The standards for what constituted a megahit used to be reaching the fabled $100 million milestone. But the goalposts have been moved: only taking into account domestic numbers, a whopping thirty films this year crossed that mark, and a couple more stragglers might join them soon. Yet profit isn’t that easy to come by today—studios have attempted to get creative in putting caps on budgetary spending, but often the promotional efforts for a four-quadrant tentpole can be a significant chunk of change too. And while international audiences are a bigger part of that revenue stream now, studios collect a smaller percentage from international grosses than domestic ones. It’s a competitive marketplace, and a more complex picture than just a few years ago, that’s for certain.
There weren’t a whole lot of surprises in 2013. Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sounded the death knell for big blockbusters, and during a period in mid-summer, it looked like they were right. All it took was a little course correction and a strong finish to the year to stave off those projections, while studios had long set up slates for the next two years based on what worked in 2013. And what did work? Let’s find out.
All numbers are total worldwide tallies unless otherwise noted.
Every year, the film that opens May, the start of Hollywood’s “summer” season, stands a good chance of being one of the year’s biggest blockbusters. It’s no surprise that following “The Avengers” last year, “Iron Man 3” followed the plan to perfection. Marvel has begun snagging these dates aggressively in recent years, to the point where when the only non-Disney Marvel films in that slot up until 2018 are Sony's own Marvel property, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "The Amazing Spider-Man 4." “Iron Man 3” was the first of the “Iron Man” films in the 3D format, and it easily outpaced its predecessors with $409 million in domestic ticket sales and a $1.2 billion (with a “B”) final gross, the year’s only film to surpass the billion-dollar mark. Also riding the same wave was “Thor: The Dark World,” which should close around $620 million in global receipts, considerably higher than the $449 million take of 2011’s “Thor.”
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” also registered strong
numbers in its recent opening and is set to surpass the $400 million take of the first
picture. Katniss and company are also attempting this without the benefit of
3D, and while overseas audiences gave “The Hunger Games” a lighter reception ($283 million internationally compared to $408 million domestic),
the global crowd has shown up for this latest adventure and $800 million worldwide
is a strong possibility. This likely solidifies Jennifer Lawrence's status as a bonafide A-Lister who can probably open a movie on her own. And hopefully that movie is a "Buckaroo Banzai" sequel.
In what was ultimately a soft year for animation, Universal claimed to register their most profitable movie of all time with “Despicable Me 2.” The monster hit will likely finish the year as the third-highest-grossing film in America, though globally, the numbers are soaring towards $950 million, which comes from a reported $75 million budget, much lower than the average animated picture. “Frozen” was undoubtedly more expensive, but it should also join the box office winners’ circle with $600 million in receipts. Meanwhile, Pixar’s “Monsters University” couldn’t match the domestic gross of “Monsters Inc.” despite a decade of inflation and 3D numbers, but no one is scoffing at its $743 million worldwide. The one takeaway from all that may be that Pixar may be a gold standard to many, but their films are no longer locks for Best Animated Feature Oscars, and now they aren't even the biggest moneymakers on the block, particularly with the lower budgets of films from Imagination Studios ("Despicable Me 2") and Blue Sky ("Ice Age").
There were several mega-grossers this year that don’t paint as rosy a picture due to expectations and budgetary concerns. Warner Bros. had very high hopes regarding “Man of Steel,” their Superman relaunch, and the film over-performed with a spectacular $116 million opening weekend. It does take the bloom off the rose, however, when a film opens to triple digits and can’t make it over $300 million, as the picture stalled at $291 million domestically. The $662 million in global receipts makes the $225 million budget (before prints and advertising) easier to swallow, but it’s no surprise that Warners are moving ahead with a sequel that has the last son of Krypton sharing screentime with Batman, Wonder Woman, and several other heroes. Getting outgrossed by a Marvel film by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio also increases the level at which this Superman fellas is starting to look like an expensive box office chump.
“World War Z” battled a sea of early bad buzz and questionable reviews to gross $540 million worldwide, which may be a salve if you believe the film’s reported budget of $190 million, which is like believing in White Santa. J.A. Bayona has been hired to direct the sequel of what was star Brad Pitt’s highest-grossing film, and we’re eager to see how Paramount avoids the mistakes they made, or if this ends up being another massive sinkhole because of audiences burned by the first film. And Disney thought they had a new franchise with “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” but you don’t throw down a massive $215 million budget if you’re going to be pleased with a final gross below half a billion; 'Oz' could only pull in $493 million worldwide, and Disney is left trying to catch that "Alice In Wonderland" magic by just doing another "Alice In Wonderland" movie.