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Nemo Is Hollywood Hero

Hollywood banked big on sequels this summer, scoring hugely on a couple but falling short of the industry's pie-in-the-sky expectations on many.

Studios dodged early forecasts of a slump in box-office receipts, riding a late surge of hits that produced another summer of record revenue.

The main surprise was the little fish that could. No one figured the goofy sea creatures of "Finding Nemo" would swim past the daring heroes of "The Matrix Reloaded" to become the year's top-grossing film.

"Finding Nemo" has climbed to $330 million in domestic ticket sales, passing "The Lion King" to become the highest-grossing animated film ever. Factoring in today's higher admission prices, though, 1994's "The Lion King" sold more tickets.

Summer's most anticipated movie, "The Matrix Reloaded," came in second at $279 million. Another surprise blockbuster, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," is creeping past $270 million and could commandeer the summer's runner-up slot.

Add in "Bruce Almighty" and "X2: X-Men United," and a record five summer movies crossed the $200 million mark. Twelve have topped $100 million, with four others positioned to do so, breaking the record of 13 $100 million movies in summer 2002.

Among the hits were "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," "Bad Boys II," "The Hulk" and "S.W.A.T.", along with sleeper success "The Italian Job" and the classy drama "Seabiscuit."

From early May through Labor Day, domestic grosses are expected to total $3.87 billion, up 2 percent from summer 2002's record, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

With an estimated 4 percent rise in admission prices, though, ticket sales will be down about 2 percent from summer 2002, the first decline in three years.

"It's just slightly off. I don't think it's any big deal. If it were off dramatically, it would be a different story," said Richard Cook, studio chairman at Disney, which released "Finding Nemo," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the hit remake "Freaky Friday."

"If it continued to be off for another nine months or a year, then certainly we'd all be scratching our heads."

Unlike the glut of G- and PG-rated movies in summer 2002, Disney largely had the family market to itself this season. The only other notable summer family flick came from Disney-owned Miramax, which gambled on a revival of the three-dimensional format with "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over."

It paid off, with the "Spy Kids" sequel topping $100 million.

"We can say what a great idea it was now because it worked," said Josh Greenstein, senior vice president for marketing at Dimension Films, the Miramax banner that released "Spy Kids 3-D."

Produced for a relatively modest $37 million, "Spy Kids 3-D" will turn a tidy profit. Many other sequels showed diminishing gains because of rising expenses.

Hollywood once dashed off cheap sequels to wring a few more dollars out of a blockbuster brand name. Franchises such as "Austin Powers" and "The Mummy" taught the industry that by investing more up front to bring back key talent, sequels could produce larger paydays than their predecessors.

That backfired on some franchise flicks this summer. Studios shelled out bigger and bigger sums for talent and advertising, then found audiences far less interested in sequels than anticipated.

"The Matrix" and "X-Men" sequels easily outgrossed their predecessors. Others fell well short, including "Terminator 3" (topping out at about $150 million compared to $205 million for 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day") and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" (barely crawling past $100 million compared to $125 million for the first movie three years ago).

Sequels to "Legally Blonde" and "The Fast and the Furious" also were underachievers compared to the original flicks. "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life" rolled over and died, taking in just half the $131 million domestic total of the first "Tomb Raider."

That does not spell the end of sequels, just a more cautious approach by Hollywood. In the future, studios likely will aim to pay stars and filmmakers less up front in exchange for bonus money depending on how well a sequel performs at the box office.

Studios also will lean more toward multipicture deals for original movies that might result in sequels, locking the talent in at a fixed salary for follow-up films.

"Anybody who tells you sequels are dead, sequels aren't going to be made, doesn't know what they're talking about," said Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios, which teamed with Sony on the summer hit "Daddy Day Care" and the season's big flop, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's "Gigli."

"Sequels are pre-sold pictures with a pre-sold audience that normally do really well. They are not going to go away. They're going to be a mainstay in Hollywood. It's just a matter of re-examining the economics of sequels."

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