By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood is remaking one of its most cherished traditions: the summer blockbuster.
Unlike last year, when every summer weekend seemed to bring one or more mega-budget films, this year studios have spread out their most expensive entries for the warm weather months that traditionally make up roughly 40 percent of annual ticket sales.
This year, the parade of super heroes, animated films and big-budget sequels started two months earlier, in March instead of May.
So far, moviegoers are lining up. Six films released since March 7 have passed or are nearing $100 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, according to tracking firm Rentrak. Walt Disney Co's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has collected $225 million so far. "Divergent" from Lions Gate Entertainment Corp has earned $139 million, and Fox's "Rio 2" has grossed $96 million.
In the same period last year, only three releases had reached that mark. This year's early start to summer has pushed the 2014 box office to $3.1 billion, a 9.4 percent hike from last year, according to Rentrak.
"I'd rather have us in April with relatively no competition than in July with a huge movie ahead of us and a huge movie behind us," Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said of the release strategy for "Captain America." "It's hard to find dates."
"Captain America" set an April record when its opening weekend sales hit $95 million. With no other big-screen superheroes to battle, the Marvel Studios sequel topped domestic box office charts for three straight weeks, a feat that's hard to accomplish in the busy summer.
Last year, Hollywood executives overloaded the summer season with 18 larger-budget sequels, animated and action "tent pole" films in the 18 weeks from May to the end of August, according to Box Office Mojo, and suffered an unusually large number of bombs, such as Disney's $215 million budgeted "The Lone Ranger," and the $130 million "R.I.P.D." from Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures.
This year, roughly a dozen big-budget movies will reach theaters during that time, according to Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co.
Hollywood concentrates its biggest films in the summer because teens and college students are out of school and families take vacations, freeing up time for moviegoing and increasing ticket sales during weekdays.
The migration of blockbuster wannabes to March and April comes two decades after Hollywood began scheduling its summer box office contenders in May. The 1996 film "Twister" opened with $41 million, and these days the first weekend in May ranks among the biggest of the year.
"The earlier the tent poles debut, the better the chance they have of getting the signal out from the noise," Lynda Obst, a film producer and author of the book "Sleepless in Hollywood," said in an interview. By August, she said, "the audience has been deluged with the biggest product the studios have, and pretty much all of their best marketing tricks."
The spring hits have steered clear of this year's summer pileup, which begins on Friday with the domestic debut of Sony's hugely anticipated "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."
"Godzilla," from Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, roars into theaters on May 16, followed by Fox's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" on May 23 and Paramount's "Transformers: Age of Extinction" on June 27.
"Individually, these films could be strong, but three are slated to release in a three-week period and may cannibalize each other," Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible said in a research note.
Theater owners, who have long advocated spacing out the films to keep seats filled throughout the year, are the biggest fans of the move. "We could sell even more tickets if they spread out more evenly throughout the year," John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told the group's CinemaCon convention in March.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Ronald Grover and Frances Kerry)