By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood September 3, 2013 at 6:11PM
Soon after the summer season started off strong four months ago with the launch of giant Marvel sequel "Iron Man 3," the story shifted from scoring a $5 billion at the box office to Steven Spielberg's forecast of apocalypse, as too many big-budget behemoths were tanking.
As of Labor Day weekend, 46 films opened between May 2 and August 30 that played in at least 750 theaters and/or grossed over $10 million total. The results confirm neither prediction. On paper, the figures are a bit of a wash. The total domestic (U.S./Canada) grosses came in around $4.6 billion, up around 10% from last year, and in raw numbers the highest ever. Adjusted for inflation and counting actual ticket buyers, it lagged a bit behind 2007 and 2009, and came about equal to 2011.
But production costs were too high, up roughly 10-15% from last year. And with a few more titles in release, and each requiring separate marketing expense, it is hard to make a case for the industry on the whole, based on domestic numbers, to claim more than sighs of relief that things weren't even worse.
Also, despite the decent raw figure jump from 2013, the net result for the year so far is just slightly ahead of last year, with January through April down a massive 30% from the previous year. No question that there are smiles given that despite the high risks this summer, that early trend was reversed as the season's revenues went up 10-12%.
Remember that international revenues for Hollywood studio releases are more crucial than ever, making up 65-70% of the ultimate grosses. These days many studio pictures are foreign produced. With some of the films that opened in the U.S. still having to play out or even open in many countries, the final accounting on individual films and studios remains incomplete.
Check the Summer Box Office Chart below which ranks all 46 films by their performance overall on both the domestic and international front. The overall ranking of the top six, even if second-ranked "Despicable Me 2" never plays in China, will likely be the same worldwide as domestic. But the international take saved several expensive films, which would otherwise have been disasters ("Pacific Rim," "The Smurfs 2"). Even a film that was pronounced DOA after a bad U.S. opening --"After Earth" could wind up only a small loss for Sony. of course such a costly tentpole was designed to win big.
The studios build all this into their financial models (which include non-theatrical revenues and marketing costs). And miscalculations can be huge -- "The Lone Ranger," while it managed to gross a quarter billion dollars worldwide, simply cost too much and yielded a $190 million wire-off for Disney. But despite all the noise (usually based on overestimating the initial weekend take in the U.S.), only two other $100 million-plus budget films will be big losers: "R.I.P.D." and "White House Down." ("Turbo" still has much of the world to play). That definitely is at the low end of fears.
Too many films cannibalized each other. The general rule of thumb is that a successful film should triple its opening weekend gross over the course of its domestic run. This year 12 of the top 20 films achieved this, including surprisingly, "The Lone Ranger"--maybe the word of mouth wasn't that bad after all. The biggest multiples were achieved by "Despicable Me 2" (an incredible four times its huge opening weekend of $83 million), "The Heat," "We're the Millers" and "Now You See Me," the last two surprise hits. Last year 13 of the top 20 did this ("The Dark Knight Rises" with its massive opening came close), and the average multiple overall was higher. So it does appear that a plethora of high-profile new openings reduced the grosses of most if not all films to some extent.
Look at "Man of Steel," Warner Bros.' latest reboot of their Superman franchise. Widely expected to challenge "Iron Man 3" at least domestically for top grosser, it ended up #3, some distance behind surprising #2 "Despicable Me 2" in the U.S. and failing to reach $300 million despite a $117 million opening. #5 worldwide at $657 million, it should be a moneymaker for Warners. But the surprise announcement that the next entry in the franchise will team Superman with Batman suggests concern that the elements that went into this success weren't enough to sustain another $225 million + cost before marketing.
While 17 summer films have reached $100 million domestically so far ("The Butler," "Elysium" and "Planes" should join the club as well), an incredible eight were never the #1 film for any weekend. These include one $200 million film-- "World War Z"--and three others, "The Heat," "The Great Gatsby," "Grown Ups 2" and "We're the Millers," that should do better than any of the three non-#1 films that passed $100 million last summer. This speaks to strength rather than weakness as all these films managed to sustain audiences despite opening against a higher profile release.