LOS ANGELES - It's summertime at the movies, the season of getting-to-know-you-all-over-again as audiences reacquaint themselves with old screen pals such as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Iron Man, Shrek and that Karate Kid.
Yet new ideas occasionally pop up even in Hollywood, the place that thrives on sequels, remakes, spinoffs and adaptations based on best-selling novels, TV shows, comic books or toys.
Among this summer's handful of original stories are Tom Cruise's "Knight and Day," Angelina Jolie's "Salt" and Leonardo DiCaprio's "Inception," from "The Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan.
With old standbys such as "Sex and the City 2," "Robin Hood" and "The A-Team" falling short of box-office expectations, fresh concepts play a bigger role in determining the success of Hollywood's summer.
"Inception" in particular has the industry and fans captivated, coming from a filmmaker with a track record for blockbuster entertainment that's also bold and smart.
Starring DiCaprio as a man using technology to sneak into people's dreams and steal their ideas, "Inception" arrives in theaters Friday with the best buzz for an original story since James Cameron's "Avatar" last December.
At $2.7 billion worldwide, "Avatar" leads the box-office charts, hurtling past "Harry Potter," "Spider-Man" and other franchise adaptations.
"I would like to say we were very encouraged by the success of 'Avatar'," Nolan said with a big laugh.
For many fans, "Avatar" was as groundbreaking a movie experience as one of the prime cinema adventures of Nolan's boyhood, "Star Wars."
"That was an entire world that didn't exist anywhere else before. It only existed in that movie, and then your brain lived in it for a couple of hours, and it stuck with you," Nolan said.
"Ever since I saw that film, whether I knew it or not, my ambition has been to give the audience that kind of experience," Nolan continued. "To create a world that they hadn't expected before and hadn't seen before and let them lose themselves in it. ... There's a huge advantage of jumping into something original that can be anything."
So, why does Hollywood keep coming back to the same old things? Simple. It pays better.
Most of the movies that draw colossal audiences are based on something that existed before. Familiarity sometimes can breed contempt as audiences tire of characters, but it's generally easier to get fans to buy tickets for the latest in a continuing saga.
Studios are not likely to change their ways unless they sense audiences would rather see new things over the tried and true.
"It really is up to the audience and critics. A lot of people jump on Hollywood for that, but the truth is, if they'll come, we'll make them," said producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, whose credits include the toy-inspired "Transformers" flicks and Jolie's upcoming spy thriller "Salt."
"The audience leads us where we're going to go. Every once and a while, we get ahead of the audience," said di Bonaventura, who as an executive at Warner Bros. oversaw another original idea with the sci-fi sensation "The Matrix." "There was no indication the audience wanted that kind of movie, yet when we delivered it, it was clear they did. ... It's a scary thing to take on the unfamiliar, knowing the audience has embraced the familiar so strongly."
Star power can help. "Salt," opening July 23, casts Jolie as an American agent on the run after she's accused of being a Russian mole. Cruise plays a rogue agent in "Knight and Day," dragging along a reluctant civilian (Cameron Diaz) on his mission.
With an unfamiliar scenario and Cruise's uncertain box-office appeal after interview outbursts and erratic behavior a few years back, "Knight and Day," which debuted last month, was a big gamble in a town always looking for the sure thing. Its box office performance has been mediocre.
"I completely understand the studios' position, which is really built on the idea of minimizing risk. And the great risk for every original film is, it's an entirely new product line," said "Knight and Day" director James Mangold. "Who wants to introduce a new Gillette razor every year? You'd rather just make Trac II into Trac III into Trac IV. You liked it with four blades? Now it's got five."
And the numbers continue to support that model. The year's biggest opening weekends so far belong to sequels and adaptations - "Iron Man 2," "Alice in Wonderland," "The Twilight Sage: Eclipse" and "Toy Story 3," a rare sequel from Pixar Animation, the one outfit that consistently turns original concepts into blockbuster business.
Even when audiences seem sick of a franchise, they can turn up in huge numbers.
"Shrek Forever After," the fourth installment in the series, was trashed by critics and had an opening weekend far below those of "Shrek 2" and "Shrek the Third." It still has hung on to become a $200 million smash, though.
"Often you do go, 'Wow, really? That again? Didn't we already see that movie?'" said Diaz, who reprised her voice role in "Shrek Forever After." "But it just goes with beloved characters. People are often coming up to me, asking is there going to be another 'Shrek,' is there going to be another 'Charlie's Angels'?"
While sequels have been around since the early years of film, the franchise has become Hollywood's core business today, beginning with such boldly original hits as "Star Wars," "Alien" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the 1970s and '80s.
"Movies had to find a new formula, and when the old ones weren't working anymore, they reached for their imaginations," Mangold said. "I can only hope and expect that it's going to happen again."