LOS ANGELES: Movie-goers hungry for escapism could fuel a record year at the box-office as Hollywood's summer blockbuster season gets underway on Friday, analysts say.
Wearied by a relentless tide of gloomy headlines about the recession-hit economy, Americans have flocked to the movies in early 2009, driving takings up by nearly 15 percent compared to the same period last year.
That augurs well for North America's summer season, which is bristling with sequels or reboots to franchises such as "Star Trek" and "Terminator" -- reliable money-spinners in past incarnations on the silver screen.
Jeff Bock, senior analyst with box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, said the summer releases could fuel yet another bonanza after 2008's record year, when North American earnings rose two percent to 9.78 billion dollars.
"It's going to be a summer scorcher," Bock told AFP. "And if the summer follows what has happened in the opening months, then we could see a record year in earnings, and ticket sales, which would be extraordinary.
"This year has been very strong. I suspect a lot of it is escapism, which is the traditional reason people have gone to the movies." Hollywood's summer season officially gets underway on Friday, with superhero spin-off "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" bowing at theaters across North America.
That is followed on May 8 by one of the most talked-about movies of the year -- "Star Trek" -- Paramount Studios' re-imagining of the science-fiction television series that later spawned 10 movie versions.
Directed by J.J. Abrams, the man behind hit television show "Lost" and monster movie "Cloverfield," the new "Star Trek" features a young cast playing characters James T. Kirk and Spock before they embark on the Enterprise.
The bold decision to pick a largely unknown cast could help "Star Trek" attract a wider audience beyond devotees of the franchise affectionately known as "Trekkies," Bock said.
"There is no doubt they are targeting a young audience," Bock said. "If they hit that demographic then we're looking at one of the hits of the summer." Early reviews of "Star Trek" have been glowing, with Daily Variety stating the "smart and breathless" movie would "transport fans to sci-fi nirvana." "Star Trek's" second weekend will see competition from another box office titan in the shape of "Angels & Demons," the follow-up to the hit 2006 adaptation of Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code." May will also see the release of "Terminator: Salvation," featuring "The Dark Knight's" Christian Bale in the latest incarnation of the mankind vs machines franchise made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"May is really front-loaded with some of the big films of the summer -- 'Star Trek,' 'Angels & Demons,' 'Night at the Museum 2,' 'Terminator,'" Bock said, adding that sequels were "Hollywood's safety net." Maxim Magazine film critic Pete Hammond meanwhile cautioned that the success of the summer season could depend on whether audiences embraced the rebooted version of familiar titles such as "Star Trek" and "Terminator." "On paper it looks like it could be a big year," Hammond said.
"There is a slight risk in all of these titles in that a lot of them aren't really sequels but 're-imaginings' of familiar franchises. It depends on how interested people are in seeing something like that." Meanwhile Bock said the film to beat at the North American box office would be "Transformers 2," the sequel to the successful 2007 film starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox that grossed more than 700 million dollars worldwide.
"I think domestically you're looking at 400 million dollars and maybe 1 billion dollars worldwide," Bock said.
Similar numbers are likely for the summer's other big release, "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," the sixth film based on J.K. Rowling's novels. The first five films have grossed 4.5 billion dollars worldwide since 2001. The latest film's release date was pushed back from late 2008 to mid-July, giving it a clear run at summer theater audiences.