Meteorologists would probably disagree, but the recent blustery weather could just be the collective sigh of relief from movie studio executives and theater owners after seeing the first quarter results for 2012. Last year, movie theater attendance dipped to a 15-year low, prompting doom-and-gloom predictions for an already-troubled industry.
If the first three months of 2012 prove anything, though, it’s that Americans will still turn out in droves to support their favorite films. With only one exception, every weekend so far this year has seen an improvement in ticket sales from the same time a year ago, with a total box-office gross exceeding $2 billion according to boxofficemojo.com — an increase of almost 30 percent over the first quarter in 2011.
Some of the biggest box-office successes have actually been family films. It’s no secret that G, PG and PG-13 movies frequently outearn their R-rated competition. This year is no different. One of the most lucrative films so far in 2012 is “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.” With a $70 million price tag, “The Lorax” has pulled in more than $200 million worldwide, showing once again that there is a strong demand for quality family entertainment.
Another surprise hit this year is the found-footage superhero film “Chronicle.” Although at times extremely violent, “Chronicle” (rated PG-13) is nevertheless worth recommending to slightly older audiences. The violence depicted onscreen is never pointless or done for pure spectacle. Instead, it enhances the emotional impact of the story — something that can hardly ever be said of Hollywood filmmaking.
Just because numbers are up in 2012, though, does not mean Hollywood hasn’t had its share of missteps this movie season. George Lucas’ tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, “Red Tails”; “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”; and the Sam Worthington thriller, “Man on a Ledge,” are just a few of the films that failed to ignite the box office.
The first quarter of 2012 also included high-profile 3D re-releases that underperformed. Both “Beauty and the Beast” and “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” earned just around $45 million. For comparison, last year “The Lion King” made close to $100 million, securing it a spot in the 10 highest-grossing films of all time. The tepid response to theatrical re-releases notwithstanding, the trend of converting old classics to 3D will probably continue, especially if “Titanic” pulls in crowds for the centennial of the ill-fated voyage this week.
Of course, the biggest financial misstep so far in 2012 is Disney’s $200 million write off, “John Carter.” The first in what had been planned as a trilogy of films that would adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal “Barsoom” novels, the expensive sci-fi romance was basically dead before it hit the ground.
What went wrong? Inept marketing, gossipy rumors about an out-of-control budget and — at least according to the film’s director, Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) — more than a touch of schadenfreude on the part of journalists wanting to see a Pixar alumnus fail were all factors that contributed to the staggeringly bad domestic box office of “John Carter.”
Overseas, though, the film has done pretty well. Moviegoers willing to give the family-friendly sci-fi throwback a chance might be surprised by how much they enjoy it in spite of its flaws. If “John Carter” does ultimately go down as one of the biggest flops in movie history, it didn’t deserve to.
Another reasonable explanation for why it failed: Everyone was saving up to buy tickets for “The Hunger Games.” The modestly budgeted adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ series of young-adult novels set records for its opening weekend haul, an impressive $152 million in the U.S. alone. For statistics buffs, that’s almost as much as “John Carter” has made worldwide since it was first released at the beginning of March.
“The Hunger Games” isn’t just another trendy young-adult series, though. Director Gary Ross’ adaptation has garnered extremely positive response from critics for its treatment of social issues like violence in media. An article on Twitchfilm.com, titled “Holding Out for a Hero: Katniss and the New (Female) Role Model,” has likewise singled out Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen as one of the best female protagonists in recent film, inducting her into a small club membership that includes characters like Ellen Ripley from the “Alien” franchise and Buffy from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
So, looking back on the first three months of film in 2012, one thing is clear: Far from being on the brink of death, the movie industry is thriving, but only as long as Hollywood produces films worth the increasingly steep price of admission.
Hopefully, the rest of 2012 will have as many worthwhile moviegoing options as the first three months of the year.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.