Hollywood's gamble on a crowded summer movie season chockablock with pricey tentpoles is paying off, with the box office running 12.7 percent ahead of last summer and on track to possibly break the all time summer record.
That $4.4 billion record was set in 2011; last summer the box office dipped back down to $4.29 billion. If the box office continues on this torrid pace, this summer will easily top last year.
Last month was the biggest ever at the box office, and June is tracking to be record-breaker, too, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. "Man of Steel" debuted to $128 million last weekend for the biggest June opening ever, and this weekend, with Disney's "Monsters University" and Paramount's "World War Z" opening and "Man of Steel" returning, could be the year's biggest so far.
Before the season began, studio executives expressed concerns that the summer schedule was too crowded with pricey tentpoles. But those concerns have so far proved unfounded: The booming box-office numbers say moviegoers are welcoming the more-is-better approach. With a crowded end of summer looming, the question now is how many big movies can thrive in the popcorn movie season.
"If things keep going, it's going to be a record, and this will be how summers are going to look for the next few years, with a ton of big-budget franchise movies," Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock told The Wrap. "Moviegoers are telling the studios what they want, and they're going to give it to them."
Indeed, Sony on Monday announced 2015 and 2016 dates for the third and fourth Spider-Man movies on Monday. Disney had "Avengers 2" next year and has dated Marvel projects in May on 2016 and 2017. It has also set dates for several major animation projects from its own animation unit and Pixar, as has Fox with its DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios projects.
There are 20 movies with production budgets around $100 million or above this summer, compared to 14 last year. The rest of this summer's box-office season is just as jammed as the front half.
The summer got off to a robust start with the $175 million opening of Disney's "Iron Man 3' on the first weekend in May. "Iron Man 3" remains the highest-grossing movie of the season – and year -- with more than $400 million domestically. That's nearly double the take of the summer's No 2 and 3 movies, "Fast & Furious 6" ($219 million) and Paramount's "Star Trek Into Darkness" ($211 million).
But this summer is a departure from last summer, when superhero movies "The Avengers," "Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" went 1-2-3 and left little room in market for other fare. There's not just more diversity in terms of subject matter this year, there's more overall depth.
Last year at this time, four summer movies had hit the $100 million mark at the domestic box office. This year, six have done it already and a seventh will soon.
Besides the top three, the biggest movies of the summer so far are Warner Bros.' "The Great Gatsby" ($140 million), "Man of Steel" ($128 million) and "The Hangover Part III" ($108 million). Fox's animated kids film "Epic" is at $96 million.
"I think moviegoing can create more moviegoing, because people come back to work Monday and talk about what they've seen and get other people excited," Bock said, "and that ends up helping the overall market."
He said a weekend with two, or possibly three, new wide releases is idea in terms of fostering business.
"When you get people talking and thinking about movies, they take note of some films that they normally might not. Both 'The Purge' and 'Now You See Me,' for example, both benefited from being something different in the market."
Also read: 5 of Summer's Biggest Box-Office Smackdowns
The box-office smashups that some feared due to the crowded slates haven't materialized, at least not yet.
"Hangover III" underwhelmed domestically but Sony's $130 million Will and Jaden Smith sci-fi adventure "After Earth" has been the season's only real dud so far. But the market can only expand so much, and the rest of summer looks as if it will test those limits. August in particular looks jammed, with 15 wide releases scheduled on the last four weekends.
"They've gotten away with it so far," Bock said,"but at some point it's just too many movies."
While this year is especially crowded, studios typically jam their biggest-budget releases, particularly superhero and franchise movies that skew young, into the summer when kids are out of school, the weather is good and there is a history of successful launches.
At some point, Bock said, Hollywood is going to have to look at releasing some of these big-budget franchise movies in April or September.
"They may not want to do it, and it would be a risk, but at some point things will get so crowded that if you don't expand the summer, you'll be making bombs," he said.