"R.I.P.D." was D.O.A. and "The Lone Ranger" was unable to lasso moviegoers. Yet at summer's end, Hollywood is riding happily off into the sunset thanks to an unexpected number of $100-million-plus hits that drove the seasonal box office to a record.
Total box office revenue in the U.S. and Canada for the May 2-Labor Day period climbed 10.2% over last year to a record $4.7 billion, while attendance rose 6.5% to roughly 572 million, according to Hollywood.com. The average ticket price also hit a new high of $8.23.
The strong business was needed: Heading into the summer, ticket sales were down about 12% compared with the same period in 2012. Four months later, the box office is now about even with last year.
While the season is ending on a positive note, there were certainly plenty of high-profile tales of woe this summer: Sony Pictures' "After Earth" and "White House Down," Walt Disney Studios' "The Lone Ranger" and Universal Pictures' "R.I.P.D." — each of which cost well over $100 million to produce — all flopped in spectacular fashion. But at least 17 movies crossed the $100-million milestone this summer — five more than in summer 2012.
The six highest-grossing films this summer were sequels, prequels or reboots. A few original titles did crack the top 10, however, including the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy buddy-cop comedy "The Heat" and the low-budget horror flick "The Conjuring."
Like last summer, the top earner came from Disney-owned Marvel Entertainment. "Iron Man 3," starring Robert Downey Jr., grossed over $400 million domestically and more than $800 million internationally. Its $1.2 billion global tally is slightly below that of "The Avengers," which ruled the season a year ago with an astounding $1.5-billion haul.
That superheroes triumphed at the multiplex yet again may not be surprising, but there were at least five other more subtle lessons from the summer movie season:
1. Yes, you can have too many cartoons
Six computer-animated films were released this season — two more than in summer 2012 — but only one was a massive hit: "Despicable Me 2," which has raked in $820 million worldwide since its July 3 debut. The film about bouncing yellow Minions from Universal's Illumination Entertainment overpowered the competition, including DreamWorks Animation's "Turbo." That tale of a racing snail came out two weeks after "Despicable Me 2" and has grossed just under $80 million domestically — the second-worst performance ever for a film from Jeffrey Katzenberg's studio.
"The Smurfs 2," which opened at the end of July, proved similarly disappointing. Because the first "Smurfs" made $563 million worldwide in 2011, Sony Pictures expected the sequel to improve upon that figure. But so far, the second film has collected less than half that, and only $67 million domestically.
As for Disney, its Pixar Animation release "Monsters University" got a jump on "Despicable," hitting theaters in June and ending up a hit with over $700 million in global sales. The studio's "Planes," meanwhile, has been far less successful since its August debut with just over $100 million worldwide — but the film only had a budget of $50 million because it was initially slated to go direct-to-DVD.
The possible takeaway here? Sure, kids are out of school, but families may not want a new animated film every two weeks. Which brings us to:
2. Be creative with the calendar
The colder months have traditionally been home to horror films, but Universal decided to open "The Purge" in June, and Warner Bros. followed a month later with "The Conjuring" — each of which played to enthusiastic crowds. "The Conjuring," made for $20 million, was especially profitable, grossing $133 million stateside.
Counterprogramming also paid off for Lionsgate, whose Summit Entertainment launched its stand-up comedy film "Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain" over the July 4 holiday against "The Lone Ranger" and "Despicable Me 2." Playing in no more than 900 theaters, the movie went on to gross $32 million — a win for a film with a $2.5-million budget.
Early summer, meanwhile, is becoming a hotter blockbuster breeding ground. Many of the season's biggest films were released not in July — which has long been thought of as the ideal launching pad for a potential smash — but in May. This year, four of the summer's top 10 films opened in May, versus just two last summer.
3. Doppelgangers were doomed
Yes, audiences have yet to tire of most sequels and remakes. But if your movie resembles another one too closely, it can spell disaster. That may have been the problem with "White House Down," released in July, in which an aspiring Secret Service agent helps protect the president as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue comes under terrorist attack.
Despite its star power — Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx — the Sony movie couldn't top the more modestly budgeted "Olympus Has Fallen," which was released four months earlier by FilmDistrict and centers on a Secret Service agent who tries to stop a North Korean-led attack on the White House. "White House Down" grossed $25 million less domestically than "Olympus" — even though it cost $80 million more to produce.
"R.I.P.D." was another film rejected by audiences perhaps because it seemed redundant. The film about two cops who come back from the dead to fight crime on earth reminded many of the "Men in Black" franchise. Likewise, with its hulking robots, "Pacific Rim" was often compared to the "Transformers" series, and didn't do as well in the U.S. as Warner Bros. hoped.
Moral of the story? Hollywood needs to get more creative, or start putting more space between expensive films with similar themes.
4. Exhibitors are becoming more flexible, and it's paying off
About 89% of the 40,045 screens in the U.S. are digital — up from 75% in August 2012, according to the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. Now, studios don't have to transport heavy physical reels, and theaters can be more nimble: When a movie sells out in one auditorium, an exhibitor can easily decide to put that film in a bigger space the next day or add show times at the touch of a button. Conversely, films that aren't working can be pulled.
Theater owners are maximizing grosses in other ways too. Instead of opening at 12:01 a.m. Friday — as was long the custom — many highly anticipated titles have been debuting between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Thursdays. That's because exhibitors began to notice that filmgoers were more apt to show up at earlier hours, and they asked studios if they'd be amenable to Thursday night screenings — a mutually beneficial agreement.
5. 3-D is falling — but it's not going away.
American moviegoers have been increasingly less inclined to shell out extra bucks to see a movie in 3-D, but this summer, their interest really dropped. When "Turbo" debuted in July, only 25% of the opening weekend crowd opted to see the movie in 3-D, an all-time low for the format. Other family films fared little better, as "Despicable Me 2" only did 27% of its Independence Day opening weekend business in the format.
While kids' films have always been less popular 3-D options, even movies that seemed more fitted to the medium faltered, like "World War Z" (34%) and "The Great Gatsby" (33%).
Still, don't expect to stop seeing 3-D movies in theaters any time soon. While it costs studios extra to produce movies in 3-D, there's minimal added cost to distribute 3-D movies. Technology now allows digital prints to be switched between 3-D and 2-D at the turn of a key, so cinema owners don't have to offer as many 3-D showings if audiences aren't expressing much interest.
While U.S. filmgoers may not be crazy for 3-D, studios aren't particularly worried because international audiences love it. With the exception of "Fast & Furious 6" — a franchise that has been set in countries like Japan, Brazil and Britain — all of the summer's biggest hits overseas have been 3-D movies.
The recent moviegoing boom in countries like Russia and China has coincided with Hollywood's embrace of 3-D, and many foreign audiences feel 3-D is essential to the experience. In China, where piracy is rampant, the 3-D option can entice someone to choose a theater over an Internet download or a street vendor's illegal DVD.