May 4 2011 12:00 AM

Hollywood gets a jump on summer — once again


It’s not your imagination: Summer really is getting
earlier every year. At least the summer movie season is — what used to
begin around Memorial Day or mid-May has slowly crept up into late
April, as evidenced by the launch of “Fast Five,” the latest entry in
the “Fast and the Furious” series last weekend.

That car chase caper brought in over $80 million at the
box office, the biggest opening in the history of Universal Pictures. So
don’t be surprised to see something equally high-profile sliding into
the last weekend of April next year.

The summer movie season, once a dumping
ground for pictures with questionable commercial appeal, is now a
goldmine for Hollywood. The change began 36 years ago when Universal
released a picture called “Jaws,” directed by then-semi-unknown Steven
Spielberg; it quickly broke box office records. Two years later,
Twentieth-Century Fox slotted something called “Star Wars” in May, and
wound up starting the most successful franchise of all time.

This year, the big guns are again rolling out early.
Paramount’s “Thor,” which has grossed over $90 million overseas, hits
theaters Friday. Warner Bros. hopes those in need of a romantic comedy
fix will gravitate toward “Something Borrowed,” based on Emily Giffin’s
popular novel and starring Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin.

The following weekend, Universal is hoping for another
windfall with “Bridesmaids,” written by and starring Kristen Wiig of
“Saturday Night Live.” The comedy is winning over sneak preview
audiences — for good reason: it’s screamingly funny — and drawing
comparisons to “The Hangover,” which dominated the summer of 2009. It
goes up against “Priest,” featuring Paul Bettany as a sullen avenger
fighting a cult of shape-shifting vampires. Since “Priest” is not being
screened in advance for critics, you can safely assume Screen Gems knows
the movie hasn’t got a prayer.

May 20 brings the return of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack
Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” a sort of
postscript to what was supposed to be a trilogy. The story sends Jack in
search of the Fountain of Youth, but the real appeal lies in the
reteaming of Depp with “Blow” co-star Penelope Cruz. Their fiery
chemistry made that 2001 drug-dealing drama memorable, and there’s no
reason to believe they won’t be able to generate a few more sparks as
battling buccaneers.

That infamous “Hangover” gang buys a second round in “The
Hangover, Part II,” opening May 26. While the scene has now shifted from
Vegas to Bangkok, it’s doubtful Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach
Galifianakis have changed their ways. Whether they’ll be able to match
or surpass the $467 million the original took in worldwide remains to be

Another super-sequel — targeted at an audience that
hopefully knows nothing about hangovers or the illicit lure of Bangkok —
is “Kung Fu Panda 2,” also opening May 26. Jack Black returns to
provide the voice of Po, the gung-ho but often klutzy would-be warrior
in old China. The first “Panda” did even better than “The Hangover,”
kicking up just under $632 million at the worldwide box office. Lucky
for Black, he’s got Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Dustin
Hoffman and even Jean-Claude Van Damme on his team.

So Memorial Day, long thought of as the beginning of
summer, is now practically the middle of the summer movie season. Hard
to believe, but that’s Hollywood.