The third quarter has been a turbulent one for movie studios.
Alongside major successes like “The Dark Knight Rises,” the three-month period from July to September has also seen ticket sales drop to the lowest they’ve been in decades, leading to half-serious speculation that Hollywood might need a government bailout of its own.
It’s fair to say that July belonged to superheroes. “The Amazing Spider-Man” kicked off the month, swinging to the top of the box office in spite of some reviews that criticized it for not being different enough from the earlier Sam Raimi films.
However, the webslinger’s box office reign was short-lived. Just two weeks later saw the release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” arguably the most highly anticipated — if not also one of the most divisive — films of the entire summer.
Although unable to match the massive box office numbers of either Marvel’s “The Avengers” or 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film still managed to set a record for the best non-3-D opening weekend ever at $160 million.
The at times oppressively dark film also became the focus of a reignited debate about violence in movies following the tragic events in Aurora, Colo., even prompting talk of tighter restrictions on ratings for violent films.
“The Dark Knight Rises” has gone on to earn $444 million in domestic box office (compared to its predecessor’s $533 million).
The big surprise in July, however, was the continued international appeal of the “Ice Age” franchise. With a solid $159 million in the U.S. box office alone, the fourth entry in the prehistoric adventure series starring Ray Romano earned four times that internationally. With a worldwide gross adding up to nearly $850 million, “Ice Age: Continental Drift” is among the highest-grossing animated films of all time.
Unlike July, August saw only one new release, “The Bourne Legacy,” pull in more than $100 million. In spite of this, the box office was still slightly up from previous years thanks, in part, to a surprisingly varied list of releases.
Along with Universal’s Matt Damon-less Bourne flick (which was recently greenlighted for a sequel), action aficionados were treated to the old school violence of “The Expendables 2,” while niche films like the Will Ferrell/Zack Galifianakis political comedy “The Campaign” and “Hope Springs,” starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, managed to beat out Sony’s costly “Total Recall” remake.
After a summer without much in the way of family entertainment, though, August was notable for a handful of kids films, including the fantastic — if slightly macabre — “ParaNorman.” The latest animated feature from the stop-motion geniuses at Laika (the studio responsible for the similarly great 2009 film “Coraline”), “ParaNorman” quietly topped out at $53 million, putting it in sixth place in the month’s top 10 grossers.
Considering only one stop-motion film has ever made more than $100 million (Aardman Animations’ 2000 feature “Chicken Run”), that’s not a bad number, especially for a movie many parents might consider too intense for young children. However, the discrepancy in box office between a film like “ParaNorman,” which received an overwhelmingly positive 87 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and the most recent “Ice Age” movie (at just 38 percent) highlights the problem with original feature filmmaking.
Still, not all films geared toward younger audiences were as successful. The only G-rated movie to be released all summer, “Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure,” set a record for one of the lowest openings of all time, earning an average of just $206 per theater on more than 2,100 screens during its first week.
With moviegoers exhausted after the glut of blockbusters released during the previous few months, September is always a down month for studios. This year, though, proved to be the worst in quite some time. Not a single September release earned even close to $50 million, and the month’s cumulative box office dropped a massive 55 percent from last year — a year when three films, “The Lion King 3D,” “Contagion” and “Moneyball,” each earned more than $75 million.
With a total of 57 movies released, which combined for nearly $274 million, this September marked the lowest month at the box office since 2001 (not accounting for changes in ticket prices). Even worse, September also set the record for the fewest movie tickets sold in that month since 1988.
Even the 3-D re-release of Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” which Disney had hoped could repeat the “Lion King 3D” release's $94 million box office from the same weekend one year ago, only brought in around $36 million.
Following the poor theater attendance in the early weeks, September managed a bittersweet ending thanks to Sony’s “Hotel Transylvania.” The first feature film from “Samurai Jack” creator Genndy Tartakovksy set a record for the highest September release ever with a $43 million opening weekend. That’s also the biggest weekend for Sony Pictures Animation, beating last year’s “The Smurfs” ($35 million).
With a number of high-profile films coming up in the next few months, it’s still too early to completely write off 2012 as a bigger disaster than 2011. But if the month of September proves anything, it’s that now might be a good time for studios to rethink their moviemaking strategies.
Note: Box office information for this article was taken from the site boxofficemojo.com
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.