HOLLYWOOD - Hollywood accountants may not be finished tallying 2007's box office receipts, but that doesn't mean it's too early to take a look ahead at next summer. Already the showdowns are looming: Will Steve Carell's

Get Smart

have control over Mike Myers'

The Love Guru

?

A huge cut of annual movie tickets are sold between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This year, summer grosses totaled $4.18 billion, up nearly 9 percent from the previous year, according to Media by Numbers. The box office tracking firm also projects that 2007's total take will be close to $9.6 billion, up just 2 percent from 2006, with actual admissions down slightly from a year ago (higher average ticket prices accounted for the increase in annual gross).

If the movie business is going to make any progress selling more tickets, it will need more $300 million-grossing hits, not an unreachable goal given that 2007 has produced four so far:

Spider-Man 3

,

Shrek the Third

,

Transformers

, and

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

.

But the way Hollywood is trying to goose the number of admissions is a costly exercise in Darwinism: It simply keeps releasing more and more films. In 2004, 474 new movies arrived in the multiplex, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. By 2006, the volume of new releases had surged almost 30 percent to 599. If you had to choose among half a dozen movies opening most weekends, 2007 didn't seem any less crowded.

The consequence of this spray-and-pray strategy is that many films aimed at the same demographic inevitably land on the same weekend, when often only one film can succeed. If the movies appeal to different constituencies -

I Am Legend

for teens and young adults,

Alvin and the Chipmunks

for families - both can prosper, but usually there's carnage. Last summer's

Hot Rod

may have had its fans, but going toe-to-toe with

The Bourne Ultimatum

, it didn't stand a chance.

Given how competitive next summer appears, some movies have fled for safer shores. United Artists and Tom Cruise moved his

Valkyrie

from June 27 to Oct. 3; Warner Bros. delayed Richard Gere's

Nights in Rodanthe

from June 6 to Sept. 12; and MGM postponed its

Fame

remake from Aug. 15 to Dec. 25.

But other movies have moved into the summer: Disney took

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

from this month to May 16, and Universal switched the Angelina Jolie action thriller

Wanted

from March 28 to June 27.

With so many movies crowded into so few vacation weekends, there will be several key showdowns. Although some movies may still switch release dates, here's an early handicap of some prominent clashes:

May 2:

It's not technically summer, but it's the weekend that launches the season. Robert Downey Jr. stars in the comic-book adaptation

Iron Man

for Marvel Enterprises and Paramount, while Patrick Dempsey, hot off

Enchanted

, stars in the romantic comedy

Made of Honor

opposite Michelle Monaghan for Columbia Pictures. Advantage:

Iron Man

.

May 16:

Now things get complicated. Warner Bros.'

Speed Racer,

from

Matrix

directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, will be in its second week, where it must fend off Disney's

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

and Fox's Cameron Diaz comedy

What Happens in Vegas. . .

Advantage:

Narnia

.

June 20:

Myers is back with

The Love Guru

, his first grown-up comedy since 2002's

Austin Powers in Goldmember

. But he must topple Carell in the Warner Bros. adaptation of

Get Smart

. Advantage:

The Love Guru

.

July 11:

Some movies have weekends all to themselves: Columbia's Will Smith movie

Hancock

opens unopposed July 2. The following weekend, though, has New Line's

Journey 3-D

with Brendan Fraser, DreamWorks'

Tropic Thunder

with Ben Stiller and Universal's sequel

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

with Ron Perlman. Narrow advantage:

Hellboy II

.

July 18:

Universal's

Mamma Mia!

has Meryl Streep, but Warner Bros.

The Dark Knight

has Batman. Advantage:

Dark Knight

in a landslide.

Aug. 8:

The talking Chihuahuas of Disney's

South of the Border

would appear overmatched by Universal's sequel

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

. But never underestimate the late-season appeal of a family-friendly comedy. Disney released

The Game Plan

in September, and it grossed more than $77 million. Advantage: talking dogs.