Ax-Wielding Lincoln Joins $10.6 Billion Box-Office Push

Batman, Tony Stark and Abe Lincoln will have to do a lot more than save the planet this summer.

They’re also leading Hollywood’s drive for record summer ticket sales, starting May 4 with “Marvel’s The Avengers,” Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s $220 million film featuring Iron Man, Thor and Captain America.

Studios have a head start at beating 2009’s full-year domestic sales record of $10.6 billion. Attendance is up 17 percent at U.S. and Canadian cinemas, driven by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. (LGF)’s “The Hunger Games” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” from Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s Universal Pictures. Summer films like “The Dark Knight Rises” will determine whether Hollywood recovers from last year’s 16-year low in admissions. Summer sales typically account for 40 percent of annual revenue.

“When you look week to week, you don’t see many weekends when you have films that are probably going to tank,” said Jeff Bock, a box-office analyst in Los Angeles with researcher Exhibitor Relations Co. “This summer more than any other looks like it has hits every other weekend.”

“The Avengers” is expected to take in $400 million in the U.S. and Canada, including $170 million in its opening weekend, the forecast of researcher Boxoffice.com. That would exceed the $152.5 million debut for “The Hunger Games.”

The movie opened last week overseas and has made $178.4 million so far, setting records in Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand and other territories, Disney said yesterday.

A successful run would help Burbank, California-based Disney deflect attention from the $200 million loss it registered on the science-fiction flop “John Carter” last month and the resignation of its studio chairman.

Batman Returns

Director Christopher Nolan says “The Dark Knight Rises” is his last Batman film.

Starring Christian Bale and Tom Hardy as Batman’s adversary, Bane, “The Dark Knight Rises” may generate $500 million in U.S. cinemas for Time Warner Inc. (TWX)’s Warner Bros. after it opens July 20, Bock said. The 2008 predecessor had domestic sales of $533 million, according to Box Office Mojo, another researcher. “The Avengers” may do as well, he said.

U.S. cinemas will probably end 2012 with mid-single-digit percentage sales growth over last year’s $10.2 billion, said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities Inc. in Los Angeles. A 5 percent gain would put revenue at about $10.7 billion, topping 2009’s record.

Summer box-office revenue probably will exceed last year’s record of $4.4 billion, Bock said. More important for studios and cinema operators, attendance may top the record 629 million tickets sold in the summer of 2002, he said. Last year, theaters sold 545 million tickets.

Ax-Wielding President

Sequels and superhero films aren’t the only fare expected to play well with audiences. This year a dead president gets in on the action in a picture that tells “the untold story” of a nation, according to IMDB.com, a movie website.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” opening June 22 from News Corp. (NWSA)’s Twentieth Century Fox, pits the 16th president against a cabal of the undead plotting to take over the U.S. Lincoln, played by Benjamin Walker, makes it his mission to eliminate them, becoming the greatest vampire hunter.

Johnny Depp plays vampire Barnabas Collins in director Tim Burton’s send-up of the 1960s television series “Dark Shadows.” The film, from Warner Bros., opens May 11 and is expected to generate $108 million in its U.S. theatrical run, according to Boxoffice.com.

Social Media

This year’s gains and the strength of the summer slate, including “Men in Black III” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” both from Sony Corp. (6758), are partly the result of good luck, said Exhibitor Relations’ Bock.

Films such as DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. (DWA)’s “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” set for release on June 8, can be in development for years and are scheduled one to two years before they are completed.

What may have changed is that studios have gotten better at utilizing social media to target their audiences, Bock said. They are also focusing on big movies with well-known stars or smaller pictures with little risk and a lot of potential.

John Davis, producer of this year’s successful teen film “Chronicle,” didn’t bother to create a Web page for his picture about high-schoolers with superpowers, deciding it would be a waste. Targeting a teen audience, he focused on Facebook (FB), Twitter and Google Inc.’s YouTube.

“You’ve got to understand their attention spans and the things they do to get information,” Davis said. “You’ve got to use all of those bloggers out there to build an early sense of acceptance.”

“Chronicle,” made for $12 million, has collected $64.3 million in domestic ticket sales and an additional $58.8 million outside the U.S. and Canada, according to Box Office Mojo. A sequel is in development, he said.

Sales, Attendance

So far this year, sales and attendance have risen every weekend except three. Six films have more than $100 million in domestic sales, compared with three a year ago at this time, according to Box Office Mojo.

“The Hunger Games,” the $80 million action/adventure film, leads with $372.5 million, according to Hollywood.com Box- Office. It’s followed by Universal’s $70 million animated feature “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” at $207.6 million.

Those two films, while successful, fall into a category where fewer pictures are being made: the so-called middle. Pictures at $50 million-plus typically risk a significant amount of capital without giving producers enough money for major stars and extravagant effects, Davis said.

“You’ve either got to make a movie for a low price or you’ve got to have a well-known piece of IP and spend $200 million and make it a real event,” said Davis, whose credits also include costlier fare such as “I, Robot.” “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the goods going in.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael White in Los Angeles at mwhite8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Palazzo at apalazzo@bloomberg.net

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