LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With the summer movie season set to begin with next week's release of comic book movie "Iron Man," Hollywood is holding its breath, hoping for a big start to the lucrative moviegoing period.
Matching last summer's record $4.1 billion box office haul won't be easy, experts said, in large part because of comparisons with the likes of "Shrek the Third, "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."
Still, Hollywood is launching a 2008 salvo that includes "Speed Racer," "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," with Harrison Ford reprising his role as the daring adventurer, "Indy" Jones.
Yes, the pressure is on for a blockbuster summer season, which runs from May through August and can account for nearly 40 percent of the annual box office. But at least one man is reveling in all the hype: "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau.
"I think it's great. You know, my last movie got sucked into obscurity because there was so much else going around it," Favreau said, speaking of his 2005 special effects-filled "Zathura: A Space Adventure." The movie earned good reviews but failed to catch fire early in a crowded holiday movie season.
By contrast, "Iron Man" makes its debut on May 2 as summer's first major release, and there is little competition in its way.
Based on the Marvel Comics series, the movie stars Robert Downey Jr. as a wealthy chief executive and high-tech weapons maker who invents a powerful suit armed with secret technology. His goal: use the armor to kill bad guys and achieve good in the world.
Paul Dergarabedian of Media by Numbers, a Los Angeles-based box office watcher, said expectations for the movie's ticket sales are "all over the map," but he believed it had a good chance to do well. That would be good news for Hollywood.
North American ticket sales are down roughly 3.5 percent at $2.47 billion so far this year, compared with $2.56 billion at this time last year. Attendance is off 6.5 percent, Dergarabedian said.
"We need summer and we need it now because we are definitely in a downturn," he said.
Following "Iron Man," Hollywood fires off one big-budget movie after another. On May 9, comes "Speed Racer," a family film about a race car driver based on a popular cartoon. Created by "The Matrix" filmmakers, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, it stars Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci.
One week later comes "Prince Caspian," another family film set in the magical land of Narnia, where good and evil do battle.
On May 23, "Indiana Jones" hits silver screens with Indy (Ford) battling Russians to find a skull with mystical powers.
The new Indiana Jones flick is set 19 years after the treasure hunter's last adventure. Aiming to appeal to young audiences (Ford is now 65 years-old), director Steven Spielberg hired "Transformers" star Shia LaBeouf, 21, to play Indy's sidekick.
The comic book movies and other adventures do not stop in May. June features a new version of massive green monster "The Incredible Hulk" starring Edward Norton, and Angelina Jolie kicks some butt in "Wanted."
By July, Will Smith plays a superhero in "Hancock," and Hollywood's No. 1 alien hunters Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) return to movie screens in "The X-files: I Want to Believe."
Batman is back, too, in "The Dark Knight" with Christian Bale as the comic book hero and the deceased actor Heath Ledger as his nemesis, the Joker. Fans also have high expectations for "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."
While action adventure movies are certain to put people in theater seats, Dergarabedian reckons that comedies will turn out to be the summer season's stars.
"Often comedy gets overlooked as a mainstay of summer," he said, noting films like June's "Get Smart" based on the popular 1960s TV show and starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.
Other films rolling out the laughs are May's "The Foot Fist Way" and "Sex and the City," the film version of the major HBO hit TV show starring Sarah Jessica Parker. June's "The Love Guru" has funny man Mike Myers portraying a spiritual leader.
Movies such as "Kung-Fu Panda" and Disney/Pixar's "Wall-E" look to stir up family crowds, as does "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," based on the popular American Girl dolls.
Finally, amid all the big Hollywood flicks, don't forget low-budget, independent movies, which include Sundance film festival darlings "Son of Rambow" and "The Wackness."
Editing by Frank McGurty