By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 12, 2013 at 1:27PM
While we're only a few weeks into August, summer blockbuster season is pretty much winding down for the year. Last weekend brought "Elysium," the last major tentpole for the moment (albeit an underperforming one), and the rest of August is mostly made up of lo-fi programmers and would-be-franchises that, if their studios had any confidence in them, would be coming out at a different time. So it seems like a good time as any to take a look at the summer box office over the last few months, and discuss who had a good May-August in 2013, and who really didn't.
The box office conversation has been dominated by a few high-profile flops, but on the whole, it's actually been a strong summer. While the profit from the hits might have been dented by the money-losers, theaters have been packed out, and Variety reports that we're running 12% ahead of the previous record-breaking year, 2011. That said, there are plenty of lessons to be learned here, and below, you can see who'll be popping open the champagne to celebrate come Labor Day, and who'll be drowning their sorrows. Let us know your own thoughts in the comments section when you're done.
Just for a change, this summer's been dominated by costumed crime-fighters. Last year featured the big names of Batman, Spiderman and the Avengers, so it would have been hard to top that, but superheroes remained highly reliable box office performers in 2013. There'd been some question of how much of a bump, if any, Marvel's movies would get after "The Avengers," but "Iron Man 3" provided the answer: a lot. Shane Black's picture is the biggest film of the year, by far (it's almost half-a-billion ahead of its closest summer competition, though that gap may close), and suggested that Marvel may come to rival or surpass Pixar in terms of being a reliable brand—at least while they have Robert Downey Jr. on hand. "Man Of Steel" perhaps didn't quite hit the sky-high expectations that some had (outgoing Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov predicted it would be the studio's biggest ever hit), but nearly $300 million domestic and $647 million worldwide is nothing to be sniffed at, especially when put against under $400 million for "Superman Returns" or even under $375 million for "Batman Begins"—though inflation and 3D bumps help close the gap a little. Finally, "The Wolverine," while still rolling out, is the smallest grosser of the three, but with China & Japan still to come, it should overtake its predecessor and end up somewhere near $400 million, and given that it cost less than other blockbusters (about $120 million), that's a win for Fox, albeit a smallish one.
While this year has marked something of a crisis point for animated movies in some ways (see below), the artform proved as reliable as ever when it came to sequels. After two relatively low-grossing Pixar flicks, "Monsters University" bounced back at the box office (though reviews were still relatively cool)—the film's just overtaken "The Incredibles" to become the company's fourth biggest worldwide grosser. Universal's "Despicable Me 2" was even more profitable. The first film was a huge surprise, and the second has been a runaway success; it's the second biggest film of the year at the domestic box office with $338 million, and has made $745 million worldwide. Crucially, it was also a lot cheaper than most animated pictures, with a production budget of around $75 million, which makes it apparently the most profitable film in the history of Universal. Expect these to keep coming until the end of time.
The Fast & Furious Franchise
The "Fast & Furious" series is unlike any other in that it's only gotten bigger and bigger over time. And the sixth entry suggested there's no sign of it running out of gas (see what we did there? Gas? as a metaphor for... oh, you got it) any time soon. Justin Lin's film was comfortably the biggest of the series so far: at $238 million, it made thirty million more than "Fast Five" in the U.S, and took nearly $150 million worldwide for a total that's nearing $800 million. Given how warmly received the movie was, and given the barnstorming reaction to the credits teaser that sets up the next film (due next summer), "Fast 7" has a damn good shot at a billion.
For someone who's graced as many magazine covers as he has, Brad Pitt's had relatively few solo megahits. While he's been a consistent draw, it's often as part of an ensemble or a pairing (as with "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" or "Inglourious Basterds"). So "World War Z" was going to be an interesting experiment, in that the actor was so central to both the movie and the marketing. The film had a troubled production and poisonous buzz, but ultimately, it proved that Pitt vs. zombies was an irresistible proposition to many moviegoers. Pitt's presence and the PG-13 horror vibe enabled the film to capture female audiences in a way that other blockbusters struggled, and it proved well-liked enough to play in theaters for a while, when other blockbusters opened strong and dropped off fast. At nearly $200 million in the U.S. and over $500 million worldwide, it's overtaken "Mr. And Mrs Smith" and "Troy" to become the biggest hit of his career, and while the film's excessive costs cut into the profit this time out, a franchise has undoubtedly been born.
(Secretly) "Pacific Rim"
Plenty of movies have been thrown around as flops this summer, mostly deservedly so, but the mud doesn't quite stick to "Pacific Rim" in the way that it does with others. There's no denying that the film's $96 million domestic gross to date is a disappointment—questionable marketing, destruction fatigue and a cast lacking in names all leading to the film's underperformance in the U.S. But abroad, it's been a very different story. Clearly rewritten and recalibrated in order to maximize its international appeal (hence the Chinese and Russian Jaegers), the film was a damp squib in much of the English-speaking world, but enormous in much of the rest of the world, particularly China (though interestingly, it performed less well than expected in Japan this weekend). By the time it's done, it should close out near $400 million, which, like "World War Z," makes it only just on the edge of profitability , but is more than enough money to justify a sequel going into development, even if, like the mooted follow-up to "Tron: Legacy," it's probably announced to save face and then never goes anywhere. (See also "The Golden Compass," which did similar numbers and never led to a follow-up.)
One of the studios' biggest mistakes was to aim way, way too many movies at the teenage-boys-of-all-ages demographic that's been their bread-and-butter for years. It's been proven out by the way some of these movies underperformed, but also in the way that audiences starved for other kind of things flocked to other fare. "The Great Gatsby" hit at the beginning of the summer, well before blockbuster fatigue had set in, and did sterling numbers despite lukewarm reviews, ending up with about $330 million worldwide (whether it turned a profit or not depends on how accurate reports of the film's budget really are, but still). Elsewhere, "Now You See Me" turned into a surprise hit by landing older audiences who wanted a break from CGI fare, while "The Heat" is a bona-fide smash, topping $150 million in the U.S even as it begins its international roll-out. The three were pretty much the only movies aimed at female audiences all summer, and all performed like stars. Lesson learned, Hollywood?
Horror tends to be confined to January, August or October, where a cheap buck can be made with something crappy to fill up a theater. But expect to see a lot more of it in the summer after this year, when a pair of films proved surprisingly strong and outperformed much more expensive competition. First up, "The Purge" landed in theaters at the beginning of June, and the $3 million picture made a whopping $34 million in its first weekend (more than the new movies that starred Will Smith, Johnny Depp and Matt Damon in the same season, embarrassingly). As is common with the genre, it peaked early, failing to double its first three days, but for a film that cost as little as it did, Universal have to be delighted. Meanwhile, "The Conjuring" was even bigger: aided by unexpectedly great reviews, James Wan's film has had legs almost unheard of in the genre, and is about to overtake "The Ring" to become the fifth most successful film in the genre to date. The film cost a little more—$20 million—but was still cheaper than almost anything else this summer, so Warner Bros. have to be delighted with the result here.
The Indie Scene
While nothing proved as successful as a mini-blockbuster like a "Midnight In Paris" or a "Moonrise Kingdom," arthouse theaters have had a decent breadth of fairly successful films to pick from over the warm months. "Mud" and "The Place Beyond The Pines" remain the biggest indies of the year so far, and were still playing into May, while behind them, "The Way Way Back," "Fruitvale Station," "Before Midnight," "The Bling Ring," "Much Ado About Nothing" "Frances Ha" and "20 Feet From Stardom" all performed strongly, while "Blue Jasmine" has a good chance of supplanting "Midnight In Paris" as Woody Allen's top grosser by the time it plays out. With an atypically strong August to come, things aren't looking too bleak in the indie world, even if not everything landed (we lament that CBS Films didn't do a better job with "Kings of Summer," which deserved to be a crossover hit).