By Zorianna Kit
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It's looking to be another summer of superheroes and sequels as Hollywood unleashes a barrage of pictures aimed at their core audience of young men.
Studios generate about 40 percent of their annual sales during the lucrative four-month summer season. But although ticket sales brought in a record $4.35 billion in 2010, that was due to higher prices.
The grim reality is that attendance has fallen for the past three summers, reaching its lowest level last summer since 1997.
So what gives? Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Hollywood.com, said alternative ways of watching movies from the likes of Netflix, Hulu and video on demand are giving movie theaters a run for their money.
"The immediacy of online delivery has created a competitive landscape for theatrical movie going," Dergarabedian told Reuters.
Not that going to the multiplex is in danger of becoming extinct -- so long as the product is good.
A year after "Iron Man," "Twilight" and "Shrek" sequels pulled in summer crowds, the studios are front loading many of their potential blockbusters early.
Summer cannot come soon enough for Hollywood with 2011 sales to date of $2.7 billion, down nearly 18 percent from last year.
"The cavalry is on its way to get the momentum going, so it's all about big names and big franchises," Dergarabedian said.
Guns might not be blazing, but hammers will certainly be pounding when the Marvel comic adaptation "Thor" -- with a reported production budget of $150 million -- kicks things off on May 6. Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth stars in the title role as the God of Thunder.
Following in quick succession will be a fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie (May 20), "Hangover" and "Kung Fu Panda" sequels (May 26) and "X-Men: First Class," (June 3) a prequel to the franchise.
Before the season ends in September, two more superhero comic books will come to life including "Green Lantern" (June 17) and "Captain America: The First Avenger" (July 22).
Summer inevitably pits earthlings against intergalactic aggressors. Aliens will have two shots: in "Star Trek" director J.J. Abrams' 1979-set "Super 8" (June 10); and in the sci-fi western "Cowboys & Aliens," starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford (July 29).
On July 1, those shape-shifting robots return for a third attempt at taking over civilization in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." Primates stake their claim on August 5 in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a prequel starring James Franco.
But no doubt the biggest battle will occur on July 15 between wizards and witches, Muggles and Squibs, half-bloods and humans as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2" closes the chapter on the biggest movie franchise of all time.
With kids out of school, plenty of family films are on offer. But familiarity abounds. Offerings include a wishfully titled book adaptation, "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer" (May 20), "Cars 2" (June 24), "The Smurfs" (July 29), and "Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World 3D" (August 19).
Prefer some raunch with your popcorn? Edgy comedies are coming out full force this summer. A sequel to 2009's surprise hit "The Hangover," opens on May 26. Two weeks earlier, on May 13, the ladies get to live it up in "Bridesmaids."
Justin Timberlake stars in a pair of adult comedies, reuniting with real-life ex-girlfriend Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher" (June 24) and teaming with Mila Kunis for "Friends With Benefits" (July 22).
"It's at the point now where there are as many raunchy comedies as there are comic book movies," said Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly. "Every studio is chasing 'The Hangover.'"
Some big stars are involved in more down to earth, serious fare to counter program all the special effects and animation.
On July 1st, Tom Hanks directs and stars as a recently axed worker in "Larry Crowne" opposite Julia Roberts; Brad Pitt and Sean Penn delve into family relationships in Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" on May 27th; and 1960s racism is explored in the big screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel "The Help" on August 12th.
"It's important that the older audience not be neglected in the summer," said Dave White, film critic for Movies.com. "They may not rush out opening weekend to see a film, but they want to see movies about adult human beings in adult situations."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)