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Forget the world, can Superman save Warner?

It's Warner Bros. vs. Disney in this summer's battle of the majors for blockbuster dominance. And the pirate may best the Man of Steel.
Warner Bros. is hoping "Superman Returns" steams up the box office this summer.David James / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Superman vs. Jack Sparrow. If there were some fantasy world where movie characters met, it wouldn't be much of a contest. Superman, with his bulging muscles and lightning-fast reflexes, would beat the tar out of that spindly, half-in-the-bag pirate Jack Sparrow.

But in the real world — i.e., when major movies clash at the box office — the fight will be a lopsided knockout in the other direction. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," the special-effects jammed flick that Disney is releasing on July 7, will almost certainly beat the big S off the chest of Warner Bros.' "Superman Returns," which opens June 28.

Both Warner Bros. and Disney have plenty at stake in this showdown. Neither studio has exactly been knocking the ball out of the park of late. But Warner's latest box office swoon is especially perplexing, and the Time Warner unit could use a little super-heroics right about now.

Warner, traditionally one of Hollywood's most consistent box-office performers, this year watched as the waterlogged megabomb "Poseidon" and less-than-stellar films like the Bruce Willis crime drama "16 Blocks" and the Harrison Ford action film "Firewall" dragged down the studio's usually high-flying market share.

After leading the industry last year, this year Warner ranks No. 5, with a 7.7 percent market share. That's about half of what its market share was last year, and it places Warner Bros. just ahead of lowly Paramount, which has released just half as many films.

There's no denying it has been tough going for Warner Bros., says box office tracker Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. Indeed, Dergarabedian figures that the folks at Warner are none too pleased with the slack opening of their Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock love story "The Lake House," which opened fourth on the June 16 weekend with a paltry $13.6 million.

The reteaming of the Speed costars placed behind Disney's "Cars," Paramount's "Nacho Libre," and the car chase flick "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" from General Electric's Universal Pictures. (Warner says it had little financial exposure on the Ford and Willis films, and that its expectations for Lake House were far more modest than for Speed.)

Still, it's little wonder that the studio that rode so high on the Harry Potter series wanted so badly to revive the Superman franchise. According to the movie Web site, Superman ranks among the top 20 movie franchises in Hollywood history, with the four prior Christopher Reeves flicks grossing north of $700 million in current dollars.

In fact, Warner has been pushing for another Superman film since the last one opened in 1987. The arduous journey to the big screen has included nearly a dozen screenwriters and such high-visibility directors as Tim Burton and Wolfgang Petersen. Nicolas Cage wanted to suit up for the role, but he left when the project languished. The current film, Superman Returns, is being directed by X-Men director Bryan Singer and stars Brandon Routh, a square-jawed onetime soap opera hunk. The cost: more than $200 million.

Of course, reviving interest in a comic book superstar who hasn't been seen on the big screen in nearly 20 years takes more than a hunk in tights and a cape. So, on top of the $50 million or so it will spend on its own marketing, Warner has lined up promotions with Pepsi's Tropicana, Quaker, Aquafina, and Frito-Lay brands as well as with Duracell and Samsung. Heck, Warner even lined up a Got Milk? campaign. (Anyone catch that white moustache on Man of Steel, actor Routh?)

Before the flick opens, Warner plans to project that giant "S" on Chicago's Sears Tower, Niagara Falls, and other recognizable sites in 10 or so major cities. Sky divers will also make an "S" in parachuting formations in Boston, Dallas, and several other cities on June 27. And for good luck, it's shipping out a whopping 8,500 prints of the film in North America, meaning there won't be a cineplex in America that's not likely to have the big fella flying in.

But Superman may have met a foe more lethal than Lex Luthor, a force more dangerous than Kryptonite. Standing in the Man of Steel's way is Jack Sparrow, the louche antihero from Disney's 2003 blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean." The pirate film grossed a steep $305.4 million in 2003, and the sequel has all of Disney's marketing muscle behind it.

Before Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, and company do battle with an octopus-faced Davey Jones, McDonald's will have kids munching on Happy Meals to get those tiny telescopes that go along with the Chicken McNuggets. Disney also has deals with Verizon, MSN, and M&Ms, among others. Even Volvo has gotten in on the act, with a unique promotion in which the car company is burying a new SUV and giving away treasure maps to find it.

Warner may be already feeling the heat. In late May, the studio said it would move the opening of "Superman Returns" from June 30 to June 28, giving it a nine-day head start on Depp and crew. The studio said it was planning the early start all along but had to make sure the special-effects-laden film was ready. Maybe so, but having essentially a seven-day July 4th weekend can't hurt.

Still, I don't think a flying start and a superlong holiday weekend are enough for Superman to clobber the stupefied, rum-drunk Jack Sparrow. I've been at early screenings for both. And while I'm no reviewer (pros have lauded both films) my daughter Elizabeth and I gave our own two thumbs up to Jack Sparrow and his swashbuckling Pirates film. Disney's pirate film out-special effects the Man of Steel and is just a whole lot of fun.

I'm not saying "Superman Returns" won't do well. In fact, box office follower Dergaradebian predicts both films are likely blockbusters and that Superman will fly high enough to make up for Warner's otherwise sketchy box office. Maybe so. Clearly, the studio is hoping it's not just Superman that returns this summer.