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Good Summer/Bad Summer: Who Were The Victors & The Victims Of The Blockbuster Box Office This Year?

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
August 12, 2013 1:27 PM
11 Comments
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Summer 2013 Blockbusters: Hits & Misses

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.

Good Summer

Iron Man 3

Superheroes

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.

Animated Sequels

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.

Fast and Furious 6

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.

Brad Pitt

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. 

Pacific Rim

(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.)

Counter-Programming

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?

The Conjuring

Horror

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).

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11 Comments

  • cineman | August 26, 2013 6:45 AMReply

    Nice to see mention of blockbuster bloat. Would be really good to see some stripped down, lean and cool storytelling again. The bloat suggests some writers/directors/execs have forgotten how to do this, or never learnt properly in the first place.

  • Vidiot | August 20, 2013 5:35 AMReply

    "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."
    Nope: AMERICAN GRAFFITI (to name one) cost about $800K and made about $110,000,000, which is more than a 100:1 ratio. DESPICABLE ME made ten times its budget, which is great... but not as big as George Lucas' 1973 blockbuster.

  • Gobbledygook | August 13, 2013 3:09 PMReply

    Fair article Oliver, although I would have to differ of your assessment of Tom Cruise and Matt Damon having a bad summer. "Oblivion" did well overseas: enough to make it break even (and considering it was never supposed to be a potential franchise, Universal were happy with this result). Though perhaps it would have cleared well over $300 million had it been released at a different time of year (March? November?). WB isn't worried about "Edge Of Tomorrow"; if they were it wouldn't be opening in the middle of next summer. It has a more original and interesting concept than "Oblivion" that will appeal to a broader audience. Tom IS the money.

    Damon, outside of Bourne, never really opens a movie above $30 million. Consider that "Elysium" is an original film, opening in the middle of a period of deep audience blockbuster fatigue. Could it have opened any higher out of the summer? Not by much. Flick only cost $115m anyway; with international dollar it will break even. Damon is somewhat bankable.

  • Mark | August 13, 2013 5:51 AMReply

    Good to see that Star Trek Into Darkness wasn't mentioned once. A movie that deserves to be completely forgotten.

  • JAB | August 12, 2013 10:35 PMReply

    "Destruction fatigue" is a really good way of putting what is beginning to really ail me about a genre of movies I typically love. I loved "Man Of Steel" but would I'd liketo see a cut of the movie that is actually shorter --less mayhem.
    "Pacific Rim" definitely suffered from...DF? It's attempts at humor were howlingly bad. Those 2 actors as scientists came out of the JarJar Binks acting academy.
    "Europa Report" is this year's "Moon". It proves that a small budget needn't sacrifice a sense of wonder, fine casting & real suspense. Don't let the "found footage" gimic turn you off (as it almost did me). This is very smart, often moving & totally cool sc-fi film.
    Will see "Elysium" soon & looking forward to "Gravity".

  • JAB | August 12, 2013 10:35 PMReply

    "Destruction fatigue" is a really good way of putting what is beginning to really ail me about a genre of movies I typically love. I loved "Man Of Steel" but would I'd liketo see a cut of the movie that is actually shorter --less mayhem.
    "Pacific Rim" definitely suffered from...DF? It's attempts at humor were howlingly bad. Those 2 actors as scientists came out of the JarJar Binks acting academy.
    "Europa Report" is this year's "Moon". It proves that a small budget needn't sacrifice a sense of wonder, fine casting & real suspense. Don't let the "found footage" gimic turn you off (as it almost did me). This is very smart, often moving & totally cool sc-fi film.
    Will see "Elysium" soon & looking forward to "Gravity".

  • JAB | August 12, 2013 10:35 PMReply

    "Destruction fatigue" is a really good way of putting what is beginning to really ail me about a genre of movies I typically love. I loved "Man Of Steel" but would I'd liketo see a cut of the movie that is actually shorter --less mayhem.
    "Pacific Rim" definitely suffered from...DF? It's attempts at humor were howlingly bad. Those 2 actors as scientists came out of the JarJar Binks acting academy.
    "Europa Report" is this year's "Moon". It proves that a small budget needn't sacrifice a sense of wonder, fine casting & real suspense. Don't let the "found footage" gimic turn you off (as it almost did me). This is very smart, often moving & totally cool sc-fi film.
    Will see "Elysium" soon & looking forward to "Gravity".

  • Donella | August 12, 2013 9:24 PMReply

    I'd say this is a fair write-up Oliver. I'd add that Ryan Reynolds has skated by by holding the coattails of veteran costars such as Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, and Denzel Washington and participating in ensembles such as Smokin Aces and Adventureland.

  • Skywater | August 12, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    No problem with long movies if it's good.

  • daniel | August 12, 2013 2:33 PMReply

    The international boom in 3d will almost certainly carry the technology through till the advent of glasses-free 3d, which is looking to make it's debut in the next couple of years. Whether haters of 3d admit it or not, the real problem is simply the hassle of wearing glasses; once the experience is just as normal feeling as 2d, I believe it will be largely preferable for audiences. In order for the medium to fully succeed, it has to be forgotten. Due to the price hikes and the hardware the audience has to wear, 3d puts itself in the position to be actively judged, even as you watch it, and it's distracting. It needs to become an utterly passive, integrated experience, the same way that color film did. If you look at the early color pictures, they are basically saturation porn, because people responded to the novelty; same with the phase of 3d we are in. Almost all complaints break down into a) I hate the glasses b) it's too in your face, or c) its so subtle, what's the point. The last two of which remind me of the Woody Allen line about the women at the Catskill resort: "the food at this place is terrible. And such small portions!"

  • Skywater | August 12, 2013 3:14 PM

    The issues i have with it in my corner of the world is pricing, it's ridiculous, as well as the movie not being projected properly, too dark or some ghosting effect. Sucks paying that much for a subpar viewing experience. I've come to the conclusion the best shot i have of enjoying a movie is to see in 2d. I can see all the colour, and if the movie sucks, then atleast i didnt just spend so much on it.

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