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In Hollywood, summer begins in the tender days of May, which means that by the middle of June the most important four months on the industry's fiscal calendar are well under way. Some 40 percent of the Hollywood annual box-office revenues come from summer movies.
But this year there are signs of trouble in Tinseltown, ranging from a lousy first act to a muddled menu that may be confusing moviegoers as much as it is supposed to entice them. Big-ticket movies like "Toy Story 3" are scarce.
"This is a transitional summer," says Paul Dergarabedian, Hollywood.com's box office president, who explains that while the summer of 2011 and beyond promise the return of megafilm franchises such as "Harry Potter," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and "Spider-Man," this summer sports only a few tent-pole films.
"There is plenty of room for an indie breakout or a cult film success – some film that makes you think or is more serious," he says, adding, "after all, man does not live by candy bars alone."
Here are five basic questions and answers about the state of the industry:
How has the first month or so of Hollywood's summer gone?
The season has launched with more of a whimper than a bang. The all-important Memorial Day weekend was calamitous, with attendance at its lowest since 1993. The remake of the 1984 "The Karate Kid" gave studio executives something to smile about when its three-day debut took in $55.7 million. Critics, analysts, and fans alike expect "Toy Story 3," the latest in the popular Pixar franchise, to help out all summer long – its $110.3 million weekend debut was the third-highest of 2010.
Are there any major blockbusters ahead?
Only a few, and most movie watchers say even those are not a sure thing. Beyond the surefire family appeal of the Pixar film, the other big titles are on shakier footing, with more targeted appeal. The third installment of the teen vampire saga, "Twilight: Eclipse," is sure to bring out the young girls.
The potential "brainy blockbuster" (à la "The Matrix"), Christopher Nolan's "Inception," has a marketing campaign that has been cleverly impenetrable, says Yahoo! Movies executive producer Sean Phillips, piquing interest from fans of his earlier indie-infused work, "Memento." The deliberately ambiguous riddlelike catchphrases, such as "the architecture of the mind," are like catnip to critics, he points out, adding that this film is top on his list for the summer. Lower-profile star vehicles such as "Salt," Angelina Jolie's bid to launch a female "James Bond" franchise, and "Dinner for Schmucks," a comedy from Steve Carrell, may find respectable audiences as well.
What will be the biggest surprises of the summer movie season?
Perhaps the rise of niche categories such as the theatrical documentary. This summer a record number – almost 20 – will debut, including the current "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" and the latest from the folks behind Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," a cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear arsenals called "Countdown to Zero." Fare such as foreign films certainly won't morph into blockbusters, but works such as "MicMacs," the latest from the French director of "Amélie," are potentially interesting.
"This is a tepid summer in terms of the big movies," says Mr. Phillips, adding, "but that just means these other genres may find more of an audience."
"The two coolest movies at the end of June are foreign language," says critic Dave White of Movies.com, pointing to the latest from legendary French director Alain Resnais, "Wild Grass," and a new Italian movie starring Tilda Swinton called "I am Love," which debuted at the Venice Film Festival.
The Italian film is "gorgeous," says Mr. White, adding that it is a visually luxurious melodrama about the matriarch of a wealthy family whose whole life is about to change. While the niche films aren't likely to turn into blockbusters anytime soon, he adds that he has been surprised by the strength of unexpected films.
"I had some friends tweet me from the movie theater last Saturday night," he recalls. "They were in a screening of the Joan Rivers movie and they said the theater was at least half full. Go figure." He adds, "Ten years ago, that number of people watching a documentary at a movie theater on a Saturday night would have been unthinkable."
What is Hollywood's biggest challenge as summer goes along?
At the moment, says Mr. Dergarabedian, it may be overcoming what he calls the reverse momentum of a bad run of weekends. Movie fans such as dancer Aime Lucas are on the sidelines with a wait-and-see attitude. Too many unsatisfying sequels and remakes have put the brakes on her moviegoing, she says, adding that while she liked "Iron Man," the sequel in May was a letdown. "There isn't much I really want to see in the theaters right now," says the San Francisco native, as she walked her dog in front of the mall on a recent Saturday night.
What could bring back audiences?
Nothing succeeds like success in this town. While 15-year-old Nick Kushnir puts such rehashes as a remake of the 1980s TV show "The A-Team" on his personal D-list, all it would take for him and his friends to leave the food court where they were hanging out on a recent Saturday night would be a good film with lots of buzz.
"If there were any big, exciting blockbuster movies, I might go with my friends," he says. But, he adds, "there really isn't anything all that exciting right now."