The star of Hollywood's 2006 box-office recovery: the sequel.
Led by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Ice Age: The Meltdown," grosses in the U.S. and Canada are poised this week to overtake the $8.9 billion in receipts for all of 2005.
Six of the year's 12 biggest movies were sequels. Successors to previous hits grossed $2 billion, some 40% more than they did last year.
"While nothing is a slam dunk in this business," said Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, "at least going in there's a comfort level knowing that audiences have embraced these characters and the worlds that have been created."
And get ready for more. The next few months are shaping up as an arms race of sequels, with studios rolling out new versions of some of their biggest all-time blockbusters.
Coming in May will be the third installments of the "Spider-Man," "Shrek" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, with another likely hit, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," following in July.
Those films are among 19 sequels scheduled for 2007. Also on deck: "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," "Ocean's Thirteen," "Evan Almighty" and "National Treasure II: The Book of Secrets."
Although 2006 won't be a record -- which was set in 2004 with nearly $9.5 billion in box-office sales -- the sequel-driven rebound is all but erasing the angst of last year, when Hollywood executives lost sleep over the steepest attendance drop in 20 years and the third down year in a row at the box office.
"Next year, there's a greater concentration of known, commercially viable movies than we've ever seen before," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, a trade group. "That should be significant closure to the debate on the life expectancy of the cinema business."
Some blamed the 2005 slump on bad movies. But pundits also speculated that a more permanent change was taking place. They said that home theater systems, the Internet, video games and other diversions were siphoning people away from the multiplexes, where they endure crowds, pricey concessions and annoyances such as ringing cellphones.
Several uninspiring sequels, such as "The Legend of Zorro," "Transporter 2" and "XXX: State of the Union," failed to lure large crowds in 2005. Critics speculated that moviegoers were tiring of seeing recycled characters and ideas.
"When you make a good sequel, people go," said Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal, who oversees the "Spider-Man" series. "When you make a sequel that's not good, it shows."
This year, audiences found Hollywood's selection of sequels far more appealing. The second installment of the "Pirates" series set an all-time opening weekend record this summer.
It doesn't hurt that star Johnny Depp has emerged as one of the world's biggest box-office draws. Depp has enthusiastically embraced his popular Capt. Jack Sparrow character, and will be seen next summer in his third stint as the drunken buccaneer. "He loves the character," producer Jerry Bruckheimer said.
Not every successful sequel has to have the size and budget of a "Pirates." Some of the biggest returns on investment this year came from lower-budget films such as "Jackass: Number Two" and "Saw III." Next year's lineup includes "The Hills Have Eyes II," "Resident Evil 3," "Hostel 2" and "Saw IV."
But big sequels usually cost plenty. Production and marketing outlays on a single title can total more than $400 million. Studios will spend more than $1 billion next year to make and market three films: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek the Third."
"There's always an upward cost pressure for any sequel," said Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros., home to the "Harry Potter" series. "But on the benefit side, there's an immediate audience awareness for sequels, which helps us break through the competitive clutter on opening weekend."
Costs have soared so much that even some big box-office performers don't make a profit, studios assert.
This summer's "Mission: Impossible III" grossed nearly $400 million worldwide, earning star Tom Cruise about $80 million. But the film's backer, Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, says it will only break even given the movie's high production and marketing costs.
One reason budgets rise so much is that producers crank up the special effects, under pressure to create a fresh spectacle that outdoes the earlier films.
"We always try to top ourselves and there's a cost attached to that," said Laura Ziskin, producer of the special effects-laden "Spider-Man" films.
Studios also usually end up paying higher salaries to keep their original stars on board. Because filmmakers are eager for them to revive their roles, stars enjoy more leverage in negotiating their paychecks. At 17, "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe's paycheck has been steadily rising with each film to where it is now reportedly $14 million.
Even veteran producers behind some of the most lucrative movie series feel the heat when ballooning costs are combined with ever-rising expectations.
"There's a lot of pressure to succeed," Bruckheimer said. "You spend a lot of money on these sequels and you have to keep raising the bar."
One way to try to freshen a franchise to make it more appealing is to develop more emotional, complex and even darker sides to familiar characters. Critics praised "Batman Begins" and the latest James Bond film, "Casino Royale," for reinventing their characters by getting them away from the more cartoonish figures they had become.
In "Spider-Man 3," the superhero's alter ego, Peter Parker, confronts his darker, vengeful side when his red suit suddenly turns jet black and amps up his powers. In "Harry Potter," the hero will enjoy his first on-screen kiss while continuing his evolution from outsider into a leader.
Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, said his studio was keeping the "Fantastic Four" series of Marvel adaptations fresh by introducing the Silver Surfer -- the intergalactic, introspective superhero he calls "the holy grail of comic book characters."
Although sequels may enjoy instant audience recognition, the movies must ultimately live up to their hype or risk becoming costly failures. Which is why, despite being familiar territory to audiences, they often still need big marketing pushes.
"I don't think you can take anything for granted," said Jeff Blake, Sony Pictures' head of worldwide marketing and distribution. "You have to convince moviegoers that this installment is worth getting in line to see."
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Betting on their drawing power
Some of Hollywood's biggest and most-expensive sequels will open in 2007. Among them:
Sony Pictures, May 4; Estimated cost: $260 million
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"
Walt Disney, May 25; Estimated cost: $280 million
Warner Bros., June 8; Estimated cost: $120 million.
"Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer"
Fox, June 15; Estimated cost: $120 million
Universal Pictures, June 22; Estimated Cost: $175 million
"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
Warner Bros., July 13; Estimated cost: $220 million
"National Treasure II: The Book of Secrets"
Disney, Dec. 21; Estimated Cost: $150 million
Sources: Los Angeles Times and industry sources