LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Topping the summer box office has become habit-forming at Warner Bros. Hollywood's summer ends Labor Day, but already it's clear that Warners again will top distributor market-share rankings with $957 million in domestic grosses since the season began May 1, according to Nielsen EDI.
That's down from the studio's "Dark Knight"-fueled $1 billion tally last summer. Still, Warners sits well ahead of the domestic distribution pack year-to-date and is tracking 3 percent ahead of its industry-record haul from a year ago with $1.47 billion and counting.
The studio's seasonal performance has yielded an industry-best market share of 23 percent. Paramount copped the season's silver medal with $874 million so far and a 21 percent share; Disney is third with $604 million and 15 percent.
All told, when receipts are calculated through Labor Day, summer box office will finish north of summer 2007's record $4.16 billion. But with 3D premiums driving a big rise in average ticket prices, there's scant chance of beating summer 2004's admissions record of 642 million tickets sold after accounting for inflation.
Meanwhile, Warners brass say the studio's best is yet to come.
"We have 10 films to release by the end of the year, so it looks to me that we're going to break our record again," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman says. "But we'll have to take it one picture at a time."
Warners might wish they were all Harry Potter movies. After opening worldwide July 15, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is on track to become the six-film franchise's first $300 million domestic grosser since the 2001 original.
Though the studio's May 21 release "Terminator Salvation" underperformed with $125 million domestically, pictures produced by Warners' New Line label are proving to be the gift that keeps on giving.
New Line's summer successes included "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," a modestly budgeted romantic comedy that unspooled May 1 en route to $55 million, and "The Time Traveler's Wife," an August 14 release that has grossed nearly $50 million.
Then there was "The Hangover." A co-production of Warners and Legendary Pictures, the bawdy Vegas comedy managed to overachieve even before hitting theaters. Prerelease buzz was so strong that Warners green-lighted a sequel for release in May 2011.
"There's no question that 'Hangover' was the breakout hit of the summer -- maybe even of all time," Fellman says.
The description hardly is hyperbolic. The $35 million picture has legged past "Beverly Hills Cop" ($235 million) to become the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time with $271 million.
Paramount had five summer releases, led by the season's top grosser, the DreamWorks-produced "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," which this weekend will reach $400 million domestically and $829 million globally.
"You have to feel great when you have movies of the caliber of 'Star Trek,' 'G.I. Joe' and 'Transformers,'" Paramount distribution chief Jim Tharp says. "We were a little below the previous summer. But last year we had DreamWorks Animation's 'Kung Fu Panda' in the summer, whereas this year their picture 'Monsters vs. Aliens' went out in March."
Disney executives stress the profitability of their six-film seasonal slate.
"Absolutely, it was a profitable summer for us," Disney film president Mark Zoradi says.
Zoradi declined to say whether the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced "G-Force" ($112 million domestic) will turn a profit. But clearly, Pixar's "Up" ($290 million) and Sandra Bullock-starring "The Proposal" ($160 million) paid off handsomely.
Elsewhere in the summer pecking order, Fox bounced back from a tough 2008 with a solid $591 million through last weekend, good for a 14 percent share. In fifth place, Sony ($524 million; 13 percent share) had a quieter summer, but the Culver City studio avoided major misfires.
Fox and Sony also enjoyed outsize international campaigns. Fox's 3D animated threequel "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" padded its $193 million domestic haul with more than three times as much overseas, good for more than $830 million in global box office, and Sony posted a nifty $484 million worldwide tally for its Tom Hanks-starring "Angels & Demons" thanks to $351 million in foreign receipts.
Rounding out domestic rankings among the major studios, Universal ($343 million; 8 percent) suffered a series of disappointments during the summer. Its June 5 release "Land of the Lost" was produced for an estimated $100 million but struggled to register $50 million domestically.
"It was a very disappointing summer for us," Universal marketing and distribution president Adam Fogelson says. "We are all linking arms and doing everything we can to course-correct and to make sure we never have another summer like this."
Indie and specialty distributors found little traction in a season dominated by popcorn movies.
The Weinstein Co.'s late-August bow of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" drew intense scrutiny, mainly for its potential effect on the company's fiscal health.
Fortunately for the Weinsteins, "Basterds" has performed well ($75 million domestically). The film's success also serves as an upbeat coda for an industry seeking to believe that movie lovers still love going to the movie house.
Year to date, 2009 heads into summer's final session nearly 4 percent ahead of the same portion of last year, at $7.07 billion.
"Over the past three years, we've had pretty consistent admissions and increasing revenues, coming back from a period when people were talking about the industry being in a downward spiral," National Association of Theater Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran says. "We're seeing nothing like that now."
Three wide releases hit theaters Friday for the season-concluding holiday frame: Fox's romantic comedy "All About Steve," Lionsgate's sci-fi action picture "Gamer" and Miramax's comedy "Extract." "Steve" is the strongest of the bunch in prerelease polling, thanks to topliner Bullock's recent marquee magic, and should top the session with low-double-digit millions. "Gamer" and "Extract" could get stuck in the single-digit millions.
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters