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Summer movies: The blockbuster cometh ...

With a slew of hits looming, 2007 should be the biggest summer in movie history

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F irst, the bad news: If you go to the movies this summer, you'll probably sit in a lot of very crowded theaters.

Now the good news. You probably won't care.

This summer is likely to be unprecedented. In 2004, the top 10 films released between May 1 and Sept. 1 grossed a cumulative $2.2 billion at the North American box office, the current record. In 2005, six individual summer-release films grossed more than $200 million, also a record.

It will be a huge surprise if both of those records are still standing come Labor Day. Never before have there been so many summer movies that so many people are going to want to see. Here's how it stacks up:

The rule of threes

The summer of 2007 brings us not one, not two, but six third installments in ongoing movie franchises. Three of those Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End are almost certain to be the summer's three top-grossing films in some order or another.

In 2004, Spider-Man 2 and Shrek 2 teamed up for more than $800 million; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest raked in $423 million last year.

If this year's three sequels average only $350 million apiece, you're looking at about a billion dollars.

As for the other third installments Ocean's 13, Rush Hour 3 and The Bourne Ultimatum each holds the prospect for $140 to $170 million in earnings, based on previous franchise performance.

Pixar and Potter

Four films averaging $274 million in domestic gross; four films averaging $279 million in domestic gross. Those are the track records of Pixar's recent computer-animated features and the Harry Potter franchise, respectively. If we play it safe and assume that Pixar's Ratatouille and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will do only as well as the least successful efforts in their respective franchises, you'll still be looking at $500 million between them.

The funny business

From the writer/director of The 40 Year-Old Virgin comes Knocked Up, a comedy about a one-night stand between wildly dissimilar people that results in an unplanned pregnancy. Early test screenings and a fall-out-of-your-chair-hilarious trailer suggest it could be a massive word-of-mouth hit.

Evan Almighty probably won't reach Bruce Almighty's $242 million, with Steve Carell taking over for Jim Carrey, but it'll still do well. And the Adam Sandler-Kevin James vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry about two Boston firefighters who pose as a gay couple for the domestic-partner benefits seems likely to lure the crowd that turned Wild Hogs into a hit.

Other familiar properties

It's been more than a decade since the last Die Hard installment, but Bruce Willis as John McClane should still be a draw in Live Free or Die Hard. Same for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which follows the original that earned $150 million in 2005. Also, certainly, more than 18 years on the air will lead to a built-in audience for The Simpsons Movie.

Lastly, there's a wild card: Michael Bay's Transformers, which could ride its combination of Gen-X nostalgia and kid appeal to big, huge or ridiculous numbers.

Even if each of these films succeeds at its lowest estimate, we're still looking at $2.3 billion.

My advice: If someone offers you stock in a popcorn company right now, buy it.

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