Hollywood is drowning in red ink lately, stuck in one of those cyclical box office slumps raising dire predictions that never come true.
This year, the summer movie blockbuster can't arrive fast enough to toss a lifeline to the industry.
Recently Rio and Fast Five ended a three-month streak of lower grosses than the relative weekends last year, dragged down by such big-budget misfires as The Green Hornet, Mars Needs Moms and Sucker Punch.
So far, box office numbers are running nearly 15 percent behind 2010's pace. And that's counting those extra fees for 3-D and IMAX shows. Overall, we're not buying nearly as many movie tickets as usual.
Already some folks are calling this the beginning of Hollywood's end, at least of its theatrical side. The same was believed as far back as 1951 and recently as 2005 when burgeoning technologies — TV first, then home video and piracy — distracted audiences already griping about higher ticket prices, resulting in sharp but temporary downturns.
This slump will end by August, after Thor, Green Lantern, Capt. Jack Sparrow, the Hangover guys and Harry Potter have their ways with everyone's wallets. The Twilight kids should have everything under control by Thanksgiving.
Those are the lifesavers Hollywood's hoping for, to stay afloat in troubled waters. At least that's how the summer movie season is scripted, with familiar franchises and surefire sequels leading the charge.
Business as usual, so how bad can business be?
Our annual preview focuses on high-profile releases between now and Labor Day that will either sink or swim, taking Hollywood with them. We'll establish a waterline for each movie based on domestic box office results of earlier sequels or otherwise comparable flicks.
As always, release dates are subject to change.
THOR (OPENS FRIDAY)
What it's about: The arrogant son (Chris Hemsworth) of a Norse god gets stripped of his magic hammer and banished to present-day Earth. Like the upcoming Captain America flick, Thor exists chiefly to set up next year's Marvel Comics superhero mosh, The Avengers.
Box office waterline: $145 million
Sink or swim? Marvel superheroes have a spotty track record (Daredevil and The Punisher, anyone?). Thor is a company cornerstone but he isn't Spider-Man or Iron Man. Expect ticket sales somewhere between X-Men and either Hulk flick. SWIM
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (MAY 20)
What it's about: Johnny Depp plays Capt. Jack Sparrow for the fourth time. What else do you need to know? Okay, there's Penélope Cruz looking feisty as Blackbeard's daughter, and a quest for the fountain of youth guarded by zombies. Just unlock the doors and stand out of the way.
Box office waterline: $310 million
Sink or swim? The waterline would be much higher if Part 3 hadn't turned off a chunk of the core audience with its sheer weirdness. 3-D surcharges this time around will help replenish Disney's treasure chest. Depp walks on water in his fans' eyes so we'll predict: SWIM
THE HANGOVER, PART II (MAY 26)
What it's about: Another depraved, lost weekend for Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, this time in Bangkok (pictured, top), making their Las Vegas misadventures seem like a Sunday school outing.
Box office waterline: $277 million
Sink or swim? The first Hangover was a box office sensation, the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. Anything less this time around will disappoint but is probably inevitable. SINK
KUNG FU PANDA 2 (MAY 26)
What it's about: Po the panda (voice of Jack Black) is living large as the new Dragon Warrior until the Valley of Peace is threatened by a weapon that can destroy kung fu. The crisis rallies his martial arts mates including a crouching Tigress (Angelina Jolie) but sadly no hidden dragon.
Box office waterline: $215 million
Sink or swim? Kung Fu Panda 2 opens over the rich Memorial Day weekend, offering a perfect alternative to The Hangover, Part II's adult humor. Any drop-off in Po's popularity will be countered by 3-D fees. SWIM
THE TREE OF LIFE (MAY 26)
What it's about: Terrence Malick's movies are events since they're rare, secretive and unpredictable. This one apparently involves 1950s family dysfunction, time and space travel, even CGI dinosaurs. It's reported to be autobiographical, with Brad Pitt (pictured with Laramie Eppler) as a domineering father and Sean Penn as the adult son surviving him.
Box office waterline: $36 million
Sink or swim? Pitt's presence will counter box office poison Penn. Preview trailers are gorgeous but confounding. Matching The Thin Red Line in ticket sales would be a commercial triumph for Malick, who won't care either way. SWIM
THE BEAVER (MAY 27)
What it's about: A chronically depressed businessman (Mel Gibson) uses a hand puppet to work out his inner feelings. Directed by Jodie Foster, whose previous films Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays turned out much better than their pitches.
Box office waterline: $43 million
Sink or swim? Gibson is such a polarizing personality that even equaling last year's Edge of Darkness is too much to ask. And that was an action flick, where moviegoers like him best. Going head-to-head-to-head with the Kung Fu Panda and Hangover sequels is a killer. SINK
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (JUNE 3)
What it's about: Prequel to the X-Men trilogy, with new, younger cast showing how Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) went from best friends to worst enemies.
Box office waterline: $180 million
Sink or swim? Comparing First Class to the star-studded original trilogy's conclusion doesn't seem fair. This is more like the Wolverine spin-off, without the popular demand. SINK
JUDY MOODY AND THE NOT BUMMER SUMMER (JUNE 10)
What it's about: A perky third-grader (Jordana Beatty, below, pictured with Heather Graham) plans to enjoy her best. Vacation. Ever. Like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid flicks, it's based on a popular kid-lit series.
Box office waterline: $17 million
Sink or swim? Unlike the Wimpy Kid movies, this is sharply skewed to young girls, so a puddle-sized waterline based on Kit Kittredge: An American Girl sounds about right. SWIM
SUPER 8 (JUNE 10)
What it's about: Teenage moviemakers (Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney) in 1979 accidentally film a train wreck that unleashes aliens being transported to super-secret Area 51. Of course grownups don't believe them until it's too late.
Box office waterline: $245 million
Sink or swim? Producer and marketing crutch Steven Spielberg knows a little about extraterrestrial fantasies, most recently War of the Worlds. Director J.J. Abrams displayed a sly eye for sci-fi with his Star Trek reboot. Equaling either movie's success in the heat of summer competition would be surprising. SINK
GREEN LANTERN (JUNE 17)
What it's about: Cocky test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) obtains a ring giving him intergalactic super powers. Previews suggest an Iron Man vibe with Reynolds rather than Robert Downey Jr.
Box office waterline: $200 million
Sink or swim? DC Comics wants another movie franchise but Green Lantern isn't Batman or Superman. Matching the wan reception for Superman Returns would be considered success, and 3-D fees will make that happen. SWIM
MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS (JUNE 17)
What it's about: an uptight businessman (Jim Carrey) shares his plush penthouse with a gaggle of cute, computer-animated penguins.
Box office waterline: $120 million
Sink or swim? Box office expectations are low, closer to Carrey's Lemony Snicket movie than How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Even so, this looks like an uphill march for the penguins. SINK
CARS 2 (JUNE 24)
What it's about: Racing champion Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and his pickup buddy Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) get involved in European espionage and go Aston Martin on the bad guys.
Box office waterline: $244 million
Sink or swim? The original Cars is considered by many as Disney-Pixar's worst effort, so this isn't a slam-dunk sequel. Part 2 should have legs (wheels?) through the Fourth of July but it's boxed in heavy traffic. SINK
BAD TEACHER (JUNE 24)
What it's about: A sexy junior high teacher (Cameron Diaz) vamps on a substitute (Justin Timberlake) while a popular coach (Jason Segel) pines on the sidelines.
Box office waterline: $63 million
Sink or swim? Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a good comparison, with its raunchy humor and Segel's unique goofiness. Diaz and Timberlake's fans should push the box office higher. SWIM
LARRY CROWNE (JULY 1)
What it's about: A recently downsized worker (Tom Hanks) goes to community college and falls in love with his teacher (Julia Roberts).
Box office waterline: $66 million
Sink or swim: Hanks and Roberts' only previous pairing was the disappointing Charlie Wilson's War. Larry Crowne looks much funnier, so topping that mark should be easy. SWIM
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (JULY 1)
What it's about: Autobots and Decepticons race to recover a Cybertronian spacecraft on the moon. Just another excuse for director Michael Bay to blow up stuff. (Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley star in this flick.)
Box office waterline: $402 million
Sink or swim? That waterline mark was set by 2009's Revenge of the Fallen, a movie so reviled that some fans won't get fooled again. The drop-off will make Megan Fox believe her absence this time around makes the difference. SINK
ZOOKEEPER (JULY 8)
What it's about: Kevin James plays the title role, getting flustered and clumsy when the zoo animals start talking, offering romantic advice.
Box office waterline: $146 million
Sink or swim? Fluky success with Paul Blart: Mall Cop in January when competition is always weak fooled someone into thinking James can topline a summer smash. Perhaps naming his character "Paul Blart" and sticking that in the title would help. SINK
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART II (JULY 15)
What it's about: If you need to ask, you haven't been paying attention since 2001. Finally the ultimate showdown between the man-boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), capping a remarkable eight-film series.
Box office waterline: $295 million
Sink or swim? There's no way Potterphiles are giving up now. Extra revenue from 3-D surcharges makes Warner Bros. wish the gimmick was available years ago. SWIM
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (JULY 22)
What it's about: A mild-mannered Army enlistee (Chris Evans) signs up for a secret project transforming him into a super soldier battling Nazis and the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
Box office waterline: $160 million
Sink or swim? Surveys peg this as the summer's most anticipated superhero flick. Certainly no Marvel Comics character is more overdue. Iron Man numbers are possible if the movie's spectacular but X-Men totals will do just fine, setting up 2012's Avengers flick. SWIM
COWBOYS & ALIENS (JULY 29)
What it's about: The title says it all. A 19th century frontier drifter (Daniel Craig) runs afoul of a robber baron (Harrison Ford), but they'll unite to fight off invading aliens.
Box office waterline: $150 million
Sink or swim? Nobody expects James Bond or Indiana Jones results, comic book adaptations are hit and miss, and Jonah Hex left a bad taste for Westerns. Audiences simply may experience fantasy fatigue by late July. SINK
THE SMURFS (JULY 29)
What it's about: Everyone's favorite blue elves are chased to New York City by the wizard Gargamel. Celebrity voices include Katy Perry (Smurfette), Jonathan Winters (Papa Smurf) and Paul Reubens (Jokey Smurf).
Box office waterline: $120 million
Sink or swim? Last chance for youngsters before school resumes (unless they're Spy Kids fans, but who is?). The closest comparison is The Rugrats Movie 13 years ago that barely crossed the $100 million mark. Crossover to 1980s nostalgists may balance the fact that today's children don't understand what the Smurfing buzz is about. SINK
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (AUG. 5)
What it's about: A prequel to Tim Burton's remake of 1968's classic Planet of the Apes. James Franco stars as a present-day scientist whose experiments lead to rapidly developing simian intelligence.
Box office waterline: $180 million
Sink or swim? Franco's star dimmed considerably with Oscars overexposure and Your Highness. Preview trailers suggest more cerebral sci-fi than the visceral stuff audiences prefer. SINK
THE HELP (AUG. 12)
What it's about: Based on Kathryn Stockett's bestseller about a Southern belle (Emma Stone) in the civil rights era whose friendship with an African-American maid (Viola Davis) sparks a small-town scandal.
Box office waterline: $63 million
Sink or swim? Chick-lit adaptations aren't blockbusters, so The Time Traveler's Wife sets the comparably shallow waterline. Disney will sell The Help as the unofficial start of awards season, so crossover appeal is possible. SWIM (or more accurately, treading water)
CONAN THE BARBARIAN (AUG. 19)
What it's about: Remaking a 1982 sword and sorcery epic with 3-D and without Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jason Momoa (TV's Game of Thrones) has the pecs to handle the gig.
Box office waterline: $163 million
Sink or swim? Clash of the Titans proved last year that shoddy fantasy can make a fortune — at least once. Moviegoers won't get fooled again. SINK
FRIGHT NIGHT (AUG. 19)
What it's about: Remake of the 1985 horror comedy about a teenager (Anton Yelchin) convinced his neighbor (Colin Farrell) is a vampire.
Box office waterline: $50 million
Sink or swim? Movie tickets in 1985 cost nearly half of today's 3-D-driven average, so doubling the original's box office take sounds about right. SWIM
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.