May 8, 2006

U.S. box office hopes still high despite “M:i III”

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. box office experts are still
optimistic about the summer movie season despite lackluster
ticket sales for Tom Cruise's widely-hyped thriller "Mission:
Impossible III" over the weekend.

"I'm still not worried at all about the summer," said
Gitesh Pandya of "It really depends on the
product and I think this year the summer movie season has such
strong product that audiences will definitely come out."

Among the big blockbusters slated to open this summer are
"The Da Vinci Code," "X-Men: The Last Stand," "Cars" and
"Superman Returns."

"Mission: Impossible III" opened to final U.S. and Canadian
ticket sales of $47.7 million, well below the $60 million to
$70 million industry watchers expected.

The roughly $150 million movie was the first major release
of the summer and its performance was closely watched because
last summer a slate of poorly performing movies and other
factors led to the lowest ticket sales since 2001.

But experts said Cruise suffered from overexposure in the
media with three weeks of publicity and premieres preceded by
news stories about him, his pregnant wife Katie Holmes and
their just born baby, Suri.

The summer season runs from the first week of May through
August and it is very important to Hollywood because it makes
up about 40 percent of the total annual domestic box office.

Box office watchers said that, overall, this year's movie
ticket sales remained ahead of 2005 for the seventh weekend in
a row.

"We still have momentum," said Paul Dergarabedian,
president of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.


He said that last year the top 12 movies, which included
crusades film "Kingdom of Heaven," took in $87 million for the
first weekend in May, while this year's top 12 grossed around
$100 million. That figure compares with 2004's $100.8 million
for the first weekend of May, which was led by vampire thriller
"Van Helsing."

Ironically, "Helsing" made its debut with a disappointing
$52 million and one week later, Brad Pitt's "Troy"
underperformed with around $45 million. But by summer's end,
2004 proved to be a record-breaker with $3.96 billion in
overall ticket sales.

Box office watchers are looking past the May 12 debut of
disaster flick "Poseidon" to the May 19 releases "Da Vinci
Code" and "Over the Hedge" and one week later to "X-Men" for a
more clear picture where the 2006 summer box office is headed.

Last year, the first May movie to become a blockbuster was
"Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," which screened
mid-month. Similarly in 2004, it was not until the mid-May
release "Shrek 2" that box office results truly picked up.

"If ('Poseidon') opens less than 'M:i III,' that's to be
expected and is not a surprise," said Pandya. "I think we are
going to have to wait for 'Da Vinci."'

'Da Vinci Code,' which stars Tom Hanks and is based on Dan
Brown's best-selling novel, faces hurdles, too. It is aimed at
older audiences, while young moviegoers buy most tickets.

As a result, some industry experts believe a combination of
"Da Vinci" and kids' animated movie, "Over the Hedge," will
provide a more realistic look at box office trends.

They also look to comic book flick "X-Men" over late May's
Memorial Day holiday in the United States for a clear picture
because it is aimed at young men who are the movies' biggest

On Wall Street, theater stocks were little changed. Regal
Entertainment Group shares closed up nearly 1 percent at
$20.98. Carmike Cinemas Inc. rose 1.48 percent to end at
$25.34. Viacom Inc., whose Paramount Pictures released "M:i:
III," was off nearly 1 percent at $39.79.