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Next summer's bleak box office

Next summer’s bleak box office — 2009’s movie roster includes the ”Da Vinci Code” prequel and ”G.I. Joe” but needs another ”Dark Knight” success

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Hollywood is in the throes of a hot-and-heavy summer romance — with moviegoers. The business is already on track to surpass last year’s record-breaking $9.7 billion in ticket sales, powered by blockbusters like The Dark Knight ($314 million and counting), Iron Man ($315 million), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ($314 million), and Sex and the City ($151 million). ”Some of the big movies significantly over-performed,” says Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore. ”Maybe it’s just that the movies were good.”

But Hollywood shouldn’t take its victory lap yet. All this success only adds pressure to next year’s sweaty season — and so far, the lineup is far from a sure thing. Expected slam dunks like Da Vinci Code prequel Angels & Demons, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek update, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian all arrive on or before the Memorial Day weekend. Aside from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (also out in May), the slate is largely superhero deficient. And the adult women who just turned SATC and Mamma Mia! into hits won’t see much of themselves on screen, either. After all, The A-Team and Terminator Salvation don’t exactly scream girls’ night out.

But the real source of worry is that the threat of an actors’ strike long ago gummed up production, and there may not be enough films to pad out the entire summer — in fact, a quick glance at the August slate reveals little more than the G.I. Joe movie and yet another Final Destination sequel. ”It’s still too early to toll the death knell,” says Media by Numbers’ Paul Dergarabedian, ”but it’s hard to expect something [like] a Dark Knight.”

Still, studios aren’t entirely in panic mode, partly because they’re counting on audiences’ need to escape more than just the heat. ”The economy is bad, gas prices are high, and still the movies are doing extraordinarily well,” says Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. ”People will always turn up for something spectacular. I don’t see that changing.”