It's only July, but this year's box office is shaping up to make 2014's doldrums a distant memory.
A string of summer hits and a packed slate of upcoming holiday blockbusters have some experts boosting expectations for 2015 total ticket sales, despite a couple of early disappointments that raised doubts. Some say it might even be a record-breaking year with box-office receipts topping $11 billion.
The breakout success of Universal Pictures' "Jurassic World" and Pixar's "Inside Out" helped make up for lower-than-expected results from movies such as "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Tomorrowland," analysts said.
And Hollywood may see a windfall in November and December when the newest James Bond movie "Spectre," "Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" hit theaters. Each is expected to add hundreds of millions of dollars to the annual revenue for studios and cinema chains.
"We're on a roll," said Phil Zacheretti, chief executive of cinema chain Phoenix Theatres Entertainment in Knoxville, Tenn. "We have had some pleasant surprises, even though we were expecting potentially record numbers."
The most optimistic box-office prognosticators say the industry will notch $11.2 billion in ticket sales in 2015, beating last year by 9% and setting a record for North America, not adjusted for inflation. Piper Jaffray analyst James Marsh this week increased his full-year estimate to $10.9 billion from $10.8 billion. Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter has also increased his projection by a percentage point to $11 billion.
The strong summer run began in earnest with "Jurassic World," which shattered expectations and set records with its $208.8-million domestic opening. The next week, Disney followed up with a robust showing from its emotional computer-animated offering "Inside Out." And last weekend, the "Despicable Me" prequel "Minions" scored the second-biggest animated opening weekend ever, with $115.7 million.
Not every summer film has connected with audiences. Even sequels, which are generally safe bets, have proved unpredictable. "Ted 2" and "Magic Mike XXL," both follow-ups to beloved originals, sputtered. "Terminator Genisys," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, also opened to disappointing results.
And then, usually reliable holiday weekends such as the Fourth of July have been notably sluggish.
Still, the industry is looking strong overall this year, said Eric Wold, an analyst at B. Riley & Co., who covers theater chain stocks.
"The movies that have been expected to perform well have mostly outperformed," he said. "The group, as a whole, has been great."
Movies have generated $6.07 billion in ticket sales so far this year in the U.S. and Canada, according to entertainment data firm Rentrak. That's up 8% from the same period last year.
Beating last year's levels is no stunning feat, given that theater attendance in 2014 hit a nearly two-decade low. This year is running 3% ahead of 2013, when the domestic box office soared to a record $10.9 billion.
The uptick will do nothing to diminish Hollywood's reliance on sequels, reboots, remakes and spinoffs — a common complaint of consumers weary of seeing the same old thing at the multiplex. Studios continue to invest heavily in dependable franchises and known properties that consistently draw a mass audience and dominate the box office, as opposed to betting on untested material.
Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox, credited the film business with a diverse mix of pictures that has drawn distinct segments of the audience to theaters, including women, children and Latinos.
"Just looking at the top 10 films, you've got everything from 'SpongeBob' to 'Fifty Shades of Grey,'" he said. "To me it shows a balanced marketplace. At various points there's been something for everyone."
Universal has boasted a huge slate and appears to have a lock on the No. 1 spot in terms of industry market share. Its movies have accounted for 27% of the domestic box office this year fueled by the blockbusters "Jurassic World," "Furious 7" and "Pitch Perfect 2." Disney is No. 2 with 20% of the market, with the "Avengers" sequel, "Inside Out" and the live-action fairy tale "Cinderella."
"It's been a year where there's been success across many studios and great diversity of product across the marketplace," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution at Disney.
Warner Bros. and last-year's chart-topper 20th Century Fox are third and fourth, respectively. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate and Sony Pictures Entertainment have lagged their rivals so far.
Now the industry is in the thick of its crucial summer months. This weekend brings two hopefuls: "Ant-Man," the latest Marvel superhero flick, and "Trainwreck," the Judd Apatow-directed comedy that features comedian-of-the-moment Amy Schumer.
"Ant-Man," which stars Paul Rudd as a minor player in the Marvel comic book universe, is expected to take in about $60 million through Sunday after it opens Friday. That would be a solid number but nowhere near last year's smash "Guardians of the Galaxy," which made a hit out of a group of similarly obscure characters. "Trainwreck," which has amassed impressive reviews, could gross $19 million to $22 million.
The studios are heavily promoting their upcoming tent-pole pictures and hoping the momentum continues through the busy year. Some weekends have five films set to open at once.
Sony has high hopes for its James Bond flick in November, but it's also banking on Adam Sandler's video game action-comedy "Pixels" and animated sequel "Hotel Transylvania 2." Fox is rebooting the "Fantastic Four" franchise, followed by the young-adult sequel "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" and sci-fi drama "The Martian." And Paramount still has "Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation."
Big bets left on Warner Bros.' slate include the "Vacation" remake, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "Pan," while Universal is trying to continue its run with the N.W.A biopic "Straight Outta Compton" and "Steve Jobs."
The variety and volume of movies have analysts in high spirits.
"What you hope for is to have more films exceeding expectations than not," Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. "That's a good year in Hollywood."