For Tinseltown, a shining movie season

Moviegoers, flocking to sequels, break the summertime box-office record – and buoy a sagging industry.

Exiting "The Bourne Ultimatum" at a multiplex here, moviegoer Connie Jasper utters an eight-word movie review that sums up how Hollywood managed to set a summertime box-office record.

"It was way better than the first two," she says of the third installment of the thriller series.

Such comments have America's dream factory heaving a sigh of relief. After the industry endured two years of declining ticket sales, cultural historians and others were wondering openly if moviegoing itself was headed for extinction.

But after three blockbuster "three-quels" – "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Spider-Man 3," and "Shrek the Third" – led off the summer by grossing more than $300 million each, Hollywood surpassed the $3.95 billion mark set in the summer of 2004. Driven by 14 sequels (including six three-quels, a four-quel, and a five-quel), box-office revenue this summer is expected to hit $4.15 billion by Labor Day.

"This is the turnaround Hollywood has been waiting for," says Paul Degarabedian, lead analyst of Media by Numbers, which tracks box-office revenue. So far this year, sales are up 10.2 percent from 2006 and up 16.9 percent from 2005. "After the terrible slump of summer 2005, to be sitting on a significant revenue record is a testament to the fact that going out to the movies is still a viable entertainment option that is not going the way of the dinosaur."

Even if the season's success rests on movie "franchises," the sequels generally were better executed, had better scripts, and had a different look and feel than that of their predecessors, analysts say. There was the creativity of new ideas or new twists on old ideas, including what some call the "comfort factor" of familiar characters (from Jack Sparrow of "Pirates" to Harry Potter of "Order of the Phoenix").

"There was attention paid by producers and directors to put more quality and twists into sequels where moviegoers were expecting the same old thing," says Nancy Snow, a cultural analyst at California State University, Fullerton. "When the word gets out that the sequel has [something] more or different to offer than the prequel, suddenly there is a whole new reason for people to check it out."

True, there was less competition this summer from entertainment alternatives such as the Olympics or World Cup Soccer. And the push to go to the movies was fueled, too, by word-of-mouth buzz on teen websites and by bloggers, who kept the momentum going during the dog days of August, when movie-going tends to wane. Indeed, some see the influence of professional reviewers, many of whom complained that the sequels tried too hard, went over the top, or stretched the premise of their franchises too far, as losing ground to the more "egalitarian" commentary of the Web.

"The Bourne Ultimatum" is one movie that benefited from such unofficial marketing, as bloggers and teens online spread the word that the chase scenes and fight scenes of the MTV-style film were especially realistic, says Douglas Gomery, former professor of the economics of cinema at the University of Maryland and resident scholar of the Library of American Broadcasting.

"The word got out ... that many of these sequels were not just the same old movie … particularly among the younger generations, who have more time to go to movies," he says. "Young people spent a lot of time corresponding about these movies, hanging out on websites and generating interest."

Other films that came to theaters as sequels or with brand-name recognition were "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" ($283 million domestic box office), "Live Free or Die Hard ($132 million), "Transformers" ($308 million), "The Simpsons Movie" ($173 million), and "Hairspray" ($107 million).

Several movies with smaller budgets surprised their makers with big profits. Horror movie "1408" with John Cusack cost only $25 million to make and took in $70 million. "Knocked Up," an R-rated sex comedy, cost $30 million but brought in $150 million. "Waitress," which Fox Searchlight acquired at the Sundance Film Festival for $5 million, earned $18 million at the box office.

There was also the occasional dud, most notably "Evan Almighty," a $175 million production that grossed less than $100 million.

While box-office revenues broke the all-time summer record, attendance did not. The number of tickets sold during the 18-week period from the first week of May to Labor Day is expected to reach 605 million, estimates Media by Numbers. That would be the first time in two years ticket sales topped 600 million, but it's still short of the 650 million tickets sold in the summer of 2002. The greater income is partly generated by a 30-cent increase in average ticket price over the past year, the largest annual increase since 2000.

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