The audiences are proving far more unpredictable than the movies Hollywood has created to pack them into theaters this summer.
Studios have released a familiar assortment of action tales, family flicks and star-driven comedies since the summer-blockbuster season began in early May. Yet while overall business has been solid, fans have been choosier than usual, spending a fortune on one superhero sensation, kicking in for a handful of midline hits and generally bypassing everything else.
Movies featuring box-office heavyweights Johnny Depp ("Dark Shadows"), Tom Cruise ("Rock of Ages") and Adam Sandler ("That's My Boy") fell flat, as did the action spectacle "Battleship."
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones pulled in fair crowds for "Men in Black 3," though the action comedy played to a smaller audience than its predecessors. The animated tales "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" and "Brave" joined the action adventures "Snow White & the Huntsman" and "Prometheus" as $100 million hits.
But nearing its midpoint, a summer that looked like an easy record-breaker at the start really can be summed up in two words: "The Avengers."
With $600 million domestically, the Marvel Comics superhero mash-up accounts for a third of Hollywood's summer revenues, taking in more than the rest of the season's top-five movies combined.
"The Avengers" continues a trend in which a few big movies suck up a greater portion of moviegoers' money as studios focus on their so-called tent-pole releases, franchise films that cost a fortune to make but pay off like billion-dollar jackpots when they work. But "The Avengers" has made this summer more lop-sided than ever, and with two more colossal superhero films coming in July _ "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Dark Knight Rises" _ the season could end up with three towering tent-poles and a whole lot of tadpoles down below.
"I don't know that I've ever seen a summer so top-heavy," said Paul Dergarabedian, analyst for box-office tracker Hollywood.com. "I think we're going to have `Avengers,' `Dark Knight' and `Spider-Man' being the big, big movies of summer with a lot of other movies really bringing up the rear, like way behind. They can't all be home runs, but you need solid doubles and triples, and we haven't seen that many of those so far."
Hollywood went on a box-office tear the first four months of this year, with revenues running as much as 20 percent ahead of 2011's on the strength of such pre-summer hits as "The Hunger Games," "Dr. Seuss' the Lorax," "21 Jump Street," "Safe House" and "The Vow."
After "The Avengers" opened with a record-breaking $207 million weekend domestically, the ensemble film featuring Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson kept on filling theater seats while other big releases came and went with barely a ripple. Hits usually come every Friday in summer, with the schedule so crowded and the fans so stoked that new movies generally bump the previous weekend's winner out of the top spot at the box office.
"The Avengers" remained No. 1 for three-straight weekends, a rare feat in summer. The film continues to do solid business nearly two months after its release, while some movies that came later have long since vanished from most theaters.
By this point in summer, Hollywood typically has two or three $200 million and $300 million hits to brag about. So far this season, "The Avengers" is the only one _ doing enough business on its own to amount to several blockbusters and highlighting the fact that studios haven't had great luck interesting viewers in much else.
"I'm never one to solely rely on the thought that it's the movies, stupid," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox, which released "Prometheus." "But in this case, I do think it's true. The movies that have come after `The Avengers' just haven't been compelling enough."
"Madagascar 3" further highlighted audience disinterest in new movies, easily remaining No. 1 in its second weekend while Sandler's "That's My Boy" and "Rock of Ages," whose all-star cast includes Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Zeta-Jones, opened well back in the pack.
Before summer, studio executives and analysts had expected business to far out-pace last summer's, when domestic revenues finished at a record $4.4 billion for the season. But "The Avengers" and the handful of other hits have only managed to keep Hollywood on par with summer 2011's receipts, with about $1.8 billion through last weekend.
For the year, revenue is about 8.5 percent ahead of 2011's, down from the double-digit lead before summer arrived. "Amazing Spider-Man" and "Dark Knight Rises" on their own may ensure that Hollywood breaks its summer record and continues on to top the all-time annual high of $10.6 billion domestically set in 2009.
July and August also have a solid lineup of potential second-tier hits, among them "Ice Age: Continental Drift," "The Bourne Legacy," "The Expendables 2" and "Total Recall."
There's usually a breakout on the comedy front, too, films such as "The Hangover" and "Bridesmaids" that open well then linger on to become unexpected smashes in subsequent weeks. With good reviews and a clever premise, "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane's talking teddy bear comedy "Ted" has a shot at becoming a sleeper hit if audiences talk it up after its debut Friday.
The out-of-nowhere hit helps keep franchise-driven Hollywood honest and earnest to mix in fresh ideas with the familiar sequels and remakes, and this summer is due for something new.
"It's so much better than having the hype and the expectation of being great and then not delivering," said "Ted" star Mark Wahlberg, who plays a grown man whose stuffed bear magically came alive when he was a boy and now is his raunchy, party-hearty roommate. "It's always better to surprise people."