'Iron Man' strikes box office gold
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Cheap thrill or not, that repurposed gimmick could translate into big bucks for studios.

"I think we could be pushing the envelope on approaching the first $5 billion summer, and we've never done that before," says Paul Dergarabedian, Hollywood.com's box office president.

So far, 25 percent of ticket sales have been for 3-D movies, which could make that $5 billion mark a reality, he says.

"'Iron Man 2' was the perfect summer kick-off film. Momentum is key... This sets the tone and sets up a strong positive public perception of the 2010 summer movie season," Dergarabedian says.

And more are on the way.

Hotly anticipated summer films include "Robin Hood," "Sex and the City 2," "Shrek Forever After," "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," "The A-Team" and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse." With very few exceptions, the films expected to turn in the largest numbers this summer are either sequels, remakes, popular vintage TV shows turned silver screen films or pictures based off of comic books or video games.

Ted Hong, chief marketing officer for ticket-selling site Fandango.com and Movies.com, says compared to this time last year, the top 10 films for this past weekend exceeded last year's figure by about $30 million. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was the big film that opened last year.

"Overall, it's too early to tell, but it's off to a good start," Hong says. "That was a huge weekend. I don't know that anyone could really complain about that. This summer, you've got a good mix of sequels and popular franchises. And you've got it across a range of different audiences."

Sean Phillips, executive producer of Yahoo! Movies, isn't quite convinced.

Certain films, he says, will perform well, but he doesn't see any surprise darlings in the mix.

"There's nothing like 'The Hangover' this year. No comedy coming out this summer is going to make $300 million. And I don't think there are enough mid-level moneymakers. I think we're going to come up a little short," Phillips says.

"Yes, there are quite a few 3-D movies coming out this summer, but I don't think you can lean on those. There are only so many 3-D theaters; there's only a certain number of showings you can have of 3-D movies."

Darrell Miller, co-chair of the sports and entertainment practice group at Fox Rothschild, says that the box office numbers will tell a few stories.

"I think it means that Hollywood arguably has a brighter future than many had thought probably a year ago. We've been bellyaching about coming out of the last couple of work strikes, looking at the DVD sales eroding and things of that nature," he says. "Hollywood has been going through the recession like everybody else. So to see a box office boon means things haven't been going as we thought.

Strangely enough, he says, in even this shaky economy, people are paying more to see movies. 3-D films can cost consumers $15 to $20 per ticket, a premium price, Miller says.

"What's really driving these box office numbers is that it's not more attendance, it's higher prices for fewer people. So the rush has been to do more 3-D films because 3-D is now perceived as potential for charging a premium at the box office. And people are willing to pay it," he says.

"if you take away those premiums, the numbers are physically still down. And those significant numbers would go away," he says. "That's an insider's look at those numbers. It's still great. But we're about to start seeing a tremendous amount of 3-D pictures because of that now."