American icons blaze a trail to theaters

| Sunday, July 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It's American idol, big-screen edition.

Some of the nation's most enduring icons, from literature to sports, are suddenly filling the multiplex.

And ringing up profits. Consider the recent spate of hits from homegrown legends:

“The Great Gatsby”: The adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic is the surprise hit of the year. The Leonardo DiCaprio drama stunned analysts with $142 million, the eighth-highest grossing film of 2013.

“42”: The story of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier marked the highest debut on record for a baseball film at $28 million. The Harrison Ford movie stands at $95 million, making it the second-biggest baseball film, behind only 1992's “A League of Their Own” at $108 million.

“The Wizard of Oz” and “Superman: “Oz the Great and Powerful” muscled $235 million at the box office, while “Man of Steel” has soared to $249 million and counting, getting the franchise aloft for the first time in a quarter century.

The made-in-the-USA parade continues over this past weekend as Johnny Depp's “The Lone Ranger” gallops into theaters.

Once fodder for awards circles and art-house theaters, American legends are striking a sentimental chord among moviegoers.

“There's something about these characters that have appealed to every generation since they were invented,” says “Lone Ranger” producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Analysts expect the Western to do at least $130 million.

The trend continues through the year. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton star in the documentary “Salinger.” The author biography hits screens Sept. 6. And James Thurber's short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” arrives Christmas Day.

“They're America's original superheroes,” says Paul Dergarabedian, box office president of “And they're making money like superhero movies.”

Analysts credit America's 16th president with freeing American icons from the box-office doldrums. Last year, Steven Spielberg's biopic “Lincoln” racked up an astonishing $182 million. Audiences haven't been able to get enough since.

“It can't be long until we get the big-budget George Washington story,” says Jeff Bock, vice president of industry trackers Exhibitor Relations. “Suddenly, this is a genre audiences are willing to pay for.”

Bock credits the surge more to storytelling than nostalgia. “We wouldn't be talking about these movies if they weren't good,” he says.

Studios, always on the prowl for known properties, see the built-in brand recognition from American icons. “The movies have essentially played like sequels,” Dergarabedian says. “Except history is the prequel.”

Scott Bowles is a staff writer for USA Today.

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