Box Office: Hollywood Thunders to Record Summer

No one believes in superheroes like studio executives, and for good reason.

Crime fighters, caped crusaders and a dark knight saved their summer.

Thanks to avengers masked and unmasked, this year's summer films racked up a record $4.2 billion in ticket sales, according to season-end figures from Media By Numbers.

Though increased ticket prices mean that attendance was down 3.5%, the total still surprised most analysts and studio executives.

"I thought we were going to be about 5% down from last summer," says David Poland of MovieCityNews.com.

Last year had a diverse slate of heroes (including an ogre and pirate), but this summer was all about secret identities.

Comic-book and superhero films alone racked up nearly $1.4 billion.

"I don't think you can consider them a genre or a niche any more," Christopher Nolan said after directing "The Dark Knight." "They are serious literature, which is why serious actors and filmmakers want to be a part of them."

Indeed, films that leapt from the comics also generated some of the best reviews: The Batman installment garnered raves from 94% of the nation's critics, according to RottenTomatoes.com. "Iron Man" got recommendations from 93%, and graphic-novel-based Wanted got a thumbs-up from three-fourths of reviewers.

In addition to churning out some well-crafted flicks, studios did something rare: They got original. There were nine sequels this summer, the lowest number in half a decade. There were 14 in 2007.

"We had an assembly of chip franchises last year," including "Spider-Man 2," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Shrek the Third," says Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures.

"Sequels help the DNA of any franchise," says Blake, whose studio went sequel-free and had the fourth-largest film of summer in Hancock ($226.5 million). "But fresh ideas really took off this summer and probably got some new franchises off the ground."

Another group that kept ticket sales brisk this summer: older women. They pushed "Sex and the City" and "Mamma Mia!" into blockbuster territory.

"I'm not sure we had better movies than we've had in previous years," Poland says. "But they performed better than most people thought coming into the summer, especially the smaller movies."

"Mamma Mia!" and "Sex and the City" are among those smaller movies. Both had modest budgets ($30 million to $65 million range) and were targeted to a specific audience — and managed to bring in $130 million-plus.

"I think the lesson of summer is that you don't have to have a movie that appeals to every demographic to do $100 million," Poland says. "Studios are learning that 'niche' is not a dirty word. You can cater to specific groups and still make money."

Still, ticket sales faltered in summer's final weeks, and this weekend was no exception. The Vin Diesel sci-fi flick "Babylon A.D." was second with $12 million over four days, about $2 million below expectations. "Knight" was third with $11 million, crossing the half-billion mark with $504.7 million. "The House Bunny" was No. 4 with $10.2 million, bringing its total to $29.8 million.

Among the other newcomers, the Don Cheadle thriller "Traitor" was fifth with a healthy $10 million, while "Disaster Movie" was seventh with $6.9 million, slightly below projections. The comedy College hardly made the grade, pulling in $2.6 million and 15th place. "Hamlet 2" also proved a no-show, doing $2.1 million in its nationwide release.

Ticket sales were down 24% from the same weekend last year.

Final figures are due Tuesday.

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