So we’re completing a year of record domestic box office returns, but it’s impossible to ignore that the international market is a hefty player, taking a bigger overall chunk of the pie. It’s not good enough for a picture to perform in America – if it doesn’t grab more than half its share from international crowds, it’s not a complete success. The proliferation of franchises and 3D have turned most American films into our most in-demand export, and it’s changed the box office landscape immensely.
Many will say this was a strong year for films made for adults. “Lincoln” easily hit nine figures domestically, while “Argo” ($162 million) “Flight” ($96 million) and this spring’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” ($134 million) proved that the multiplex wasn’t just teeming with evidence that only our youth is being served. But that might just be the rare oasis of hope in a sea of defeat, given that the top nine highest-grossing films of the year were all franchise entries – the tenth was a Pixar film.
Here’s a look at the year’s box office at a glance: the highest grossing pictures of the year, the biggest flops, the cheapest hits and the most unexpected earners.
The Fifteen Highest Grossing Films Of 2012 (All Figures In Worldwide Gross)
Heavy expectations were placed on Disney’s first Marvel release, though few could have expected this. Within its first weekend, “The Avengers”’ three-day take of $207 million bested the total domestic tallies of “The Incredible Hulk,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor.” Business remained brisk during the rest of the summer, as the film handily proved that the first weekend of the summer remains the most plum release date of the year. Disney’s moving full force on follow-ups to the Marvel universe, with “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” slated for 2013, and several other standalone features paving the way for “The Avengers 2” to hit in summer 2015.
"The Dark Knight Rises" (Warner Bros.) - $1.08 Billion
While “The Avengers” began Marvel/Disney’s onslaught on Hollywood, Christopher Nolan was allowed to end his Batman trilogy with the biggest Batman film yet. Audience excitement was blunted, however, as the picture had to contend with a horrible tragedy that weighed heavily on a fervent blockbuster audience that nonetheless led the picture to the second biggest opening of all time. This wasn’t a zeitgeist picture like “The Dark Knight,” but it still managed to outgross that last effort thanks to the strength of a more muscular international take. Stateside the picture was an underperformer compared to the earlier film, though Nolan’s pursuit of a more earthbound spectacle ensured these films didn’t break the bank. While Nolan closed the book, the WB will open it again, with Batman appearing in a “Justice League” movie coming in 2015, followed by “The Batman,” or whatever it ends up being called.
"Skyfall" (Sony) - $1 Billion Plus
While the James Bond series took on a new pedigree with director Sam Mendes aboard, few thought it would take the character into a new stratosphere. But that’s exactly what happened as “Skyfall” became the highest grossing film in the series within days, by a considerable margin. Bond’s victory took the film to the top of the all-time U.K. charts, and the picture is still playing in American theaters as it threatens $300 million stateside. Not bad considering no previous Bond film ever grossed more than $180 million domestically.
This series continues to march towards improbable heights. The last picture became the highest-grossing animated international hit, and this effort easily broke that record, even if its American receipts were the lowest in the franchise’s history. You’d think Sony and Blue Sky would march ahead with a follow-up, but none has been announced.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2" (Lionsgate/Summit) - $795 million
No franchise picture was more exultant this year than Summit’s fifth and most successful “Twilight” movie in a five-year span, a model of franchise efficiency that may change the way studios adapt established properties. While the series peaked with the box office returns on the second one stateside, the films continued to bring in new fans overseas, even as the story wound down to a close. This is the biggest of the franchise films to be closing shop, but since Summit’s merger with Lionsgate, you wonder if they can’t help but think that there’s still milk in this cow. They still have “The Hunger Games” in their arsenal (not to mention “The Expendables,” which saw a second installment gross $300 million this year), though like “Twilight” that series is also finite, so it could be possible that audiences are re-invited to Forks, Washington in the near future.
"Madagascar: Europe’s Most Wanted" (Paramount/Dreamworks) - $782 million
With a plum release date and a solid ad campaign, almost anything CG-animated can do killer business. So while it seemed that no one was exactly asking for another “Madagascar” film, the new one still handily out-grossed earlier efforts in the series both here and abroad. This franchise may not be “iconic,” but it’s proven to be a solid successor to the defunct “Shrek” series for Dreamworks.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" (Sony) - $752 million
While Sony initially sought the chance to make a less-expensive “Spider-Man” than the previous three, this effort still ballooned to a considerable $230 million budget, which may or may not count the numerous reported reshoots. Still, it looks like you’ll find success with whatever you can slap the Web-Slinger’s name on, as this picture grabbed a final tally only slightly lower than this franchise’s regular performance, though enhanced 3D prices played a role. Word-of-mouth was rougher this time around, as this series has usually been beloved by (weirdly undemanding) critics, so all eyes are on “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” slated for a summer 2014 release.
The only non-sequel amongst the top nine highest-grossing films this year, the Suzanne Collins’ adaptation had a cozy spring release date and a marketing juggernaut behind the picture, scoring a spectacular $400 million domestically. The fervor didn’t exactly carry over internationally, but overseas audiences are usually less receptive to franchise-starters, so expect that to change with next year’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” And in case you were wondering, yes it is a little depressing to continue typing out the fact that these films will all have even bigger sequels.
"Men In Black 3" (Sony) - $624 million
Big Willie Style couldn’t get this film over the first picture’s domestic tally even with fifteen years of inflation and 3D prices. Fortunately, again, it was the overseas audience to the rescue, making this the biggest in the series thus far worldwide. Sony has claimed they are considering a follow-up, but given the profit participation of all involved (including producer Steven Spielberg), there might be some paycheck adjustments. Still, $624 million isn’t bad for a film that was shot and reshot through a sea of rewrites that stretched out over months.
"Brave" (Disney) - $535 million
Even with robust box office numbers, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the general vibe about this film from audiences and critics was largely, “Fine.” Domestically it was a mid-range performer for the studio, and overseas the same, but it’s rare that in one year Pixar could so handily be outdrawn internationally by not one, but two competitors, in the latest from the “Ice Age” and “Madagascar” series. With the diminished grosses of “Cars 2,” the middling returns on 3D re-releases of “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters Inc.,” and upcoming retreads including “Monsters University” and “Planes” (not technically a Pixar offering, though it’s clearly a product of the “Cars” machine), the suggestion seems to be that the brand is beginning to stretch itself thin.
"Ted" (Universal) $501 million
The most unexpected success in a year of completely predictable hits, “Ted” shot writer-director-star Seth MacFarlane to the A-List. Passed over by Fox with a $60 million budget, “Ted” picked up Mark Wahlberg and ended up at Universal, giving the actor his biggest hit, and leading to the raised industry profile of MacFarlane that now has him hosting the Academy Awards.
Within days, “The Hobbit” will pass the $500 million mark worldwide, with likely more to come. The question is, how much more? With most overseas regions receiving the film already, there’s very few audiences left for “The Hobbit” to enchant, and it looks like it will collect far less than the $1 billion gross for “The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King,” despite 3D prices. This is still a middling showing for a series that had previously excited audiences and critics, but unless the second film takes a serious box office nosedive, it was worth the WB kicking the tires on another Middle Earth trilogy.
"Prometheus" (Fox) - $402 million
Derided and mocked by sci-fi fans, “Prometheus” lost a chunk of its audience after its solid opening, but overseas the film went over like gangbusters. Fox seems interested in another adventure in the world of “Prometheus,” but it does seem as if they won’t be able to persuade director Ridley Scott or writer Damon Lindelof to return. Oh well, can’t wait for “Prometheus The Second” directed by John Moore and starring Gemma Arterton, with Ben Foster as Michael Fassbender’s disembodied head!
"Snow White And The Huntsman" (Universal) - $396 million
The block wasn’t exactly busted by this fairy tale re-telling, and the film seemed overshadowed by the controversy regarding star Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders. But interest in a sequel was high even before the film’s release, as there were discussions on following the Huntsman character in another adventure. That being said, there seems to be some confusion over where to take this narrative between him and Snow White herself, as Kristen Stewart remains locked in for a second installment.
"Taken 2" (Fox) - $365 million
Here we go again, again!, said audiences who opted for Bryan Mills’ return. In a rare move, the poorly-reviewed sequel actually nearly matched the American gross of the first film, while heavily over-performing internationally. Fox and Liam Neeson seem all-in for a “Taken 3.” And with Fox originally considering other tough guy character actors to replace Neeson in this sequel when schedules couldn’t be worked out, it’s possible they could allow Neeson to bow out with this series on a high, allowing a different actor a shot in the spotlight.