Hollywood Hopes ‘Toy Story 3’ Can Spur Summer Sales

Save us, Buzz Lightyear.

Toy Story 3
Source: Disney
Toy Story 3

Grumpy moviegoers have left the film business trying to dig itself out of a summer slump after a series of big-budget disappointments and the lack of a single blockbuster comedy.

Memorial Day weekend attendance was the lowest since 1993. Box office receipts for the next weekend plunged 24 percent compared with the same weekend a year earlier.

Sony’s remake of “The Karate Kid” sold a surprisingly strong $56 million in North America over the last three days, landing firmly in first place, but a much more expensive adaptation of “The A-Team” from 20th Century Fox fizzled with $26 million.

It was enough to put this weekend up 11 percent over the same one last year, according to Hollywood.com, which tracks ticket data. But total domestic box office revenue since early May — when “Iron Man 2” opened with a bang — has fallen about 6.4 percent, to $1.02 billion, from $1.09 billion in the period a year earlier, according to Hollywood.com.

So it will take more than a robust performance from “The Karate Kid” to truly kick-start Hollywood’s summer, the period between early May and Labor Day that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales. Indeed, now comes the hard part: convincing turned-off consumers that studios have held back the good stuff.

The best chance for studios to prove that the down cycle has actually broken, box office analysts and others say, is the arrival on Friday of “Toy Story 3,” starring Buzz Lightyear and pals. It is the long-anticipated third installment (this time in 3-D) in a series that helped Pixar establish computer-animated family fare as the film industry’s most reliable moneymaker.

“Toy Story 2” opened with more than $75 million in 1999, when adjusted for inflation. Hollywood hopes the follow-up will handily beat that total, delivering the kind of opening weekend tally that the industry expects from its big-budget, heavily marketed releases.

Still, it may be tough to win back the favor of an audience that has been trained to expect more than Hollywood has delivered in the last few weeks. One danger is that potential filmgoers tend to overlook a next round of pictures when they did not like the last batch.

“It’s all about changing their mood,” Dennis Rice, a marketing consultant who previously ran Disney’s publicity operation, said of the entertainment business.

Kevin Goetz, chief executive of Screen Engine, a marketing and research consulting firm that specializes in entertainment, says viewers increasingly reserve their ticket purchases for pictures that promise something truly special, whether that means amazing visual effects or extraordinary reviews.

“If you don’t have a product that delivers in a unique and powerful way, then certainly the messaging has to do that,” Mr. Goetz said.

A variety of other factors may be holding back the box office, including blowback from consumers over higher ticket prices. Perversely, the improving economy may have taken the edge off ticket sales that were buoyed last year, when filmgoers sought a relatively cheap diversion from financial woes.

But the primary reason is most likely ho-hum movies. In the last few weeks, Hollywood’s offerings have lacked luster. “Sex and the City 2” got some of the worst reviews in memory for Warner Brothers, while “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” from Walt Disney was received with a collective shrug.

New comedies like “Killers” from Lionsgate and “Get Him to the Greek” from Universal Pictures registered barely a blip when compared with “The Hangover,” the spring-summer comic juggernaut of 2009.

And for all the talk about a 3-D revolution, only one major 3-D film, the hit “Shrek Forever After,” from DreamWorks Animation , has been released since May. At least four 3-D movies, including “The Last Airbender” from Paramount and “Despicable Me” from Universal, are still on deck for the summer.

But those will arrive without the momentum that powered last year, when eight action fantasies and animated films topped $150 million each at the spring-summer box office. They were led by four — “Up,” “Star Trek,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” — that had already been released by this point in the year.

“Yes, there seems to be a slump,” acknowledged Tom Sherak, who is a consultant for Marvel Entertainment and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — and is generally known as an industry cheerleader.

In some ways, the malaise mirrors what is going on at the studios. Universal is treading water, awaiting the outcome of regulatory scrutiny of Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal. Disney is trying to regain its footing after a management overhaul. Paramount has sharply reduced its release schedule. And after “Avatar,” which took in nearly $750 million at the domestic box office after its release just before Christmas, everything Fox releases looks a little tepid.

If laughs are to salvage the summer, they will have to come from a somewhat bizarre face-off that on June 25 finds Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, in the 20th Century Fox action comedy “Knight and Day,” opening against Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and David Spade in “Grown Ups” from Sony.

Among those seven actors, none has broken the $150 million mark since 2005, though Mr. James came close last year with “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”

For Will Ferrell (“The Other Guys”), Julia Roberts (“Eat, Pray, Love”), Michael Cera (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) and Sylvester Stallone (“The Expendables”), the summer’s challenge is not so much to be a hit as simply not to flop again.

Angelina Jolie may have a better shot with “Salt,” due on July 23 from Sony . But only once, with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which had domestic ticket sales of $186 million for Fox in 2005, has Ms. Jolie scored a hit bigger than “The Proposal.” That romantic comedy starred Sandra Bullock and took in $163 million for Disney last summer, when the film industry had more good surprises than bad.

Then, again, werewolves and vampires might save the day: “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” is set for release by Summit Entertainment on June 30, bringing the presumed comfort that comes with a sequel built on two hits that had nearly $500 million in domestic box office sales between them.

For last weekend, “The A-Team” was a distant second behind “The Karate Kid,” which starred Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, who is Will Smith’s son.

Sony executives were doing cartwheels over “The Karate Kid,” which the studio said cost only about $40 million to make.

“I’m drooling into the phone right now — just totally, totally thrilled,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s president of worldwide distribution. “It’s a movie that has human themes that everyone can relate to.”

“Shrek Forever After” was third with $15.8 million for a new domestic total of $210 million. “Get Him to the Greek” was fourth with about $10 million ($36.5 million total), while “Killers” rounded out the top five with an estimated $8.2 million ($30.7 million total).

Looking ahead, Hollywood can at least take comfort in knowing that “Toy Story 3” is the closest thing the film industry has to an easy sell.

“All they’ve got to do,” Mr. Rice said, “is have a big ‘3.’ ”