This summer's movie season was considered underwhelming by the Hollywood community, with ticket sales dropping by 3 to 4 percent from last summer, depending on which trade publication or statistical-tracking website you believe (the numbers listed below are from Box Office Mojo at boxofficemojo.com).
True, “The Avengers” was a record-breaker and now tops the year’s moneymakers, and “Ted” was a surprisingly robust breakout comedy for an R-rated picture. In fact, eight of the year’s top 10 titles so far opened during the summer months, which, according to Hollywood Standard Time, is the period between the first of May and Labor Day weekend.
Attendance was down for the summer and so were box-office dollars — which, in this day and age of surcharge fees for 3-D, IMAX and D-Box showings, are not the same thing.
Part of the blame goes to 3-D admissions, which were down 17 percent domestically compared to summer 2011, a clear indication that some moviegoers have decided that it isn’t worth paying extra to watch a movie through those special glasses. (Although foreign audiences continue to love 3-D.)
But it’s apparent that people were doing other things over the summer, like watching the Olympics, having fun in the sun and perhaps even reading books. Or choosing the competition — all the usual electronic media suspects, ranging from your smartphone to the flat screen in your living room, which tend to be a lot cheaper and more convenient than going out to a theater (if not as aesthetically pleasing).
Some Hollywood insiders have suggested that the Aurora, Colo., tragedy — those shootings at a midnight premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” — might have contributed to audience hesitations. But that seems unlikely, since “The Dark Knight Rises” is the No. 2 movie of the summer — and of the year so far — behind the unstoppable juggernaut that was “The Avengers.”
It could be as simple as the ripple effect sometimes caused by bad movies. Just as a good movie can motivate you to return to the theater, a bad movie — or two, or three — can steer you away from the movie listings for a while as you find yourself spending time and entertainment dollars elsewhere.
“Battleship,” “Total Recall,” “That’s My Boy,” “Rock of Ages,” “The Watch” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” were among the summer movies that performed well below expectations.
“Battleship” found redemption overseas, however.
The international movie market is taking on more and more importance as a revenue center for Hollywood product, especially as a way to ramp up the take for movies that disappoint domestically — that is, in North America, which includes box-office tallies in both the United States and Canada.
In worldwide terms, “Battleship” was a huge hit, although the other five listed above were still flops. However, foreign ticket sales did bolster a number of other stateside disappointments, such as “Dark Shadows” and “The Dictator.”
Of course, what measures a flop against a hit has a lot to do with each film’s budget. A movie that cost $250 million to produce, such as the widely (and unjustly in my view) vilified “John Carter,” would have to reach “Avengers”-level numbers just to go in the black. Although “John Carter” stalled at $73 million domestically, it has crossed the $200 million mark internationally — but that’s still not enough. It would need to earn at least double its budget to approach the break-even point, and that’s not going to happen. Even with home-video sales.
On the other hand, a low-budget film, such as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which was reportedly made for a paltry $10 million, doesn’t need to earn back nearly as much. In fact, with modern ancillary sales points — DVD/Blu-ray, cable, online streaming, rentals, etc. — it’s difficult for a movie with a budget that low to not make a profit. And since “Marigold Hotel” has raked in $46 million in North America and $85 million overseas, the little British comedy is an unqualified hit.
Summer movie profits can also benefit from mid-size successes, movies that earn more than $100 million domestically between May and September, most with budgets in the $20 million to $50 million range. There were 17 such films in 2011, but only 11 this year.
Still, the big-budget gamble paid off this summer with movies that cost $200 million-plus: “The Avengers” (budgeted at $220 million), “The Dark Knight Rises” ($250 million), “The Amazing Spider-Man” ($230 million) and “Men in Black 3” ($225 million). All are in the domestic top 10 for the year so far, and worldwide they’ve been even bigger. And, as mentioned, “Battleship” ($209 million) was not impressive here, but worldwide it was huge.
So Hollywood is not likely to back off big-money gambles anytime soon, as long as there’s a chance the next one could, against all odds, reach that “Avatar”-“Titanic”-sized brass ring.
And we’ll get a few more of those before year’s end, although the biggest are budgeted below $200 million — the next James Bond thriller, “Skyfall” (budgeted at $150 million); “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2” ($132 million); and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” ($150 million).
The reason the major studios get so antsy about the four-month period in the middle of each year is that summer-movie revenue accounts for 40 percent of the annual box office take.
But don’t feel too blue for Hollywood. Even with the summer slump, attendance is still 4 percent ahead of 2011 for the first eight months of the year. (For which a lot of the love goes to the March hits “The Hunger Games” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” the only titles in the year’s top 10 that were not summer films.)
These are the year’s 10 biggest hits through August; the first dollar figure is domestic box-office earnings, the parenthetical dollar figure marks the foreign take:
1. “The Avengers,” $620 million ($882 million)
2. “The Dark Knight Rises,” $431 million ($574 million)
3. "The Hunger Games,” $408 million ($277 million)
4. “The Amazing Spider-Man,” $260 million ($475 million)
5. “Brave,” $232 million ($238 million)
6. “Ted,” $216 million ($168 million)
7. “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” $214 million ($388 million)
8. “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” $214 million ($123 million)
9. “Men in Black 3,” $179 million ($445 million)
10. “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” $156 million ($672 million)