Once a dumping ground for Hollywood's dregs, the month of August has become a key period in an increasingly competitive, year-round business at the box office.
Proof came this weekend when Universal Pictures' thriller "The Bourne Ultimatum," starring Matt Damon, opened to an estimated $70.2 million in the U.S. and Canada -- a record for a movie launched in August, and one of the best starts ever for an action film.
"This year in particular there are a lot of good movies coming during August," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of domestic distribution. "If you ever doubted this was a 52-week business, you've seen how summer creeps up earlier and earlier starting in May, and now you've got several potential megahits coming at the back end of the season."
"The Bourne Ultimatum" easily topped the weekend box office, as "The Simpsons Movie" fell 65% to No. 2, at $25.6 million, and Walt Disney Co.'s live action "Underdog" fetched $12 million to finish No. 3.
"The Bourne Ultimatum" opened 34% higher than the previous installment of the franchise, 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy," and dwarfed 2002's original, "The Bourne Identity," which began with $27 million. This weekend's launch was stronger than any James Bond film in the U.S. and Canada.
"Bourne" was one of five major movies with openings over the weekend at multiplexes across the nation. Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and distributor MGM recently moved the comedy "Charlie Bartlett" from its scheduled release last weekend to look for a softer spot.
Directed by Paul Greengrass, "The Bourne Ultimatum" stars Damon as an amnesiac assassin being hunted by government agents as he tries to piece together his mysterious past.
Critics have called it a two-hour adrenaline rush, ranking it with "Ratatouille" and "Knocked Up" among their favorites of the year.
"Bourne," which cost an estimated $110 million to produce including reshoots, starts rolling out overseas this weekend.
Rocco said New Line Cinema's "Rush Hour 3," coming Friday, and Sony Pictures' raunchy, buzzed-about comedy "Superbad," due Aug. 17, were also shaping up as major hits.
Hollywood's summer started with a trio of hits as the third installments of "Spider-Man," "Shrek" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" opened during May and performed well. Each topped $300 million domestically and $700 million worldwide at the box office.
After a lull, industry totals have perked up again thanks to such successes as "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" -- the newest member of the worldwide $700-million club -- "Transformers" and "The Simpsons Movie."
Revenue for the summer-to-date is up 6% from 2006 and attendance is up 1%.
Already this summer, 11 films have topped $100 million at the domestic box office, matching the total from all of last summer.
"The Bourne Ultimatum" and Universal's Adam Sandler comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" will soon reach the $100-million mark, and New Line's musical "Hairspray" could get there.
Even "Evan Almighty," the big-budget comedy that is arguably the summer's major box-office disappointment, could limp to $100 million before the year is out.
For "Bourne," the August opening record could be short-lived.
So far reviewers have been tepid on "Rush Hour 3," but director Brett Ratner has always been much more popular with mainstream moviegoers than with critics.
Consumer tracking surveys indicate widespread interest in the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker smash-'em-up vehicle, this time set in Paris. "Rush Hour 2," which opened to $67.4 million in 2001, had held the box-office record for an opening during August. It was the first of several films in recent years that helped show that this month could be highly successful for new releases.
Other August hits included the supernatural thriller "Signs" in 2002 and the comedies "American Pie 2" in 2001 and "Talladega Nights" in 2006.
If "Rush Hour 3" becomes a big enough hit, it could help lift Hollywood to its first-ever $4-billion summer at the domestic box office, according to research firm Media by Numbers.