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Summertime, and the viewing is crazy

In theaters, likely hits could make this the biggest money-making season ever

LOS ANGELES - Everyone in Hollywood expects a big summer. The industry will get an idea of just how big today, when "Spider-Man 3" opens a season laden with more potential blockbusters than the movie business has ever seen.

Will the third adventure of Tobey Maguire's webslinger surpass the then-record $114.8 million opening weekend for "Spider-Man" in 2002?

Will it rival last year's record-breaking $135.6 million weekend of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"?

Hollywood could have its first $4 billion summer, topping the record $3.95 billion haul from the first weekend in May through Labor Day in 2004.

Factoring in higher admission prices, modern Hollywood's best summer for attendance came in 2002 with 653 million tickets sold, another record that could fall.

Two weeks after "Spider-Man 3" comes "Shrek the Third," with Mike Myers back as the voice of the crusty ogre in the franchise whose second installment is the highest-grossing animated film with $436.7 million domestically.

The next week brings the debut of Johnny Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," following "Dead Man's Chest," last year's biggest hit with $423.3 million.

Previous installments in those three franchises account for three of the four biggest opening weekends ever ("Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" was the other).

And four earlier chapters - "Shrek 2," "Dead Man's Chest" and the first two "Spider-Man" flicks - are among the top-10 highest-grossing pictures.

Hollywood always schedules big leadoff batters in May, but the month has never packed three heavy-hitters like this. They could combine to lift Hollywood to its busiest Memorial Day ever, topping 2004's record of $246.2 million over the four-day weekend.

The question is how well the three movies can do against one another.

"Spider-Man 3" has two full weeks without a major competitor, but "Shrek the Third" has just one week before the "Pirates" sequel sails in.

Summer generally slacks off once the summer behemoths run their course. This season, the schedule barely lets up, with such sequels as "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," "Ocean's Thirteen," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Rush Hour 3" and "Evan Almighty," plus the animated comedies "The Simpsons Movie" and "Surf's Up."

While big new films arrive nearly every weekend, they often will be angling for different audiences. The family-friendly cartoon "Ratatouille" opens against Bruce Willis' action sequel "Live Free or Die Hard" one weekend, the sci-fi saga "Transformers" against Robin Williams' comedy "License to Wed" the next.

The teen girls' mystery "Nancy Drew" debuts opposite the superhero sequel "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," while Adam Sandler's comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" premieres the same weekend as John Travolta's musical "Hairspray."

Dan Fellman, head of distribution at Warner Bros., said he counts 18 to 20 movies this summer with potential to gross more than $100 million. Most summers might have 10 films with such prospects, he said.

The picture has changed wildly from two years ago, when Hollywood had its worst summer since the late 1990s, with attendance dropping 11.5 percent.

Studio executives said it was just an off year full of weak movies. Critics speculated that video games, home-theater systems and other entertainment options were luring away movie crowds, but a solid rebound at theaters in 2006 and this year indicate otherwise.

Still, the movie business is fickle. Revenues were surging a month ago, but Hollywood has stumbled through a few dreary weekends since then, the year's early gains now trimmed to a marginal 1.2 percent rise in attendance compared to 2006.

A few hits can turn a bad year into a good one, while a few misses can send a solid year into the dumps.

"The only cautionary note that should be in this whole thing is, there's always something that doesn't work," said David Tuckerman, head of distribution at New Line Cinema, which is releasing "Rush Hour 3" and "Hairspray."

"So the question is, what isn't going to work?" *