There was no pattern of box office success for 2011. One could point to the audience rejecting obvious pandering nerd bait like "Cowboys & Aliens," but then how does that explain "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"? People can celebrate R-rated comedies, but what does that mean for "The Change-Up"? Few leading men and women appeared often in 2011, as it was a year dependent on concepts (mostly pre-established) as opposed to marquee names. And a lot of those new names are wise, lining up smaller projects in the coming year to diversify their portfolio rather than boost their paychecks.
With box office numbers largely settled for 2011, here's a look back at some of the winners (at least in dollars) of the past twelve months.
Quick: name the one actor who had three $100 million films in 2011. If you guessed the 21st century incarnation of Frank Sinatra, well, we’d probably slap you in the face, because that’s disgraceful. But if you said “Justin Timberlake” then congratulations! You may not know a single person who saw “Friends With Benefits” or “In Time,” but both were huge overseas, collecting worldwide totals of $149 million and $133 million, respectively. And a supporting role in “Bad Teacher” yielded $216 million worth of ticket sales, as he figured prominently in the film's ad campaign. Factor in 2010’s “The Social Network” and “Yogi Bear” and suddenly the former N*Sync member (NEVER FORGET) has a streak of five straight $100 million films. With the exception of “Bad Teacher,” none of these were genuine out-of-the-box smashes, but he’s sure looking a lot more bankable than the guy who beat him out for “Green Lantern,” Ryan Reynolds.
Speaking of the emerald guardian, or whatever he’s called, DC put their eggs in the “Green Lantern” basket and failed miserably, outdone by its comics’ competitor. Both “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor” were gambles, and they paid off handsomely, with worldwide numbers of $369 million and $449 million, respectively. Meanwhile, Fox quietly amassed over $350 million worldwide for "X-Men: First Class." While 'Cap' wasn’t necessarily the smash the studio hoped for, it quelled fears that anti-American sentiment would hurt international sales, as it collected 52% of its gross overseas. Along with “Thor,” the two films nicely set the table for 2012’s big “The Avengers” experiment.
The question persists every year for studios – how can we get adult women, single or otherwise, into the theater? Most executives will just pile on the romantic comedies, with an emphasis on the “romantic.” This year, however, they leaned on the comedic and the results were strong. “Bridesmaids” and “Bad Teacher” led the way with a combined $504 million in box officer receipts among them, two of the most profitable films of the summer. “The Help” also featured a female-dominated ensemble, collecting $202 million and counting at the global box office (though most of that impressive haul comes from stateside receipts). Meanwhile, fears that two sex-driven female-centric comedies couldn’t coexist had as much weight as people arguing the market was overstuffed with superhero films: “Friends With Benefits” and “No Strings Attached” collected $149 million and $147 million, respectively.
Usually the pool of end-of-year Oscar contenders features one crowd-pleaser, a blockbuster smash that crushed records and was a massive success here and abroad. Strangely enough, if you discount “The Help," this year’s People’s Choice contender is “Midnight In Paris.” Woody Allen’s 42nd film as a director was a hit in America and overseas, collecting $145 million to become by far the highest grossing effort in his filmography. It’s not likely a career can pick up much momentum when Allen is on the other side of 70, but one could say, from a commercial perspective, Allen hasn’t been this hot in more than 20 years.
The cast members from “The Hangover” have long been trying to bust onto the A-List. Cooper seemed the most likely, but a string of post-'Hangover' flops didn’t help his case. Then Relativity staked their reputation on his attractive mug, and the low budget “Limitless” grossed $162 million worldwide. Followed shortly by “The Hangover Part II,” Cooper was suddenly everywhere, capping the year as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (For People Who Only Watch Popular Movies And Bad TV Shows). Though the big budget (and ill-advised) “Paradise Lost” is a no-go for now, Cooper has a promising four-film slate in 2012, working with David O. Russell on “The Silver Linings Playbook” and with Sexiest Person Alive arch-enemy Ryan Gosling on “A Place Beyond the Pines.”
With DVD sales fading and domestic box office receipts plummeting, studios had to turn to the overseas market. And, in an aggressive expansion, they added hundreds of theaters abroad, many of them 3D equipped, and saw international audiences gobble up even the most embarrassing big screen offal. Furthermore, one could argue that international audiences were being served at a higher rate than domestic ones: of the year’s highest grossing films, only two, “Transformers: Why Does This Exist” and “The Smurfs: Ditto,” take place in America. Appropriately enough, 'Transformers' earned 68% of its grosses from international audiences, while almost three quarters of “The Smurfs” gross is courtesy of overseas crowds. The splits between domestic and international were significant: of the top sixty movies of the year, nine of them took home 70% or more of their grosses from international audiences, which includes the improbable $800 million non-American grosses for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
The gift that keeps on giving – 300 years from now, when movies are beamed directly into our brains, the most profitable pictures will remain cheap horror. “Paranormal Activity 3” reversed the franchise’s downward trend with $202 million on a meager budget, earning that series at least another six or seven installments, most likely. Meanwhile, FilmDistrict scored big with “Insidious,” which carried a $1.5 million budget and grossed $97 million worldwide. Domestically, it was a washout for “Final Destination 5” and “Scream 4,” but the modestly-budgeted genre efforts still pulled in $158 million and $97 million, respectively. And January release date dumps looked bad for “The Rite” and “Season of the Witch” but the occult thrillers collected a smooth $96 million and $92 million, respectively. Of course, you really don’t need to spend any money or make a good movie to profit: with a $5 budget, “Apollo 18” collected $25 million in worldwide box office receipts.
Who? You might remember Hart from his appearances in comedies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Fool’s Gold” or the American “Death At a Funeral.” Oh, quit lying – you remember him as the lead on “Soul Plane” when you self-loathingly watched it on cable. With little to no advertisements, “Kevin Hart: Laugh At My Pain” opened in less than a hundred theaters at the start of September, but the concert film didn’t need any reviews or a TV presence. The film handily out-grossed the opening weekend of heavily-promoted studio comedy “Bucky Larson: Born To Be a Star” despite playing in 1,400 less theaters, and several Hollywood executives took notice. While 'Laugh' posted a final gross of $7.7 million, which doesn’t even match the first day numbers for “Jack And Jill,” it impressed the right people to see him open this film with little to no exposure.
Of the 10 highest-grossing movies of the year, eight were sequels, the other two being the likely sequel-launching "The Smurfs" and CG-toon "Rio." The number is the same if you only count domestic releases, but the other two are "Thor" and "Captain America," both taking story cues from the "Iron Man" series. Complain about the death of originality all you want, the people want part twos (three in the top ten), part threes, part fours (two), part fives and even part eights. The studios have listened: 27 more sequels, prequels and/or spinoffs are on deck for 2012.
The highest grossing films of the year
1. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (Warner Bros.) - $1.3 billion (worldwide), $381 million domestically)
2. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Paramount) - $1.12 billion (worldwide) $352.3 million (domestically)
3. “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (Disney) - $1.04 billion (worldwide) $241 million (domestically)
4. “Kung Fu Panda 2” (DreamWorks Animation) - $665.6 million (worldwide), $165 million (domestically)
5. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” (Summit) $649 million (worldwide), $268 million (domestically)
6. “Fast Five” (Universal) - $626 million (worldwide), $209.8 million (domestically)
7. “The Hangover Part II” (Warner Bros.) - $581 million (worldwide), $254 million (domestically)
8. The Smurfs (Sony) - $562 million (worldwide), $142 million (domestically)
9. “Cars 2” (Disney) - $551 million (worldwide), $191 million (domestically)
10. “Rio” (Fox) - $484 million (worldwide), $143 million (domestically)