LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The summer box-office season begins at midnight Thursday, and already there's buzz about the possibility of a record being set during the first weekend.
That's largely because it's as iron-clad a certainty as one gets in the movie business that the Paramount-distributed "Iron Man 2" will open well. The only question is how high the Marvel Comics superhero can fly the second time around.
Turbo-charged tracking data has jaws flapping over an opening north of the record $158.4 million bow by Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight" in July 2008.
At Paramount, which will reap only an unspecified distribution fee in releasing the film for producer Marvel Studios, executives are eager to manage any irrational exuberance downward. They suggest only that the sequel will bow bigger than the original "Iron Man," which wowed industryites when it kicked off summer 2008 with a $98.6 million debut.
Sometimes, the bigger the bow the deeper the second-weekend fall. So, though the franchise progenitor dropped less than 50 percent during its sophomore session -- an impressively modest dip for a fanboy-driven action movie -- a huge debut could see "Iron Man 2" absorbing a bigger tumble in its follow-up frame.
"Iron Man" grossed $318.4 million overall domestically, and "Dark Knight" rang up $533.3 million. "Avatar," the December release that went on to a record $746 million domestic run, opened with a mere $77 million. "Avatar" was hampered by limited 3D screens for its bow but has enjoyed a "Titanic"-like theatrical journey stretching almost five months.
As for its global aspirations, "Iron Man 2" also will play this weekend in most international markets (Japan gets the film next month) after unspooling in the U.K. and 52 other territories the previous weekend to maximize pre-World Cup play time abroad. The first "Iron Man" registered $266.7 million internationally; the sequel totes $121 million in foreign coin so far.
Decidedly 2D but chockablock with digital special effects, "Iron Man 2" hits more than 2,500 domestic movie screens at 12:01 a.m. Friday before broadening to 4,000-plus playdates throughout the weekend.
Interest in the PG-13 movie extends broadly beyond its fanboy base to date-movie couples and most moviegoing demographics, so Mother's Day shouldn't hurt the film's daily gross. A consensus estimate for its three-day tally would be about $140 million, and even Paramount insiders agree that's a doable number if the stars align.
"It's going to be a big number," a studio insider said.
Paramount, which handled the original "Iron Man," is distributing the film, but the sequel is the first Marvel movie since Disney acquired the comics company. Marvel's production expenses totaled at least $170 million, with prints and advertising an additional $75 million or so.
Reviews for "Iron Man 2" have been mixed to positive, with a smattering of negative notices, but there's little likelihood that critics will hurt the film's opening. Word-of-mouth among freshman-frame patrons could prove key to the picture's success during subsequent weekends.
"The press hasn't dug it, but the fans will like it, and that's all that matters," a Paramount executive said. "They might not like it as much as the first one, but they'll like it."
Even executives at rival studios are pulling for a big bow, hoping a successful "Iron Man 2" launch will set the tone for the all-important summer box-office season.
"This is the big movie to kick off the summer, and I believe movies are contagious," a top executive at a rival studio said. "If people like it, then they'll go to see other movies."
Rival distributors have avoided slotting other wide releases this weekend, but three are set for the following frame: Universal's similarly targeted Russell Crowe-starring "Robin Hood"; Fox Searchlight's Queen Latifah romantic comedy "Just Wright"; and Summit's romance "Letters to Juliet," which is set for a whopping 800 sneak previews Sunday.
Meanwhile, Marvel is exploiting every conceivable merchandising tie-in to the techno-suited superhero movie. Action accessories for kids include an Iron Man mask and "repulsor blaster," and food and beverage merchandisers include such major retail chains as Burger King and 7-Eleven. Even a movie-related cologne is on offer by jeans-and-accessories retailer Diesel.