Jason Solomons on this summer's blockbusters

Last year's blockbusters did badly for Hollywood's big studios, but Cruise and Hanks lead the charge for a bigger bang this time round. Jason Solomons guides you through the 10 most likely summer smashes

After the stately procession of handsome, prestige films that form the awards season comes the quick-fire, smash-and-grab raid that is the Hollywood summer. If studios were concerned that high-profile awards winners such as Brokeback Mountain, Crash and Capote did not exactly entice huge audiences into the theatres, then the forthcoming summer blockbuster period is their chance to set things right.

The stakes are especially high this year because last summer was such a disappointing one for the Hollywood studios. A string of movies failed to set the cash registers ringing over the holidays. Batman Begins was a critical hit but its dark tones and lengthy plot build-up resulted in lower box office than predicted. The seemingly dead-cert combination of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise underperformed with War of the Worlds. Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe, fared no better, while Mr and Mrs Smith was only notable because it marked the start of Brad and Angelina's relationship. Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse The Dukes of Hazzard came out. Only Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, part of a stand-alone phenomenon, behaved like a blockbuster. The cheaper, less effects-driven, comic films turned the biggest profits with hits such as The Wedding Crashers and Hitch.

Analysts could justly have expected the studios to rein things in, spending less money and perhaps coming up with more original ideas and smarter scripts. But the coming months appear peppered with a familiar line-up: big budget projects, remakes, TV transfers, trusted brands and franchises. On closer inspection, however, the mix appears to have been selected judiciously.

'It looks like being a very strong summer,' says Robert Mitchell, managing director of Buena Vista UK. 'Last year's box office didn't pick up until Harry Potter and Narnia did amazing business at the end of the year. But I think the studios now have a few big summer hits on their hands.'

Mitchell's own studio, Disney, is perhaps looking at the biggest hit of all with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest. The film does, however, represent one of the year's biggest gambles, being the most expensive film in Disney's history. For Mitchell and his colleagues at the House of Mouse, failure is not an option. 'The first Pirates film was a gamble,' he says. 'Privately, we all thought it was actually a bad idea and its success surprised us. But now Keira Knightley's a much bigger star, as is Orlando Bloom. Johnny Depp has always been a great actor but he had one of last year's highest-grossing films in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so he's now a proven box-office draw too.'

Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible III looks like giving the season a solid start this week, despite the uncertainty surrounding the star's recent image makeover. Last week's four-hour Leicester Square walkabout proves he's as popular (and narcissistic) as ever. Even when Mission: Impossible 2 was panned by critics, it earned fortunes around the world.

Warners' Superman Returns is surely guaranteed a large return, given the enduring popularity of the superhero star - the studio was even prepared to risk casting the unknown Brandon Routh in the lead. Sony's The Da Vinci Code has a vast ready-made audience of fans eager to see how their favourite book (in many cases, the only book they've read this year) has been adapted to the screen. XMen: The Last Stand can also bank on fans willing to complete the set. Only Poseidon, a remake of the 1972 cruise-ship disaster movie, looks less than watertight - but Titanic was hardly a flop.

A Pixar-animated feature is usually a box-office banker, although the long-delayed Cars represents some sort of risk. Pixar is now part of the Disney empire, bought at great cost to restore the domination the company used to have over the animated world. Indeed, if a Pixar film isn't a giant hit, it will be deemed a disappointment. Mitchell is one of the few who has seen it. 'It's fantastic,' he says, adding: 'Though, of course, I would say that. But it's more A Bug's Life than it is The Incredibles, and it's got that charm and appeal that makes it something we can keep running all through the summer.' Mitchell admits to stealing a tactic from rival studio Warner Bros, which kept Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in cinemas for seven weeks last summer and built it into one of the year's biggest successes.

But summer box-office receipts make up only a fraction of a blockbuster's profits. In fact, the feelgood factor lasts even longer: a big summer hit with a carefully-scheduled release date means the DVD of the film will be available in time for Christmas, generating revenues almost as great as those garnered by admissions. And then there are the toys. Which this year promise to be even more prominent than usual with films like Cars and Superman Returns. 'Superman isn't caught up in the same angst that other characters like Spider-Man or Batman are,' says Gaetano Mastropasqua, Warners' vice president of global promotions. 'Superman stands for truth, justice and a positive way of life.' This summer the man in tights will also be advocating Pepsi, Burger King and Duracell as part of the movie's promotional tie-ins.

The large shadows cast by the blockbusters generally leave room for a few surprise hits. Studios have grown wise to this and, rather than allow independent distributors to feed off the crumbs from their table, command specialist 'quality' divisions of their own (such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics) to look out for foreign-language titles or more literate scripts that may attract rarefied audiences. Disney has violent but atmospheric Venezuelan kidnap drama Secuestro Express. Warners has similar niche hopes for Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, while Fox will be looking to comic satire Thank You For Smoking, with its starry cast of cameos including Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.

For British executives, blockbuster-scale success is defined at the £30m mark. Mitchell, for example, expects no less than around £35m from his Pirates and Cars. In America, the magic number used to be $100m, but that merely denotes a decent return these days. For a blockbuster to be deemed a hit, it must surpass $150m. A back-slapping, high- fiving, $200m-busting domestic smash will probably get the executive behind it a better parking space on the studio lot.

1 Mission: Impossible III

Release date: Thursday.

The cast: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Monaghan, Simon Pegg, Laurence Fishburne.

The idea: Ethan Hunt returns after six years in development. Expect running around (locations include Beijing, Rome and Virginia), exploding bridges and people looking at computers. Oscar-winner Seymour Hoffman is the bad guy.

The background: Cruise is the biggest star in the world and the M:I franchise is a surefire hit start to the blockbuster season (M:I 2 grossed more than $550m worldwide). He has the added promotional clout of a new baby but, as producer, he went through two directors (David Fincher and Joe Carnahan) before enlisting JJ Abrams after the success of TV's Lost. Abrams promises to examine how Hunt's job affects his personal life.

Prospects: Solid. Cruise is out on his own. Trusted franchise rivals such as X-Men: The Last Stand and Pirates of the Caribbean 2 come later.

2 The Da Vinci Code

Release date: 19 May.

The cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina.

The idea: Take one of the biggest-selling novels ever (60 million copies so far) and translate it to the big screen. Shouldn't be too hard, given it was written like a screenplay in the first place.

The background: Controversy has followed at every turn - cathedrals refused filming, high courts judged and Jacques Chirac tried to interfere with casting. But director Ron Howard and his regular screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, should be capable of appeasing armies of fans who have their own ideas of how the book should look. Even footballers have read it.

Prospects: Euro credentials are boosted by opening the Cannes Film Festival, but critical reception could be harsh in such a snobbishly intellectual environment. American religious groups may mobilise against it.

3 Poseidon

Release date: 2 June. The cast: Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Mía Maestro.

The idea: Take a 1972 disaster movie favourite and redo all the stuff made easier by advances in technology. Get a guy, Wolfgang Petersen, who knows how to direct on ships and water.

The background: Petersen did Das Boot, The Perfect Storm and Troy, so has launched more than a thousand ships. It's not all technology, with vast water tanks constructed on the Warners lot. 'I turned blue and my skin shrivelled up,' says Mía Maestro after weeks of submersion.

Prospects: No big stars and competing fond memories of Shelley Winters. Plus remakes rarely work. And if it's raining a lot, who wants to see more water?

4 Thank You For Smoking

Release date: 16 June.

The cast: Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, Maria Bello, William H Macy, Sam Elliott, Rob Lowe, Robert Duvall.

The idea: Eckhart is a spin-doctor for the Big Tobacco company. His life crumbles when an investigative reporter (Katie Holmes) probes his ways while he tries to be a role model for young son. The summer's only satrical political comedy.

The background: Director Jason Reitman has come in for some criticism for allegedly cutting nudity in sex scenes with Katie Holmes, with conspiracy theorists sensing the Scientolological hands of Tom Cruise. The star-filled comedy takes a lead from recent meandering political films such as John Sayles's Silver City.

Prospects: Reitman takes on his own dad - Ivan Reitman has a weird-sounding rom com out, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, in which Uma Thurman becomes super-vengeful after being dumped by Luke Wilson.

5 The Lake House

Release date: 23 June.

The cast: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Christopher Plummer.

The idea: In a summer of football and action flicks, this is Hollywood's feminine option. Sandra Bullock is a doctor who enters into a correspondence with the new owner of her old house, only to discover they're two years apart from each other. What?

The background: An obvious attempt to recapture the Speed chemistry of Keanu and Sandra.

The competition: Although this sounds questionable, there are hardly any 'chick flicks' around so it should prosper. The Break-Up, with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston as a couple who split up but still live together could surprise. Robert Redford plays a taciturn rancher in Lasse Hallstrom's An Unfinished Life, with Jennifer Lopez as his estranged daughter-in-law and Morgan Freeman as a weary sidekick (oh, not again).

6 Superman Returns

Release date: 14 July.

The cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Parker Posey.

The idea: Put the world's most popular superhero back on the big screen after an absence of 19 years. It worked for Batman last year, critically if not commercially. Krypton has been destroyed, Lois Lane has a new man and a baby, Lex Luthor has a mountain of Kryptonite. Oh dear.

The background: Bryan Singer left XMen to direct this one, bringing Kevin Spacey with him to introduce a note of Keyser Soze to proceedings (they worked together on The Usual Suspects).

Prospects: Tricky to say. Singer has promised to put Superman's knickers in a twist with moral dilemmas - dark heroes are good but we really like to see them fly and hit people. There's the continuing curse of Superman (Margot Kidder, Christopher Reeve) and who the hell is Brandon Routh?

7 Cars

Release date: 28 July.

The (voice) cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt.

The idea: Cars are people, too. Owen Wilson's sleek racer breaks down in a small town and is befriended by Paul Newman's old banger which helps him back to the big time.

The background: Pixar genius John Lasseter is back writing and directing for the first time since Toy Story 2. This is his most personal story yet, apparently. He's delayed release twice already to get things just right.

Prospects: Over the Hedge and Ant Bully are the other summer animations. Cars don't appeal to girls much, because they're not furry and cute. Expectation is so high after Shrek, and the surprise early success of Ice Age 2, that anything other than a spectacular box office will be deemed a failure.

8 Miami Vice

Release date: 4 August.

The cast: Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Gong Li, Ciaran Hinds, Naomi Taylor.

The idea: No other TV show had an executive producer like Michael Mann, so he should know how best to adapt and direct it for the big screen. Crockett (Farrell) does deep undercover to tackle drug runners in Cuba while Tubbs (Foxx) follows above ground - expect Heat-style gun battles.

The background: Foxx persuaded Mann to do it during filming on Ali. The pastel jackets with rolled-up sleeves aesthetic has been updated; the 'attitude' is what's been kept. There'll still be speedboats, clubs and bling.

Prospects: Small-screen transfers have been rubbish but this could be the only adult thriller on the block and, as such, has the field to itself. Fast and Furious 3: Tokyo Drift will be fast and silly, Samuel L Jackson's Snakes on a Plane is, at best, a B-movie giggle and M Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water is billed as 'a bedtime story', which doesn't sound promising.

9 Nacho Libre

Release date: 11 August.

The cast: Jack Black, Carla Jimenez, Peter Stormare.

The idea: Get those guys from School of Rock and Napoleon Dynamite together and give me a summer sleeper comedy hit. Jack Black is duly directed by Jared Hess, playing a mild-mannered friar in a Mexican orphanage. To save the kids and nuns from closure, Black enters a wrestling competition.

The background: Black and co-writer Mike White are a formidable and experienced comic team, as are the off beat, Midwestern sibling pairing of director Jared and co-writer Jerusha Hess who were behind Napoleon Dynamite - but will it all gel?

Prospects: School of Rock was massive, Napoleon Dynamite a cult hit. Wedding Crashers was the big comic hit of last summer and their main comic rival will be You, Me and Dupree, starring Owen Wilson, who moves in with newly wed best mate Matt Dillon and wife Kate Hudson, making their early matrimonial life far from blissful.

10 Volver

Release date: 25 August.

The cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas.

The idea: Carmen Maura's ghost goes back to her home town to sort out all the problems she failed to resolve during her life. Volver means 'to return'. Pedro Almodóvar blends recent themes such as memory and death (Bad Education and Talk to Her) with the female-lead comedy of early films such as Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

The background: Almodóvar returns to his roots, with his most personal film yet, based on memories of growing up surrounded by the women who visited his mother's hairdressing shop.

Prospects: Cannes will provide an international launch pad and August has become the traditional release for Almodóvar films in the UK. Foreign-language opposition includes Stray Dogs, Three Times and To Die in San Hilario, but Almodóvar and his female stars should have a clear run to become the arthouse hit of the summer.


Jason Solomons

The GuardianTramp

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