Nation roundup for April 29


‘Iron Man 3’ rules world, ‘Pain & Gain’ takes US

LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Iron Man 3” was the heavy-lifter at theaters with a colossal overseas debut that overshadowed a gang of mercenary bodybuilders in a sleepy pre-summer weekend at the domestic box office.

The Marvel Studios superhero sequel starring Robert Downey Jr. got a head-start on its domestic launch next Friday with a $195.3 million opening in 42 overseas markets, distributor Disney reported Sunday.

That topped the $185.1 million start for Marvel’s “The Avengers,” which opened in 39 markets over the same weekend last year a week ahead of its record-breaking domestic debut of $207.4 million.

“You don’t know that you could ever repeat the kind of experience we had a year ago, and here the Marvel team brought together another incredible movie,” said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney. “We’ve had this as a pattern for Marvel films to kind of let momentum internationally help signal to the domestic audience that the film is coming, something big is coming.”

Director Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain,” a true-crime tale of bodybuilders on the make, muscled into first-place domestically with a $20 million debut.

The Paramount release starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie knocked off Tom Cruise’s sci-fi adventure “Oblivion” after a week in the No. 1 spot. Universal’s “Oblivion” slipped to second-place with $17.4 million, raising its domestic total to $64.7 million.

Lionsgate’s all-star nuptial comedy “The Big Wedding” tanked at No. 4 with just $7.5 million. The ensemble cast includes Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon and Katherine Heigl, but the movie was almost universally trashed by critics and held little interest for audiences.

Paramount, which distributed the earlier “Iron Man” movies and still has a financial stake in the comic-book flicks after Disney bought Marvel, had a small-scale success with “Pain & Gain.”

A passion project for Bay, who has made Paramount a fortune with his “Transformers” franchise, “Pain & Gain” was shot for a modest $26 million, spare change compared to the director’s usual budgets.

The movie has the director taking a breather from his usual sci-fi action spectacles for a story based on a kidnapping-extortion caper carried out by bodybuilders in the 1990s. Yet “Pain & Gain” still has Bay’s usual visual flair, and the reviews generally were better than what he’s used to.

“With that kind of budget, to open to $20 million the first weekend is a very strong opening,” said Don Harris, Paramount’s head of distribution. “You see what a director really in his prime, at the top of his game, can do with a small budget, what he can make a movie look like.”

“Oblivion” was down a fairly steep 53 percent from the movie’s $37.1 million domestic debut the previous weekend.

Overseas, “Oblivion” took in $12.8 million to lift its international haul to $134.1 million and worldwide total to just under $200 million.

Hollywood’s domestic downturn continued, with revenues totaling $90 million, off 18.5 percent from the same weekend last year, when “Think Like a Man” led with $17.6 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.

Receipts have trailed 2012’s for most of the year, with 2013 domestic ticket sales running at $2.9 billion, nearly 12 percent behind last year’s.

That pattern could continue as Hollywood opens its summer season domestically this coming weekend. Despite a huge haul expected for “Iron Man 3,” the film will be competing against that gigantic start over the same weekend last year for “The Avengers,” the only movie to open with more than $200 million domestically.

“Iron Man 2” debuted with $128.1 million over the first weekend in May 2010. Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian has been pegging the “Iron Man 3” potential at $125 million-plus, though the mammoth international start could fire up domestic prospects even higher.

“This ups the ante in a big way for “Iron Man 3,” Dergarabedian said. “It just raises the profile of the film. It raises expectations. But to expect something in the realm of $207.4 million? Well, the fact that we’re even talking about it is really amazing.”

Said Disney’s Hollis: “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves on something like that. But to say we’re encouraged by the results this weekend would be a gross understatement.”

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

Internet sales tax bill to hit roadblock in House

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill to require Internet shoppers to pay sales taxes for online purchases may be cruising through the Senate but it will soon hit a roadblock in the House.

“There’s a lot of political difficulty getting through the fog of it looking like a tax increase,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., one of the main sponsors of the bill in the House.

The bill would empower states to reach outside their borders and compel online retailers to collect state and local sales taxes for purchases made over the Internet. Under the bill, the sales taxes would be sent to the states where a shopper lives.

Under current law, states can only require stores to collect sales taxes if the store has a physical presence in the state. As a result, many online sales are essentially tax-free, giving Internet retailers an advantage over brick-and-mortar stores.

Womack says the bill is not a tax increase. Instead, he says, it simply gives states a mechanism to enforce current taxes.

In many states, shoppers are required to pay unpaid sales taxes when they file state tax returns. But governors complain that few people comply.

The Senate voted 63-30 Thursday to end debate on the bill, though senators delayed a final vote on passage until May 6, when they return from a weeklong vacation. Opponents hope senators hear from angry constituents over the next week, but they acknowledged they have a steep hill to climb to defeat the bill in the Senate.

President Barack Obama supports the bill.

Senate Democratic leaders wanted to finish work on the bill this week, before leaving town for the recess. But they were blocked by a handful of senators from states without sales taxes.

Oregon, Montana, New Hampshire and Delaware have no sales taxes, though the two senators from Delaware support the bill.

“I think it’s going to be interesting for senators to get a response from constituents over this upcoming week,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “I’m not sure that the country knows that something like this coerces businesses all around America to collect other people’s sales taxes.”

The bill pits brick-and-mortar stores like Wal-Mart against online services such as eBay. The National Retail Federation supports it. And Amazon.com, which initially fought efforts in some states to make it collect sales taxes, supports it, too.

Retailers who have lobbied in favor of the bill celebrated Thursday’s vote.

“The special treatment of big online businesses at the expense of retailers on Main Street will soon be a thing of the past,” said Bill Hughes of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “The overwhelmingly bipartisan support for leveling the playing field is rare in today’s political environment and paves the way for a level playing field once and for all.”

Supporters say the bill is about fairness for local businesses that already collect sales taxes and for states that lose revenue. Opponents say the bill would impose complicated regulations on retailers and doesn’t have enough protections for small businesses. Businesses with less than $1 million a year in online sales would be exempt.

Many of the nation’s governors — Republicans and Democrats — have been lobbying the federal government for years for the authority to collect sales taxes from online sales.

The issue is getting bigger for states as more people make purchases online. Last year, Internet sales in the U.S. totaled $226 billion, up nearly 16 percent from the previous year, according to Commerce Department estimates.

The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that states lost $23 billion last year because they couldn’t collect taxes on out-of-state sales.

Anti-tax groups have labeled the bill a tax increase. But it gets support from many Senate Republicans who have pledged not to increase taxes. The bill’s main sponsor is Sen. Mike Enzi, a conservative Republican from Wyoming. He has worked closely with Sen. Dick Durbin, a liberal Democrat from Illinois.

Under the bill, states that want to collect online sales taxes must provide free computer software to help retailers calculate the taxes, based on where shoppers live. States must also establish a single entity to receive Internet sales tax revenue, so retailers don’t have to send them to individual counties or cities.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of consumers out there that have been accustomed to not having to pay any taxes, believing that they don’t have to pay any taxes,” Womack said. “I totally understand that.”

But, he added, “It’s not a tax increase and states can easily employ the proper software for the people to pay. At the end of the day it becomes more or less a political decision, and I’m not real sure where the House is going to be on it.”

EPA methane report further divides fracking camps

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency has dramatically lowered its estimate of how much of a potent heat-trapping gas leaks during natural gas production, in a shift with major implications for a debate that has divided environmentalists: Does the recent boom in fracking help or hurt the fight against climate change?

Oil and gas drilling companies had pushed for the change, but there have been differing scientific estimates of the amount of methane that leaks from wells, pipelines and other facilities during production and delivery. Methane is the main component of natural gas.

The new EPA data is “kind of an earthquake” in the debate over drilling, said Michael Shellenberger, the president of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental group based in Oakland, Calif. “This is great news for anybody concerned about the climate and strong proof that existing technologies can be deployed to reduce methane leaks.”

The scope of the EPA’s revision was vast. In a mid-April report on greenhouse emissions, the agency now says that tighter pollution controls instituted by the industry resulted in an average annual decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, or more than 850 million metric tons overall. That’s about a 20 percent reduction from previous estimates. The agency converts the methane emissions into their equivalent in carbon dioxide, following standard scientific practice.

The EPA revisions came even though natural gas production has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990. The industry has boomed in recent years, thanks to a stunning expansion of drilling in previously untapped areas because of the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which injects sand, water and chemicals to break apart rock and free the gas inside.

Experts on both sides of the debate say the leaks can be controlled by fixes such as better gaskets, maintenance and monitoring. Such fixes are also thought to be cost-effective, since the industry ends up with more product to sell.

“That is money going up into the air,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, adding he isn’t surprised the EPA’s new data show more widespread use of pollution control equipment. Pielke noted that the success of the pollution controls also means that the industry “probably can go further” in reducing leaks.

Representatives of the oil and gas industry said the EPA revisions show emissions from the fracking boom can be managed.

“The methane ‘leak’ claim just got a lot more difficult for opponents” of natural gas, noted Steve Everley, with Energy In Depth, an industry-funded group.

In a separate blog post, Everley predicted future reductions, too.

“As technologies continue to improve, it’s hard to imagine those methane numbers going anywhere but down as we eagerly await the next installment of this EPA report,” Everley wrote.

One leading environmentalist argued the EPA revisions don’t change the bigger picture.

“We need a dramatic shift off carbon-based fuel: coal, oil and also gas,” Bill McKibbern, the founder of 350.org, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Natural gas provides at best a kind of fad diet, where a dangerously overweight patient loses a few pounds and then their weight stabilizes; instead, we need at this point a crash diet, difficult to do” but needed to limit the damage from climate change.

The EPA said it made the changes based on expert reviews and new data from several sources, including a report funded by the oil and gas industry. But the estimates aren’t based on independent field tests of actual emissions, and some scientists said that’s a problem.

Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor of ecology who led a 2011 methane leak study that is widely cited by critics of fracking, wrote in an email that “time will tell where the truth lies in all this, but I think EPA is wrong.”

Howarth said other federal climate scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have published recent studies documenting massive methane leaks from natural gas operations in Colorado and other Western states.

Howarth wrote that the EPA seems “to be ignoring the published NOAA data in their latest efforts, and the bias on industry only pushing estimates downward — never up — is quite real. EPA badly needs a counter-acting force, such as outside independent review of their process.”

The issue of methane leaks has caused a major split between environmental groups.

Since power plants that burn natural gas emit about half the amount of the greenhouse gases as coal-fired power, some say that the gas drilling boom has helped the U.S. become the only major industrialized country to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions. But others believe the methane leaks negate any benefits over coal, since methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas.

The new EPA figures still show natural gas operations as the leading source of methane emissions in the U.S., at about 145 million metric tons in 2011. The next biggest source was enteric fermentation, scientific jargon for belches from cows and other animals, at 137 million metric tons. Landfills were the third-biggest source, at 103 million metric tons.

But the EPA estimates that all the sources of methane combined still account for only 9 percent of greenhouse gases, even taking into account methane’s more potent heat-trapping.

The EPA said it is still seeking more data and feedback on the issue of methane leaks, so the report may change again in the future.

The EPA revisions have international implications, too. The agency says the new report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, was submitted to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change by an April 15 deadline.

 

Rules for posting comments