When 20th Century Fox's X2: X-Men United opens in the US (and 92 other territories) this weekend, it will trigger the start of a nervously anticipated domestic summer season.
Box office in the first quarter of this year has been sluggish, casting doubts over whether 2002's all-time record of $3.16bn in ticket sales can be surpassed. However, with the TV war in Iraq off the screens and several $100m-plus films already in the bag, there is reason to believe this summer's tentpole releases will find their audiences are as big as ever. The line-up certainly sounds impressive, with a very heavy reliance upon sequels of big hits and some exciting new material.
Apart from X2, other sequels include Warner Bros' The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, Columbia's Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle and Bad Boys 2, Universal's 2 Fast 2 Furious and American Wedding, and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde from MGM. Add to that Paramount's Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life and Miramax's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and this summer appears to be more chock-full of follow-ups than ever before.
All of these films are likely to do well, building on considerable $100m-plus grosses produced by their progenitors - but what of the rest'
Leading the pack is Universal's high concept God-for-a-day comedy Bruce Almighty, which pairs Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston. Then there is Disney's Finding Nemo, the acclaimed latest slice of animated genius from Pixar Studios, which had a tremendous reception at this year's ShoWest; and Universal's The Hulk, an intriguing treatment of one of Marvel Comics' lesser-known characters by Ang Lee, as well as Johnny English, Universal's spoof that has taken the international markets by storm. And lest we forget, there are two more from Columbia: comedy Daddy Day Care, a vehicle for Eddie Murphy who is owed a hit after a miserable 2002, and Swat, starring the rising A-list tyro Colin Farrell and Samuel L Jackson.
As usual there are several classic examples of counter-programming, when studios typically go against a major release by seeking out a different demographic. Disney's teen flick The Lizzie McGuire Movie opens this weekend against X2. Two weeks later Fox will get to play the minnow and release Down With Love, its retro romance starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor - the same weekend as The Matrix Reloaded. On June 20 Warner Bros will roll out Alex And Emma, a romantic comedy starring Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, which goes up against The Hulk.
Dan Marks, executive vice president of box office tracker Nielson EDI, comments: "You can do just fine by going against a monster commercial success, as long as you can appeal to a basic audience."
Marks believes the summer season has potential, but adds it will take some doing to outperform 2002.
One thing that distinguishes this season is its broad appeal. A spokesperson for Warner Bros said its summer slate offered a microcosm of what the distributor usually puts out each year, with horror prequel Exorcist: The Beginning, Ridley Scott's black comedy Matchstick Men and action epic T3: Rise Of The Machines just some of the fare it will unveil in the next four months. Children and family films are well represented, with Paramount's Rugrats Go Wild, DreamWorks' Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas and Disney's Pirates Of The Caribbean all ready to roll.
Following the runaway success of IFC's My Big Fat Greek Wedding last season, observers are also weighing up which film will be 2003's breakout hit.
Keep an eye out for Paramount's The Italian Job, which is testing better than any other Paramount film in living memory, Fox's Alan Moore adult comic adaptation The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (about which not too much is known), Universal's possible Oscar contender Seabiscuit and - who knows' - Miramax's Shaolin Soccer, a heady combination of football and martial arts that could well find the back of the net.