Last year, box office pundits predicted big trouble because three tentpoles were skedded for May — “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” — and it didn’t seem possible that the marketplace could sustain that sort of pace.

They were wrong. Each grossed more than $110 million in its opening weekend and eventually crossed the $300 million mark at the domestic box office.

Studios and exhibs said the powerhouse May performance proved the marketplace is capable of expanding, provided there are movies people want to see.

If summer 2008 is to work, the marketplace will need to expand again.

The May sweepstakes are harder with four tentpoles. Two are franchise wannabes, “Iron Man” and “Speed Racer,” and two are sequels, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

That’s in addition to five other wide releases: “Sex and the City,” “What Happens in Vegas,” “Made of Honor,” “Midnight Meat Train” and “The Strangers.” And there will be 14 specialty films bowing as counterprogramming, including two on May 2: Sony Pictures Classics’ “Redbelt” and Paramount Vantage’s “Son of Rambow.”

That’s 23 films in 31 days, all competing for eyeballs. And it’s especially notable, because a decade ago, May was a wasteland as far as summer tentpoles were concerned. Now it’s jam-packed, raising the question if “summer” will one day start in April.

This May sets the tone for the most brutal season ever, one dominated by event pics and a glut of comedies. In all, there are 25 potentially “big” movies this summer, a significant jump from the 18 last year. At that level, marketing is going to have to be noisier and more crafty than ever.

Almost every weekend has at least two major releases, along with the usual sprinkling of genre pics. Things don’t quiet down much until mid-August.

And while last summer was a B.O. record-breaker (and, for the first time, four pics passed $300 million, including the July 3 release “Transformers”), this year’s crop presents special challenges.

The trio of sequels in May 2007 offered titles that were presold. This year’s quartet offers one sequel (“Narnia”) that is targeting a slightly different audience than the first one; two titles that are well known to fanboys (“Iron Man” and “Speed Racer”) but are untested as films; and one sequel that’s 19 years after the previous edition, but is the closest thing this summer to a sure thing — “Indiana Jones.”

Aggressive and clever marketing campaigns will be required. Paramount and Marvel have been plugging “Iron Man” since last summer’s Comic-Con. Disney took the unusual step of buying “Narnia” ad time during the Super Bowl — hardly the demo for Mouse House fare — to get out the message that the second film is scarier and could appeal to older kids.

Similarly, Warner Bros. has been pushing hard for “Speed Racer,” to spread the word that a potentially PG-rated film based on an old kiddie toon is not what people might expect: It is, after all, from the Wachowski siblings.

Thanks to the family friendly PG rating, Warners has snagged more than $80 million in promotions for “Speed Racer” from such marquee companies as General Mills, McDonald’s and Target. Mattel will release a line of toys based on the game through various divisions, including Hot Wheels. Warners also will self-publish a “Speed Racer” vidgame.

Likewise, Paramount has lined up an impressive stable of promotional partners for “Indiana Jones,” including Hallmark, toy company Hasbro, Burger King and Mars, to name a few. George Lucas, producer of “Indiana Jones,” and Steven Spielberg always make secrecy a big part of their marketing, believing it is a good way to build buzz. They’re relying heavily on the nostalgia factor in their marketing campaign.

Studio execs are of two minds when it comes to summer’s crowded sked: On one hand, they worry that the films will cannibalize each other, and put even more pressure on opening weekend. That means money left on the table.

On the other, it was studios, aided by the infusion of private equity money, that created the glut of high-profile event films. No major is ready to wave the flag of surrender and relocate their summer pics to other seasons. They always refer back to the fact that the three May 2007 tentpoles did gangbusters.

Still, competition is intense. Take the weekend of June 20, when Warner Bros.’ Steve Carell-Anne Hathaway starrer “Get Smart” opens against Paramount’s “The Love Guru” with Mike Myers.

It’s highly unusual for two tentpoles targeting the same audience to open on the same weekend. Then again, there have never been so many movies flooding into the marketplace as now.

“It could be a suicide mission,” one studio distrib chief says.

Things also could get interesting on June 13, when 20th Century Fox opens M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” against Universal’s “The Incredible Hulk” (although “Happening” could skew older).

Almost everyone in Hollywood had been betting that either “Guru” or “Get Smart” would move, but now, they’re not so sure. The problem? There’s not a free weekend to spare.

Warner Bros. was the first to lay a claim to June 20. That was on Feb. 5, 2007. Three days later on Feb. 8, Paramount plunked down “Guru” on the same date.

“There are too many movies today and, yes, you are bumping into each other constantly,” says WB president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. “But if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that the box office can expand. I don’t see why these two movies can’t both have very successful runs.”

The overpopulation of films between Memorial Day and Labor Day caused studios to begin releasing summer pics earlier and earlier in May.

It took more than a decade, but now it’s a fact: The first weekend of May is the start of summer as far as Hollywood is concerned, even though kids aren’t yet out of school.

In 1996, when Memorial Day in late May marked the start of summer box office, the industry was stunned when “Twister” bowed on May 10 to $41 million, an unheard-of opening gross for that time of year. The pic went on to gross $241.7 million domestically. Still, distributors were skeptical, saying that early May was by no means summer.

Two years later, Paramount’s “Deep Impact” scored a $41.1 million opening when unspooling on May 8 on its way to a domestic cume of $140.5 million. A year later, Universal’s “The Mummy” opened on May 7. The film took in $43.4 million in its first weekend. Distributors realized it was not just an anomaly, and that early May did feel and taste a lot like summer.

After that, bigger titles continued to pop up in early May, including “Gladiator” and “The Mummy Returns.”

“People suddenly woke up. It was born out of the need to find a place for your picture, particularly as Memorial Day saw bigger and bigger films. You wanted to get out of the way,” a studio exec says.

Sony’s “Spider-Man,” opening May 3, 2002, made the first weekend in May the irrefutable start of the tentpole summer sesh. Hollywood hasn’t looked back since, which raises the question: Will summer eventually begin in April?

It’s a question National Assn. of Theaters prexy John Fithian thinks about a lot. He’s in favor of making the release calendar more uniform throughout the year, versus jamming nearly all the popcorn movies into summer.

“We got some really good movies in 2007. There were movies in multiple genres that appealed to different demos. But the distribution pattern of the movies could have been better,” Fithian says.

“I’ve had this conversation multiple times with top studio distribution execs, begging them to do something about it, like put one of these pictures in April,” Fithian adds.

But, like a decade ago, no one wants to be the first to take such a risk.

Also, April is a time for studios to get smaller pictures out of the way, as well as catch their breaths before the summer crush.

“There’s got to be a point on the calendar where you slow down,” Disney president of domestic distribution Chuck Viane says.

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