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'Pirates' May Not Save the Summer Box Office

For some time now, box-office tracking has shown explosive demand for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, sequel to the 2003 adventure. Some in the industry think the film could pass Spider-Man's opening-weekend record of $115 million.

It's a surprising outcome for a picture that features Johnny Depp as a pirate who wears eye-liner. Disney owes everything to the originality of Depp's characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow. When studio chairman Dick Cook met with Depp a few years ago about possible projects, Depp said he'd been watching lots of Disney movies with his kids and wanted to make one himself.

Cook scrambled for an idea and came up with the Pirates concept. It was just the embryo of an idea. There was no script; there was barely even an outline. To his agent's consternation, Cook says, Depp committed on the spot and insisted that he would play the rogue.

The whole thing was an enormous risk: There had been some big pirate-movie bombs, and co-stars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom weren't that well known. Depp was seen as a great quirky actor, but hardly a bankable star.

The film went on to gross more than $300 million in the United States alone. Box-office analyst Brandon Gray expects the Pirates sequel to have the biggest opening of the year, though he has doubts that the film can smash Spider-Man's record.

Gray also thinks that no matter how great the audience appetite, Pirates won't be enough to reverse the industry's flagging fortunes this summer.

The numbers may not be falling, Gray says, but with the middling performance of films that deal in the familiar, such as Mission: Impossible 3 and Superman Returns, the studios still need to find ways to hold on to their audience.

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Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.