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"Spider-Man 3" opens this week. It's the first big entry as we approach a summer jammed with blockbusters that might feel familiar. Soon to follow "Spider-Man 3" are "Shrek The Third," and the latest installment of "The Pirates of the Caribbean" series, and "Evan Almighty," which comes after "Bruce Almighty." You can see another Harry Potter film, and "Oceans Thirteen," which is the follow-up to "Ocean's Eleven" and "Ocean's Twelve."

NPR's Kim Masters has the latest in our 37-part series on sequels.

KIM MASTERS: The studios are betting that audiences will crowd into theaters this summer, and they better be right. They're gambling more than $1 billion to make and market big sequels, and that's just counting the three that open in May. First out of the box is the third "Spider-Man." Sony Pictures says it isn't so, but this is probably the most expensive movie ever made.

(Soundbite of movie, "Spider-Man 3")

Mr. TOBEY MAGUIRE (Actor): (As Peter Parker) Listen to me. I didn't kill your father. He was trying to kill me. He killed himself.

Unidentified Man (Actor): Shut up!

MASTERS: Sony says the latest "Spider-Man" cost about $270 million, but several industry sources say the number has passed $350 million. That would be a record. But Sony is hardly the only studio to spend vast amounts trying to create a spectacle that will satisfy the audience's appetite. Disney is also believed to have crossed the $300-million mark on the latest in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series.

Mr. DICK COOK (Chairman, Walt Disney Studio): The amount of bells and whistles and tools that filmmakers now have at their disposal you never had before.

MASTERS: Dick Cook is the chairman of the Walt Disney Studio, and he says all the new technology has created daunting challenges for film executives. In the old days, if the director didn't like the way some footage came out, it simply wound up on the cutting room floor.

Mr. COOK: Well, now through digital redoing things you can take something and change it, and you can move it around and you put it in the movie and say, ah, it's still not quite right. Well, let's re-do it. And with today's technology you can do almost anything.

MASTERS: And the ability to do almost anything opens the door to constant expensive tweaking. But even before a studio gets to that challenge it has to deal with human performers, filmmakers and stars like Tobey Maguire and Johnny Depp who demand big fees and pieces of the profits. Stacey Snider is chief executive of DreamWorks, which has another effects-driven film, "Transformers" coming out in July. With success, she observes, a studio must pay to keep that talent in the sequels.

Ms. STACEY SNIDER (Chief Executive Officer, DreamWorks): You want it to happen but you have to turn around and say, all right, you know, when Tobey started in the "Spider-Man" movies, for example, he wasn't a big star. Well now he's a big star and the expectations for the effects are greater also.

MASTERS: The studios struggle to give up no more than 25 percent of the profit to the key filmmakers and actors. But while the cost of the talent is enormous, at least it's predictable. Snider says the price of the special effects is very difficult to know in advance.

Ms. SNIDER: When you get an effects budget for a film that has so many effects, that relies on effects for a big part of its value, you have to view that budget as a range.

MASTERS: The high-octane directors who have the skill to get these types of movies made also have the clout to push for the shots they want. Their goal is to achieve the maximum bang without necessarily worrying about the buck. Shooting a big effects sequence can easily cost more than $1 million a day. As Disney's Dick Cook knows, that can put a studio on a treacherous path.

Ms. COOK: You go that direction, and once you get into it, then it just starts to multiply and add up. And before you know it, you're, you know, not only exceeding your budget but you're way over budget. And there is no - it's like there is no turning back because you're already into it so deeply.

MASTERS: Cook says the studio can only try to hang on to control. Thorough planning is imperative to ensure that the studio and the director share one vision from the start. And then the studio has to keep a careful eye on the director.

Mr. COOK: You want someone who's got to constantly push the envelope, and at the same time you want a producer or a production manager or someone that is there every step along the way so you know, yeah, we can afford to do that. We have to figure out a different way of doing it. Or if you want this, here is what you're going to have to give up.

MASTERS: In the second "Pirates of the Caribbean," Cook says, the studio have to bite the bullet when it came to creating Davy Jones, the complicated, many tentacled character played by Bill Nighy.

(Soundbite of movie, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest")

Mr. BILL NIGHY (Actor): (As Davy Jones) You have a debt to pay. You've been captain of the Black Pearl for 13 years. That was our agreement.

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As Captain Jack Sparrow) Technically, I was only captain for two years, then I was viciously mutinied upon.

Mr. NIGHY: (As Davy Jones) Then you were a poor captain, but a captain nonetheless.

MASTERS: Davy Jones has an even bigger role in the new movie so Cook says it was essential to get the character right. The movie wound up winning an Oscar for visual effects.

Mr. COOK: But besides that, it made the movie better. And those are the things that - these are all judgment calls that are made. You know, is it something that's going to make people want to see the movie again? Is it going to set up another movie? Is it something that it enhances it, or is it just something that's nice to have but you really don't need it?

MASTERS: In the case of "Pirates," Disney tried to control costs by making the second and the third installments at the same time. Cook says the savings turned out to be minimal, but there was some advantage in that the studio kept a stable of stars lined up for both sequels.

Rather than waiting a couple of years or more between films, Disney had the second "Pirates" movie last summer, released the DVD during the holidays, and will open the next installment this month.

Mr. COOK: It's just kind of a rolling thing. And as long as the marketplace was still on fire for "Pirates," it's great to be able to do that and we don't have to rekindle it. It's already there.

MASTERS: Despite all the planning, Disney is still racing expensively to finish "Pirates." But the same thing happened to Sony with "Spider-Man." Since the summer is short and very crowded, changing the release date of one of these big movies is not an option.

This spring, every special effects house in the business has been jammed with work. Stacey Snider says that can push the studios into reckless spending.

Ms. SNIDER: The price of each shot can go up because you cannot afford to push off the release date to accommodate a more rational post-production schedule.

MASTERS: Some are wondering which studio, if any, will get hurt in a summer that includes so many big films. But while the studios may have laid out record sums on their films, industry analyst are predicting a record box-office take as audiences line up to be dazzled, or at least distracted.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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