Handicapping any summer's box office favorites hinges on three factors:
Sequels, remakes and riffs on TV shows usually are good bets.
Animated flicks and live action comic books are even better — especially starring actors (or their voices) that fans would pay to watch doing anything.
Lastly, release dates can certainly make a difference. The long Fourth of July weekend is a prime time; getting logjammed between blockbusters can be toxic to ticket sales.
There are variations, of course. If a previous movie left a sketchy impression, like Sex and the City or Shrek the Third, a sequel will suffer for it. Not every 'toon or superhero makes a surefire movie, and some actors lose their allure after a flop or two.
All of which makes predicting the summer's hits and misses tough.
I'll stick out my neck to predict five movies that will end up leading the box office race when the season ends on Labor Day. Then I'll suggest five movies that could surprise everyone and finish in the top 10.
Just for fun, let's toss in 10 more high-profile summer releases poised to disappoint, movies that may make money but not many friends among moviegoers. As always, release dates are subject to change. Here we go . . .
TOP 5 HITS
1. Toy Story 3 | June 18
The pitch: Woody and Buzz Lightyear plot a mass escape from a day care center where the entire toy box gang has been donated.
Haven't we met? Yes, and 11 years is long enough to wait for a reunion.
Star power: Woody and Buzz are recognized and loved by more moviegoers than even Iron Man or Edward Cullen. Returning celebrity voices like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are icing on the cake.
Timing: Toy Story 3 has the family market (and 3-D theaters) sewn up for three weeks until Despicable Me, and could still have legs to challenge that cartoon's opening.
Prediction: $370 million, thanks to higher prices for 3-D tickets.
2. Iron Man 2 | Opens Friday
The pitch: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gets a new superhero suit and archvillain (Mickey Rourke) to use it on.
Haven't we met? Hello? There's a "2" in the title.
Star power: Downey is practically bulletproof these days. Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson are talented eye candy, too.
Timing: Batting lead-off in Hollywood's money season is a great place to be.
Prediction: $325 million, with a fast announcement of Iron Man 3-D to exploit the higher ticket price that Part 2 is missing.
3. Shrek Forever After | May 21
The pitch: Shrek faces a midlife crisis and does the It's a Wonderful Life routine in Never Never Land.
Haven't we met? Three times, in fact, with diminishing quality each time. Shrek 2 made $441 million — well beyond the 2001 original's take — then Shrek the Third dipped nearly 25 percent. Sequels don't make new friends after they've lost the old ones.
Star power: Shrek, Princess Fiona, Donkey and Puss-in-Boots enjoy a firm fan base, even if their voices come from iffy draws (Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas).
Timing: Similar to Toy Story 3, although the green guy's profit window falls in a less active month, and Iron Man 2 still will be raking in cash.
Prediction: $300 million, based on the sharp decline between the second and third movies. That green tint on the ogre's skin is mold.
4. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse | June 30
The pitch: "Oh, please tell me Bella won't jilt the hot vampire for the hot werewolf."
Haven't we met? Haven't you been paying attention? Stephenie Meyer's supernatural love triangle already spawned a hit (Twilight) then begat a blockbuster (New Moon), and interest isn't waning.
Star power: Taylor Lautner leaped to pop idol status with New Moon, joining Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in an unholy trinity of pouting teen deities.
Timing: It probably doesn't matter, given the franchise's momentum. But Eclipse has only The Last Airbender to contend with for openers, and during the Fourth of July weekend, no less.
Prediction: $298 million, and nearly half of that earned over the holiday opening. This will be — pardon the pun — a monster.
5. Knight and Day | June 25
The pitch: An eccentric spy (Tom Cruise) drags a stranger (Cameron Diaz) through international cat and mouse games.
Haven't we met? Not exactly. Cruise is money in the holster with big-budget action flicks (Mission: Impossible 1-3, War of the Worlds), and preview trailers show a welcome comedic side to this spy role.
Star power: Cruise, of course, and Diaz retains some box office spark when she isn't being serious. The stunts are stars, too.
Timing: Knight and Day is jammed between Toy Story 3 and Eclipse but has nothing in common with those movies, so it's perfect counterprogramming for the Fourth of July gold rush.
Prediction: $230 million, and a comeback for Cruise to grin about after Valkyrie.
MAYBE TOP 10
Any of these five could end up sneaking into the top 10 if they're better — or the competition is worse — than expected.
6. The Karate Kid | June 11
The pitch: A troubled kid (Jaden Smith) gets bullied until learning martial arts from a master (Jackie Chan).
Haven't we met? Like The A-Team, this remake capitalizes on the 1980s craze, offering a grander version of an instantly recognized brand name. They open the same weekend, but with different target audiences, they should coexist.
Star power: If you can't get Will Smith for a summertime movie, his son isn't a bad substitute. Chan isn't box office gold anymore but he's perfect to take over the late Pat Morita's mentor role.
Timing: Not only the same as The A-Team but Toy Story 3 arrives a week later.
Prediction: $150 million, reaping the family spillover from sold-out Toy Story 3 showings.
7. The A-Team | June 11
The pitch: Framed Iraq War veterans escape military prison to settle the score on their own oddball terms.
Haven't we met? Not at the movies (unless you count The Losers). But ask anyone over 30 about the action-packed TV show that made Mr. T a household letter.
Star power: It's the characters and catchphrases that matter, not the actors reprising them. I pity the fool who doesn't remember Faceman, Howling Mad, B.A. and Hannibal, and the way they loved it when a plan came together.
Timing: Right after Robin Hood and Prince of Persia leave action fans desperately seeking more.
Prediction: $145 million, stunted by The Karate Kid and the arrival two weeks later of Knight and Day.
8. Salt | July 23
The pitch: A CIA agent (Angelina Jolie) gets accused of being a Russian spy.
Haven't we met? In a way, yes. Jolie has become quite the action hero after Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Wanted, when she isn't trying to win another Oscar with heavy drama.
Star power: They don't get much bigger than Jolie, and not much louder than her guns.
Timing: Great positioning in late July, before August markedly declines in box office potential. Jolie's action movies, like the actor herself, have great legs.
Prediction: $135 million; maybe more if August is as bad as it seems on paper.
9. Inception | July 16
The pitch: Ummm, I'll let you know when writer-director Christopher Nolan tells anyone. Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento) is keeping a tight lid on Inception, except for striking preview trailers that don't make sense.
Haven't we met? Doesn't look familiar, which may be why it succeeds in a summer of sameness.
Star power: Leonardo DiCaprio in it, looking as confused by Nolan's dreamscape mind games as we are.
Timing: July Fourth releases will be played out, and if only Nolan's fan base shows up, it's a hit.
Prediction: $125 million, the same as Shutter Island earned with DiCaprio, a top-tier director and a dense plot.
10. The Other Guys | Aug. 6
The pitch: Clumsy cops (Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell) comically attempt to imitate the exploits of flashier colleagues (Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson).
Haven't we met? We might have, if Kevin Smith's Cop Out hadn't been so lousy.
Star power: That cast covers most of the bases for success. The preview trailer is hilarious, which should make audiences forget The Happening, Land of the Lost, Snakes on a Plane and Tooth Fairy, respectively.
Timing: The Other Guys has a lock on the action-comedy audience until Labor Day.
Prediction: $110 million, and I'll admit it's a stretch to pick as a sleeper.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.