The stars on screen will probably do their bit as well, but it is the stars in the sky that seem to be aligned this year for a huge box-office summer in the US and around the globe.

For one thing, summer 2007 offers new instalments of four of the most successful franchises in movie history - Spider-Man, Shrek, Pirates Of The Caribbean and Harry Potter - as well as the long-awaited big-screen version of The Simpsons.

At the same time, the season is free of the kind of major sporting events that can keep summer crowds away from cinemas - there is no World Cup, no European football championship and no Olympics.

'On paper,' says Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group president Mark Zoradi, 'this summer looks like the strongest in recent memory.'

This year's big contenders are in a different class
Just how strong will depend on how well the tentpole releases actually play and on factors such as scheduling. But beating last summer's total North American gross of $3.7bn seems likely, and breaking the $3.9bn record set in summer 2004 (the last time Spider-Man, Shrek and Harry Potter sequels coincided) is a possibility.

Though a few of last summer's supposed tentpoles were seen as underachievers, studio executives suggest that this year's big contenders are in a different class.

'These are pictures that haven't just gone in on one occasion and proved themselves,' points out Jeff Blake, chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution at Sony's Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. This summer's big franchise entries, he notes, each follow at least two earlier instalments that 'not only set box-office records but were really loved by audiences'.

While there is some danger of cannibalisation this summer, the release schedule does not appear to be any more crowded than it has been in recent years. And besides, says Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros Pictures, 'The market has the ability to expand. Good movies have a tendency to get people excited about film.'

In the US, May looks like the cruellest month, or at least the busiest.

Moving back to the early slot of the franchise's first film, Sony's Spider-Man 3 kicks the season off on May 4. Paramount/DreamWorks' animated Shrek The Third opens domestically on May 18, in the franchise's customary mid-May slot. And Disney's adventure Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End follows just a week later, on May 25, looking to make the most of the Memorial Day holiday weekend (once considered the start of the summer season).

June brings five more sequels: Warner's Ocean's Thirteen; Lionsgate's Hostel: Part II (both June 8); Fox's Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (June 15); Universal's Evan Almighty (June 22); and Fox's Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4) (June 29).

The month also sees the arrival of what, compared with last year, is the season's tiny contingent of non-sequel studio animations. Sony's Surf's Up opens on June 8 (three weeks after Shrek The Third) and Disney/Pixar's Ratatouille follows three weeks later on June 29.

By July, the schedule thins out a little. Paramount's sci-fi action epic Transformers stakes out the July 4 Independence Day holiday weekend, Warner's Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix arrives a week later on July 13 and Fox's The Simpsons Movie follows two weeks later on July 27.

August rounds off the season with Universal's action sequel The Bourne Ultimatum on August 3 and New Line's long-time-coming Rush Hour 3 on August 10.

The domestic schedule also includes a number of potential breakouts and counter programmers - Warner's No Reservations goes up against The Simpsons Movie, for example, and Disney's Underdog against The Bourne Ultimatum - but there are perhaps fewer than in recent summers.

'You've got to have a moment of reflection before you put another picture against one of those big blockbusters,' says Columbia's Blake. 'These pictures really get everybody, so it's hard to say anything's going to be left on the table for too much counter-programming.'

In the international market, where tentpoles tend to account for an even greater percentage of overall box-office takings, the studios are focusing their efforts on the big releases and, with the dollar being so weak and no World Cup to avoid, are looking for big returns.

'It looks like a record year in the making'
The international marketplace 'proved last year that it can grow; that the year before was a fluke and product-related', says Mark Zucker, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Releasing International (SPRI).

Head-to-head competition between potential studio blockbusters is usually avoided in the international arena. And this summer the schedule has been eased by Paramount Pictures International (PPI) giving Shrek The Third, the middle of the big three May domestic releases, a traditional animation rollout, aiming in most territories for mid to late-June releases to coincide with school holidays.

That should give SPRI's Spider-Man 3 and Buena Vista International's Pirates sequel - both of which are being released day-and-date across most of the world - more room in the international markets that will probably provide the films with the majority of their worldwide grosses.

Internationally, 'the release schedule is actually spaced pretty sensibly', says Andrew Cripps, president of PPI (which, like Universal Pictures International, will be spending its first summer as a free-standing operation, following the restructuring of UIP). 'It looks like a record year in the making,' he says, in optimistic mood, 'summer in particular.'