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Summer 2013 Box Office Wrap: Winners and Losers, Lessons Learned

Photo of Tom Brueggemann 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.
Henry Cavill in "Man of Steel"
Henry Cavill in "Man of Steel"

3-D sales are down, accounting for a declining percentage of ticket buyers. But even so, 10 of the top 20 domestic grossers were available in this format ("Fast and Furious 6" is the top 2-D picture). This is up from seven of the top 20 last year, although all seven of those were in the top 10, the same as this year. The increase overall this year is more a factor of a higher percentage of top releases being released in 3-D more than an increase in interest.

The clear studio winner of the summer was Universal, although none escaped without sustaining some bruises. Universal had the #2 and #3 biggest films worldwide -- "Despicable Me 2" and "Fast & Furious 6" -- both with multiples of four times their budgets. Two low-budget horror films, "The Conjuring" and "The Purge," grossed 1,000 to 2,500% of their pre-marketing costs -- huge profit margins. They weren't perfect. "2 Guns" underperformed (though still has much of the world to play), "R.I.P.D." was the lowest-grosser for any $100 million + budget release from any company, and "Kick-Ass" was a late summer disappointment. But coming atop six $100-million dollar films last year, "Identity Thief" and the low-budget "Mama" earlier this year, and adding Legendary Films as a production partner over the summer gives them the clear top spot among studios at the moment.

Despite "The Lone Ranger," Disney came out well, with "Monsters University" joining "Iron Man 3" near the top of the summer's successes, and the lower budget "Planes" looking to end up a solid moneymaker. Paramount, continuing its recent trend of fewer releases than its rivals, had two decent performers in "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "World War Z", although both at close to $200 million production costs won't be huge profit makers. 

Warner Bros., led by "Man of Steel" and "Pacific Rim" and coming off a terrible first four months of the year while undergoing major internal executive drama, managed to end up with five of its six releases heading toward breakeven or better, even with a combined cost of close to $700 million (only the late summer lower budget "Getaway" flopped). 

Twentieth Century Fox, aided by strong international results for "The Wolverine" and a major domestic hit with "The Heat" fared respectably, although its animated returns (including with new partner Dreamworks) fell far short of the astounding $877 million "Ice Age: Continental Drift" took in worldwide last year ("Epic" from Dreamworks scored ahead of that film in the U.S.). In a summer where both comedies and family films often prospered, Fox's "The Internship" and "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" fell short of expectations. 

Lionsgate boasted the biggest sleeper of the summer with "Now You See Me" and made a nice profit with their Kevin Hart concert film, but also stubbed their toe with their more expensive sequel "Red 2" and "Peeples" from the usually reliable Tyler Perry.

Sony received the most negative press. Their international arm, regarded as the best in the business, managed to improve their grosses from what seemed greater problems as the summer proceeded. Only "White House Down" among their own productions will be a major loss (the German-financed "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" has them on the hook only for domestic marketing expenses). Low budget "This Is the End" fell just shy of $100 million domestically. "Grown Ups 2" should end up making money, as should "The Smurf 2" eventually, while foreign interest will make "After Earth" far closer to breakeven than initially anticipated. They don't have any films in any of the top 10 rankings though, so overall it wasn't an impressive performance.

More than ever movies are led by international considerations. That is what keeps so many of the most expensive films driven by male stars and keeps plots simple and action-oriented. But perhaps the most important lesson for the summer is that quite a few of the most profitable films were made at a lower budget with the U.S. audience in mind (particularly with female leads). And the business remains unpredictable -- anyone who had "Despicable Me 2" and "Fast & Furious 6" as two of the top three films of the summer would have been making a real long shot bet.

The summer ends as it began against the backdrop of the distraction of major film festivals. Cannes opened with "The Great Gatsby" (an Australian film half-financed locally, along with the director, most of the cast and crew supplemented by American money and stars), and ends with "Gravity" (a British made film with a Mexican director) getting huge attention ahead of its release in a few weeks. Though it can seem like the world of festivals and the blockbuster interests of the studios are polar opposites, in reality they are closely related. Close to half of the directors of these wide releases first got noticed at film festivals. As the final third of the year begins with a large number of acclaimed premieres, whether 2013 turns out to be ahead of 2012 is now largely in the hands of films made by filmmakers who would find themselves at home at Cannes (where Spielberg and Ang Lee served on the jury this year) and other leading festivals.


Box office chart
Box office chart

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Box Office

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.