Summer 2012 was a mixed bag for families at the movies

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30 2012 3:25 p.m. MDT

Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) in "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted."

DreamWorks Animation

With the last August stragglers finally in theaters and Labor Day just around the corner, the summer movie season is basically over.

For film buffs, the four-month period from May to September has been nothing if not eventful. Alongside highly-anticipated blockbusters like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Avengers” — as well as some costly duds like “Battleship” — this summer saw an unusual amount of diversity in its cinematic offerings.

In a lot of ways, this was the summer of counter-programmed successes.

While many movies calculated to rake in the millions somehow failed to find much of an audience, a number of smaller films like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” became sleeper hits in spite of — or thanks to — their limited appeal.

But for families, the altogether counter-intuitive summer of 2012 has been a mixed bag.

Movies that could really be considered appropriate for all ages were in short supply this year. Of the 44 films in wide release over the last four months — meaning movies that played in 600 or more theaters — only eight received MPAA ratings below PG-13.

Of course, that’s including some niche fare like “2016 Obama’s America” that probably wouldn’t appeal to most kids — or even, depending on one’s political persuasion, many adults.

To make matters worse, of those eight PG films, only four were released during the peak summer months of June and July. The others, including “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” Disney’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” and the impressive stop-motion feature “ParaNorman,” have slowly trickled in throughout August without making much of a dent in the typically slow end-of-summer box office.

In sharp contrast to the level of variety otherwise found at movie theaters this year, families were left with only a trio of animated films (“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and “Brave”) and a concert movie (“Katy Perry: Part of Me”) to choose from this summer.

But there is obviously still a market for family-friendly entertainment. All three of the animated features released in June and July have gone on to become box-office successes, each earning more than $150 million in the U.S. alone and all placing on the list of the top 10 highest-grossing films of summer.

By way of contrast, there were almost twice as many (15) R-rated features released in the summer months, including new films by box-office heavyweights like Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. But only two of those — “Family Guy” creator Seth McFarlane’s debut feature “Ted” about a foul-mouthed teddy bear and Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated “Alien” prequel “Prometheus” — ranked among the top 10 (at Nos. 5 and 10, respectively).

More and more, though, international box office is becoming the deciding factor in a film’s success.

Even though a movie like “Battleship,” for example, may have sunk in domestic waters with a paltry $65.2 million (compared to its $209 million price tag), overseas it managed to rack up an additional $237.6 million.

Going by the numbers, there is a huge appetite for family-friendly entertainment among international audiences, as well. “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” which earned a respectable $154 million in the U.S. (putting it at No. 9 in the top 10 summer films), has so far quadrupled that overseas with another $662 million, making it one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time.

Similarly, “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” and Pixar’s “Brave” have, respectively, pulled in an additional $369 million and $212.3 million from non-U.S. markets.

Ultimately, though, the summer of 2012 belonged to a trifecta of superhero movies that varied pretty widely in terms of content and appropriateness for children. “The Avengers,” perhaps the most family-friendly of the three (in spite of its “Transformers”-scale violence), kicked off the season with a record-setting opening weekend haul of $207.4 million, eventually earning a whopping $1.49 billion worldwide — just below “Titanic” and “Avatar” on the list of highest-grossing films of all time. Even Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which has so far brought in $959 million in global box office, couldn’t dethrone Marvel’s team of super-powered brawlers this summer.

Rounding out the top three movies of the season, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Sony’s more “grounded” take on the web-slinging hero starring Andrew Garfield, has so far earned $704 million, guaranteeing at least one sequel to the divisive franchise reboot.

For slightly older audiences who nevertheless wished to avoid the bombastic violence and sexual content of many Hollywood films, this summer also had a few art house hits that made pretty sizable waves considering their budgets. Indie auteur Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” for instance, set records of its own, earning $669,000 in just four theaters before expanding nationwide.

Likewise, the magical realist fantasy “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a critical favorite when it debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, has done remarkably well, making $8.9 million while in limited release.

Surprisingly, some of the summer’s most varied and refreshingly original films have appeared in the so-called dog days of summer, right as parents and kids turn their attention to the beginning of school. August releases like “ParaNorman” and the fairly tame PG-13 chase movie “Premium Rush” demonstrate the value of unique ideas in a market increasingly dominated by sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots.

For a complete list of summer films and how they’ve performed at the box office, check out the website boxofficemojo.com.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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