"Disaster’’ is probably too strong a word to describe last summer’s unprecedented box office sales dip, but since Hollywood is the land of hyperbole, we’ll use it anyway.
What a bleepin’ disaster! As seasons go, the summer of 2003 was decidedly chilly. Slam-dunk blockbusters that were expected to gross between $250 million and $300 million — such as ‘‘The Hulk’’ and ‘‘Bad Boys 2’’ — drew about half that. Others, such as ‘‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’’ and ‘‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,’’ were unmitigated bombs.
According to Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, an independent box office tracking firm, Hollywood is unlikely to experience two summer recessions in row.
‘‘Last summer, there were tons of sequels, lots of sure bets, and what happened? Box office was down 2 percent from the previous year. This summer is more risky-looking, but could turn out to be more fulfilling for audiences.’’
Aside from three surefire blockbuster sequels (‘‘Spider-Man 2,’’ ‘‘Shrek 2’’ and ‘‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’’) that are reasonably assured of boffo box office, the rest of the field is riddled with sleepers and uncertainties.
Will ‘‘Troy’’ slaughter the competition, or sink into mediocrity?
Can Will Smith synthesize the success of ‘‘Independence Day’’ with his latest actioner, ‘‘I, Robot,’’ or will it be ‘‘Wild, Wild West’’ revisited?
‘‘Collateral,’’ with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, appears rock solid, but what about that exotic Aug. 6 release date, a few weeks after summer’s traditional box office plateau?
And don’t forget ‘‘The Day After Tomorrow’’ from ‘‘Godzilla’’ director Roland Emmerich — an end-times thriller about a worldwide weather catastrophe. Maybe it takes a disaster to avert one.
In the eternal hope that no studio executive goes hungry this summer, here are the top 15 contenders for box office riches:
1. "SPIDER-MAN 2"
If the sizzling trailer is any indication, this Sam Raimi directed spidey-sequel will swing to the top of the summer movie heap. After suffering an assortment of dings and bruises on the ‘‘Seabiscuit’’ set, Tobey Maguire returns as the heroic web slinger, with the creatively cast Alfred Molina (‘‘Frida’’) as Dr. Octopus, his eight-armed nemesis. The only question left is whether the sequel will surpass the original’s box office tally of $403.7 million — fifth all-time. Predicted haul: $420 million (May 30)
2. "HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN"
Militantly admired by young and old fans alike, J.K. Rowling’s heroic boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to theaters after an 18-month hiatus. The movie includes several notable new faces, including Gary Oldman (‘‘Sid and Nancy’’) as a villainous rogue wizard, Michael Gambon as Professor Dumbledore (replacing the late Richard Harris) and Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, trying his hand at directing familyoriented fantasy fare after getting his freak on in ‘‘Y Tu Mama Tambien.’’ Predicted haul: $390 million (June 4)
3. "SHREK 2"
Shrek (Michael Myers) meets the in-laws in this sequel to the Oscar-winning CGI family flick, which reportedly netted Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy $5 million each for their vocal services. One worry factor for Dreamworks: A release date that sits only two weeks before the ‘‘Potter’’ movie. Predicted haul: $310 million (May 21)
For the guys: Sweeping, cast-of-thousands carnage. For the ladies: Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom running around in leather skirts. Sounds like a match made in box-office heaven. Also starring German newcomer Diane Kruger as Helen, the Homeric hottie whose face launched 1,000 ships. Wolfgang Petersen (‘‘In the Line of Fire’’) directs.
Predicted haul: $270 million
5. "THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW"
Ascribe it to the chaos in the Middle East, anxieties about the environment or the recent success of Biblical endtimes thrillers (‘‘Left Behind,’’ ‘‘The Omega Code’’), but something tells me the country is primed for a big budget disaster flick. Dennis Quaid jumps into action for director Roland Emmerich (‘‘Independence Day’’) when global warming triggers catastrophic weather conditions. Predicted haul: $220 million (May 28)
6. "THE VILLAGE"
This relatively obscure supernatural offering can bank on two factors: The unblemished box office history of director M. Night Shyamalan (‘‘The Sixth Sense,’’ ‘‘Signs’’) and no obvious competition that might prevent it from ruling the late summer months. Joaquin Phoenix and Sigourney Weaver play townsfolk in a remote agrarian community under siege by forces unknown. Predicted haul: $210 million (July 30)
7. "I, ROBOT"
At first blush, Will Smith and robots would seem to constitute a winning recipe for summer movie escapism, but the trailer makes you wonder. It appears that director Alex Proyas (‘‘Dark City’’) has taken Isaac Asimov’s moody, highly influential source story and turned it into something depressingly banal: ‘‘Arachnophobia’’ with androids. We’ll see. Smith plays a homicide detective investigating a murder in which the main suspect is a robot. Predicted haul: $180 million (July 16)
8. "THE TERMINAL"
Gee, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (‘‘Saving Private Ryan’’) reuniting for a feelgood comedy co-starring Catherine Zeta-Jones? Guess it might be watchable. Twotime Oscar-winner Hanks plays a countryless Slav stuck in customs limbo who takes up permanent residence in a U.S. airport. Zeta-Jones plays his flight attendant love interest. Based on the talent involved, a likely Oscar contender.
Projected haul: $160 million
Comedy hits are a bit harder to anticipate than their action brethren, but this one — starring Will Farrell as a sexist 1970s TV newscaster threatened by the emergence of a female colleague (Christina Applegate) — looks like a hoot. After the success of ‘‘Old School’’ and ‘‘Elf,’’ Farrell is arguably the most coveted comedic actor working today.
Predicted haul: $160 million
Michael Mann, master of the unprofitable prestige project (‘‘The Insider,’’ ‘‘Heat’’), helms what looks to be his most commercial project to date. Tom Cruise stars as a contract killer who uses an unsuspecting cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to ferry him from hit to hit. When Foxx catches on, he has to figure out a way to prevent the last assassination while saving his own skin. Predicted haul: $155 million (Aug. 6)
11. "VAN HELSING"
Director Stephen Sommers — creator of the inane but hideously lucrative ‘‘Mummy’’ movies — stakes out his usual lead-off spot on the summer movie schedule with this action/fantasy starring Hugh Jackman (‘‘X-Men’’) as the literary vampire killer. Villains include the Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde. Without a big opening weekend, this one is doomed: ‘‘Troy’’ looms the following week.
Predicted haul: $140 million
12. "THE STEPFORD WIVES"
With the women’s lib movement now a historical artifact, do themes of suburban assimilation and patriarchal dominance — offered provocatively in the original ‘‘Wives’’ (1975) — still have stock? Nicole Kidman stars as a disgruntled housewife who suspects that the other women in her uppercrust community have been replaced by obedient robots. Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken also star for director Frank Oz. Predicted haul: $120 million (June 11)
13. "THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE"
Denzel Washington stars in this modernized remake of John Frankenheimer’s deliriously paranoid 1962 Cold War thriller, playing a deranged Gulf War veteran who suspects a brainwashing plot involving a former subordinate (Liev Schreiber). Topical Middle East themes and a great cast (Meryl Streep plays the Angela Lansbury mom-fromhell character) bode well for director Jonathan Demme (‘‘Silence of the Lambs’’). Projected haul: $120 million (July 30)
14. "THE BOURNE SUPREMACY"
‘‘The Bourne Identity’’ star Matt Damon is back on board, but talented director Doug Liman (‘‘Go’’) is not, leaving us to wonder if the sequel will shred the screen quite as lustily as the 2002 original. When someone using his alias assassinates a Chinese politician, CIA supersleuth David Webb (aka Jason Bourne) leaps into action to defuse a brewing war. Franka Potente (‘‘Run Lola Run’’) also returns. Paul Greengrass (‘‘Bloody Sunday’’) directs. Predicted haul: $115 million (July 23)
15. "DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY"
So kooky, so misguided — it just might work! Or it could tank worse than Dukakis in ’88. Vince Vaughn plays a gym rat who puts together a competitive dodgeball team to save his beloved local gym from corporate developers. Ben Stiller (‘‘Meet the Parents’’) plays his nemesis, a preening metrosexual Mephisto.
Predicted haul: $100 million