April 24, 2019 / 10:05 AM / 3 months ago

In summer movie season, superheroes and a king may set movie records for Disney

LOS ANGELES, April 24 (Reuters) - The final chapter in a decade-long superhero saga and the remake of a big-screen classic could topple box-office records during a summer movie season expected to be dominated by Walt Disney Co.

"Avengers: Endgame" from Disney's Marvel Studios kicks off Hollywood's parade of potential blockbusters on Wednesday, and it is expected to start with a bang. Industry experts say "Endgame" will likely deliver the biggest opening weekend ever in the United States and Canada.

Then in July, a new version of Disney hit "The Lion King" has a shot at dethroning "Avatar" as the highest-grossing film in Hollywood history, according to box office analysts.

Those movies and others are giving theater owners hope for a turnaround after a sluggish start to 2019. Ticket sales so far are running 16 percent below last year's bonanza, data from measurement company Comscore showed.

Studios used to reserve their big-budget films for summer, making it Hollywood's most lucrative season, but now spread them throughout the year.

"I counted over 30 huge movies coming out this year," said Adam Aron, chief executive of AMC Entertainment, the world's largest theater operator. Aron said he now considers summer film season to be "March 1 to December 31."

Possible heavy hitters include "Detective Pikachu" and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" from AT&T Inc's Warner Bros, "The Secret Life of Pets 2" from Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures, and Sony Corp's "Spider-Man: Far from Home."

STRONGEST FILM SLATE

But Disney's lineup is seen as the most formidable. The company's other 2019 releases include "Toy Story 4," a remake of "Aladdin," "Frozen 2" and "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."

"Disney has probably the strongest film slate in the history of the industry this year," Cowen & Co analyst Doug Creutz said.

The new "Lion King" tells the well-known story of the plucky cub Simba through computer-generated imagery designed to look like live action. A trailer released at Thanksgiving generated 224.6 million views within 24 hours, a Disney record.

Even so, it will not be easy for the king of the jungle to reach the top of the box office mountain. "Avatar" grossed $2.8 billion after its 2009 release and is one of only four movies ever to cross $2 billion.

"Lion King" boosters noted the original film hauled in $968.5 million way back in 1994, with lower ticket prices. This time, it will play in a booming Chinese movie market that has grown to the world's second-largest, positioning it to take in far more than the original's $5 million in the country.

Plus, the story of Simba's challenges and triumphs has wide appeal.

"That is a movie that will travel very, very well," said Vue International cinemas CEO Tim Richards. "It has common themes that hit a chord with all of our audiences internationally. It's for all ages."

'ENDGAME' IS CULMINATION

"Endgame," the culmination of 22 Marvel films since 2007, also has generated huge buzz. Website Fandango said "Endgame" sold five times as many tickets as last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" over its first seven days of advance sales. Theaters were adding show times to meet demand.

"Infinity War" in 2018 holds the current opening weekend record, generating $257.7 million domestically over its first three days. The movie ended with an epic cliffhanger that will lure fans back to theaters in droves for "Endgame," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

He predicts between $250 million and $275 million for "Endgame," which will wrap up the story started by Iron Man, Thor and four other Avengers.

"I don't see how anticipation could be any higher," Dergarabedian said. "Audiences have developed an ongoing relationship with these characters and these stories. It's a must-see movie." (Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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