Hollywood's summer box office battle begins
New York — Comedy, fantasy, suspense, a little nostalgia. That's the Hollywood recipe for summertime success, and once again the major studios are counting on it to lure viewers away from TV sets and backyard barbecues.
Last summer was a triumph for Hollywood, with more than 444 million tickets sold between late May and early September. As usual, though, a handful of superhits pulled in most of the box-office take: Eight movies drew half the season's revenue, with just two of them (''E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial'' and ''Rocky III'') earning a full 25 percent of warm-weather grosses.
This has become a familiar pattern in recent years - a few blockbusters dominating the scene and sucking business away from less trumpeted pictures. One result is a studio obsession with proven formulas, which in summer means a steady stream of farce and fantasy. Also common is a race to see which studio can hit hardest and earliest with the zaniest plots and flashiest effects.
This year's competition has already begun. Without waiting for the traditional Memorial Day starting gun, Twentieth Century-Fox launched ''Revenge of the Jedi'' on May 25, the sixth anniversary of the original ''Star Wars'' premiere. This thrust Luke Skywalker and friends into battle with Columbia's action-stuffed ''Blue Thunder,'' a cops-and-helicopters drama released early to establish itself with audiences before the full summer onslaught.
''Jedi'' and ''Thunder'' sound the theme of many pictures now in the starting gate, putting thrills and chases ahead of characters and ideas. Viewers can look for more of the same in movies with such titles as ''Krull'' and ''Yor, Hunter From the Future.''
Other fantasy and suspense items, including ''Superman III'' and ''Psycho II, '' hope to pick up momentum from the earlier hits that spawned them. Still others will trade on the fame of their makers: ''Cujo'' comes from a novel by horror specialist Stephen King, for example, while ''Twilight Zone - The Movie'' is directed by four action and fantasy experts including Steven Spielberg, who is still riding high from last summer's megahit ''E.T.''
Also reflecting Hollywood's search for safe summertime bets will be a new James Bond adventure, another National Lampoon comedy, a revival of the old ''Hercules'' format, a ''Saturday Night Fever'' rehash called ''Stayin' Alive,'' and two pictures with Burt Reynolds driving fast cars.
By contrast, one of the season's more original items may be ''WarGames'' from MGM/UA, directed by the same John Badham who gave us ''Blue Thunder'' a few days ago. Insiders have high hopes for this suspense yarn about a boy electronics whiz who taps into a military computer and finds himself tinkering with the world's nuclear balance.
Less inventively, moguls are hoping for the 3-D gimmick to boost such tired-sounding entries as ''Jaws 3-D'' and ''The Man Who Wasn't There,'' a variation on the invisible-man theme. But the first 3-D opening of the season (''Space Hunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone'') has caused litle excitement , boding ill for 3-D epics yet to come.
In the comedy field, some releases will follow the successful ''Tootsie'' by dealing with role reversals. ''Mr. Mom'' has Michael Keaton staying home with the kids while Terri Garr becomes an executive. ''Trading Places'' puts rich Dan Ackroyd and streetwise Eddie Murphy into each other's shoes - all to settle a bet (between Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche!) about heredity and environment.
Other comedies range from ''Savage Islands,'' a jungle-adventure spoof, to ''The Survivors,'' with Robin Williams and Walter Matthau ''surviving'' modern life under the direction of comedy expert Michael Ritchie. ''Curse of the Pink Panther'' will be the first in that long series without the talents of the late Peter Sellers.
Hollywood's big hope is that one of its new babies will become a surprise superhit like last year's ''An Officer and a Gentleman.'' Some possibilities are ''The Big Chill,'' a follow-up to ''Body Heat'' by Lawrence Kasdan, about dreamers from the 1960s finding that they've turned into ordinary people, after all; and ''Educating Rita,'' a British import, with Michael Caine.
Other ambitious items include ''The Star Chamber,'' a suspense yarn about a cynical judge who takes the law into his own hands, and ''Daniel,'' Sidney Lumet's film of an E. L. Doctorow novel based on the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage case.
Or maybe ''Snow White'' will prove the most engaging film of the season. It is being reissued by Walt Disney Productions for the first time in seven years - all set to charm yet another generation.