First, the bad news: If you go to the movies this summer, you’ll probably be sitting in a lot of very crowded theaters. Now the good news: You’ll probably be happy to do so.

Regular visitors to this space may have noticed that I don’t talk much about box office grosses. I understand intellectually that movies function both as creative works and as lines on a balance sheet, but every time I see the weekly box office top ten in a newspaper, I cringe just a little, because this obsession with art as popularity contest is the work of the devil — or at least Entertainment Tonight.

But in the summer of 2007, it’s going to be impossible to avoid talking about box office numbers, because they are going to be unprecedented. In 2004, the top 10 films released between May 1 and Sept. 1 grossed a cumulative $2.2 billion at the North American box office, the current record. In 2005, six individual summer-release films grossed more than $200 million, also the current record. And it will be a huge surprise if both of those records are still standing come Labor Day 2007. Never before in history have there been so many summer movies that so many people are going to want to see — and a lot of them hold out the prospect of being pretty damned good in the bargain. It stacks up like this:

The rule of threes. Sequels have been a staple of summer for decades, but never in quite the raw numbers we’ll see over the next four months. The summer of 2007 brings us not one, not two, but six third installments in ongoing movie franchises. Three of those third installments — Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End — are almost certain to be the summer’s three top-grossing films in some order or another. In the summer of 2004, Spider-Man 2 and Shrek 2 teamed up for more than $700 million; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest raked in $423 million last year. If this year’s three sequels average only $350 million a piece — and that’s a conservative estimate — you’re looking at nearly a billion dollars just from the top three films on 2007’s list.

As for the other three “Part 3’s” — Ocean’s 13, Rush Hour 3 and The Bourne Ultimatum — each holds the prospect for $140 – $170 million based on previous franchise performance. That might be good enough to make the top 10.

Pixar and Potter. Four previous films averaging $274 million in domestic gross; four previous films averaging $279 million in domestic gross. Those are the track records of Pixar’s recent computer-animated features and the Harry Potter franchise, respectively — a ridiculous level of consistency. If we play it safe and assume that Pixar’s Ratatouille and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will do only as well as the least successful efforts in their respective franchises, you’ll still be looking at $500 million between them. That’s $1.5 billion just for the top half of our top 10.

The funny business. From the writer/director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin comes Knocked Up, a comedy about a one-night-stand between wildly dissimilar people that results in an unplanned pregnancy. Early test screenings — and a fall-out-of-your-chair hilarious trailer — suggest it could be a massive word-of-mouth hit. Evan Almighty probably won’t reach Bruce Almighty‘s $242 million with Steve Carell taking over for Jim Carrey, but it’ll still do well. And the Adam Sandler/Kevin James vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry — about two Boston firefighters who pose as a gay couple for the domestic partner benefits — seems likely to lure in the same crowd that turned Wild Hogs into a hit.

Other familiar properties. While it’s been more than a decade since the last Die Hard installment, Bruce Willis as John McClane could still be a draw in Live Free or Die Hard. Blue spandex rides again—after $150 million in 2005 — in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. More than 18 years on the air is going to lead to a certain built-in audience for The Simpsons Movie. And then there’s a wild card: Michael Bay’s Transformers, which could ride its combination of Gen-X nostalgia and kid appeal either to big numbers, huge numbers, or ridiculous numbers.

If not one of these films breaks out beyond a low-end estimate, you’re still looking at a $2.3 billion top 10 — and the distinct likelihood of a couple hundred mil more. My advice: If someone offers you stock in a popcorn company right now, buy it.

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