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2012 Box Office Wrap: Wide Release Blockbusters, Underperformers and Bellyflops, Studio Winners and Losers

Thompson on Hollywood By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood January 6, 2013 at 5:35PM

It's not easy figuring out what films were hits or misses (or something inbetween). Domestic gross totals don't tell the whole story. You need to look at revenue as well as production and marketing costs to assess global returns. (Remember, theaters return about half of what they take in at theater wickets to distributors.) Here's our stab at sorting out 143 films initially released in 2012 that played wide (750 screens or more) for at least one week.
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Distributor analysis for 2012:

While total gross went up somewhat in 2012 from the previous year ($10.8 billion from $10.2 in 2011, a 6.5% increase), the big story is the major shifts both in market share ranking and the individual fortunes of various studios and distributors. Within the numbers, though, how their individual slates performed compared to costs is the more important story. With that in mind, and having categorized the wide releases above, here is a brief look at the top players, in order.

(Specialized companies whose revenues for 2011 came primarily from limited release films -- Weinstein, Focus, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics and others -- will be included in a specialized film report.)

#1 - SONY

This is a strong showing for Sony, but a necessary one with three films with a production budget over $200 million, led by MGM-coproduced "Skyfall."  All of them are headed into profitable territory, although two  -"The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Men in Black 3"  - had to struggle a bit to reach expectations. A fourth with a  $100 million-plus cost, "Total Recall," was a major flop. Sony also took the world-wide crown at $4.4 billion in gross, though 20th Century-Fox narrowly beat them out for top spot in international territories outside U.S./Canada.

Sony climbed to #1 from third the previous year, with a total gross more than 30% better, a significant increase. 16.6% isn't dominating though - it's the lowest since 2007, indicating a more evenly divided share among top distributors.

What put Sony over the top were several under-$100 million hits - the animated "Hotel Transylvania," the rom-com "The Vow," solid performers in a variety of genres like "21 Jump Street," "Looper," "Hope Springs," and "Think Like a Man" - all of which hit their marks and then some. Curiously, two entries in a successful series - the latest installments of "Underworld" and "Resident Evi," though decent, were hobbled by inflated budgets combining with no growth in gross. And they stumbled with flops from comedy stars - Adam Sandler and Kevin James - who had delivered in the past.

2012 results: Blockbusters - 1; Smashes - 3; Hits - 4; Low Budget Hits - 1; Underperformers - 2; Recoupers - 1; Flops - 5; To be determined - 1

2012 STUDIO MARKET SHARE

#2 - WARNER BROS.

Consistency remains the hallmark of Warners. This is the sixth straight year they have been in the top two, a record unmatched by any other company in recent years. While "The Dark Knight Rises" failed to take its hoped-for top spot for the year ("The Avengers" beat it by a wide margin both in the US and abroad, and it reached number five outside the U.S.), Nolan's third "Batman" entry still qualified as a blockbuster. At year's end "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" started off strong and should hit the $1 billion mark as well.

Below that, there's a big falloff. "Magic Mike" was a surprise hit, but was an acquisition with less profit participation than an in-house film would have had, and they didn't handle it overseas. "Argo" and "Journey 2" proved profitable, and "The Lucky One" and "Project X" did well as lower-budget hits. But they sustained two expensive flops - "The Dark Shadows" and "Rock of Ages," invested in "Cloud Atlas" for the US (that film was financed primarily from German money and the filmmakers themselves), had a rare failure with a Clint Eastwood-starrer, and struggled to break even with the $150-million "Wrath of the Titans."

The end result was a market-share fall of about 15%. More worrisome is that its biggest films were not only expensive, but their creators (Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson) likely had generous profit participation that will cut into the studio's returns.

2012 results: Blockbusters - 2; Smashes - 1; Hits - 2; Low Budget Hits - 2; Underperformers - 1; Recoupers - 2; Flops - 6 

#3 - BUENA VISTA

The Disney company scored big with "The Avengers" as the easy #1 film both at home and abroad, up two percentage points and one position in market share. But otherwise it was an uneven and sometimes precarious year, with the shake-up in management even before "John Carter" flopped indicating a company doing its best to get out of the year in as good shape as possible.

Beyond "Avengers" and "John Carter," the top news was the barely profitable performance of Pixar's "Brave," the most expensive animated film of the year but worldwide only the third-biggest grossing. DreamWorks' "Lincoln," whose final results are yet to come (it has yet to open internationally, although is headed toward $200 million in the U.S.) has been an unexpected smash as well as potentially Disney's first-ever Best Picture winner. Beyond that, they were mainly trading dollars with a bunch of films that looked like they will recoup, a series of 3-D reissues of past animated hits that decline in totals with each subsequent one, and not much else.

2012 results: Blockbusters - 1; Smashes - 1; Hits - 2; Recoupers - 7; Flops - 2

#4 - UNIVERSAL

A major pre-summer flop ("Battleship") put this company on the defensive early, but 2012 actually turned out positive for the studio. And even that flop's failure was exaggerated by its low U.S. showing (only a bit more than 20% of the worldwide total). Overall, the company improved its market share by two percentage points and one position.

More importantly, it did so with a series of fresh films that exceeded expectations and raised hopes of sequels and beyond, not at all expected when they were released. And they had more films -- four -- at the blockbuster or smash level than any other studio: comedy "Ted," animated "The Lorax," sequel "American Reunion" (mainly from overseas results), and musical "Les Miserables" (based on results so far). "Snow White and the Huntsman," though expensive, broke through, and they dodged a bullet with the recast "Bourne Legacy" heading toward at least breakeven territory. And apart from "Battleship," Universal's flops were mid-range budget films for the most part, making the damage less severe.

Though not one of its top grossers, one of the company's most notable successes was "Pitch Perfect," a smaller film often relegated to niche companies not thought to be worthy of big studio attention. It has grossed $64 million so far (no overseas yet) on a $16 million budget, but then promoted with a much smaller and targeted marketing campaign that paid dividends with an original initial limited one-week national release in non-specialized theaters. This was a real gamble and a rare example of outside-the-box thinking that likely will be repeated in the coming year and beyond.

2012 results: Blockbusters - 1; Smashes - 3; Hits - 2; Low Budget Hits - 2; Flops - 6

#5 - LIONSGATE

The most radical change for the year comes from Lionsgate making it into the top five, the first company to break into that level since the now-disbanded (as distribution entities) Dreamworks and New Line achieved this earlier this century. It comes about because of the merger of 2011's number seven-ranked Summit with number ten Lionsgate, which still boast two separate production labels, but are now under Lionsgate distribution.

Warner Bros. is the only other company with two blockbusters. Lionsgate boasts the final "Twilight" film and the first "Hunger Games" entry. Their other successes came from mainly the earlier Lionsgate mode, with lower-budgeted success in specific markets (the Tyler Perry franchise, numerous horror films, sequels to "The Expendables" and "Step Up") that, if not stellar in all cases, added up to solid numbers. Their flops came from either mid-level budget films or from acquisitions ("Dredd" being theirs only for the US/Canada).

Indie Lionsgate still remains distinct from the major studios. It has no "studio" lot to call its own (unlike Sony, Warner Bros., Disney, Universal, Fox or Paramount), nor does it have theie integrated international distribution structure. But it clearly more of a significant player in film production and theatrical release. The end of the "Twilight" series makes maintaining this position a challenge, but they are clearly here to stay and have proven they can compete with anyone.

2012 results: Blockbusters - 2; Hits - 2; Low Budget Hits - 2; Recoupers - 3; Flops - 8; To Be Determined - 1

#6 - TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Holding just about even with 2011 domestically, Fox's successes this year were international, where several films grossed substantially more than in the U.S. for best overall. Led by the number four film in worldwide grosses, "Ice Age: Continental Drift" -- which was only the number ten film domestically -- a series of other films exceeded the usual ratio of foreign to U.S. model. "Prometheus," "Life of Pi," and "Taken 2" all thrived overseas, and even a rom-com like "This Means War" doubled its take beyond the borders.

Better yet, they limited their expensive flops to two films ("Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" and "Red Tails"), but at least both films came in under $70 million in cost. Their weak domestic ranking comes from the fact that unlike any other company among the top seven, not one film grossed more than $161 million in the domestic market.

2012 results: Blockbusters - 1; Smashes - 1; Hits - 4; Underperformers - 2; Recoupers - 1; Flops - 5

#7 - PARAMOUNT

An almost unprecedented fall from grace -- Paramount was number one for 2011, its share falling from 19.2 to 8.5% -- came more from a lack of major releases than from failures from those they had. 2011 had "Transformers" and "Mission: Impossible" sequels, "Thor," "Captain America," also in the top 12 and three animated films (two from Dreamworks) in the top 25 - a very strong and broad year.

2012 had nothing like that line-up. Their standout film was "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," from DreamWorks Animation, as was their biggest flop ("Rise of the Guardians"). Thus they neither shared the big profits or losses from these. Still, with DreamWorks Animation now moving to 20th Century Fox, a major part of their offerings to theaters has been removed, right at a time when their production slate otherwise has been weak.

Two lower-budgeted home-grown productions prospered - "Flight" (yet to hit most of the world) and "Paranormal 4." Midlevel-cost "The Dictator" and "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" eked out passable performances, but factor into the so-so overall results. "Jack Reacher," again with Tom Cruise-friendly international dates mostly ahead, looks like a modest hit. The flops otherwise came either from lower-budgeted films or projects financed mostly from outside sources.

2012 results: Blockbusters - 1; Smashes - 2; Hits - 3; Underperformers - 2; Recoupers - 1; Flops - 4; To Be Determined - 1

#8 - THE WEINSTEIN CO.

As always, Weinstein was both a wide-release and specialized distributor last year. Its biggest noise, at least until "Django Unchained" opened in the final week, came from its Oscar wins (all four top categories, from films released in 2011 but did most of their modest wider business in 2012).

The new specialized releases -- most of their slate -- will be covered in a separate report. Otherwise, five other wide-releases had uneven results. The very slow to expand rom-com "Silver Linings Playbook" projects to be a solid hit when it finally goes wide. Annapurna-financed "The Master," despite record-setting platform grosses, turned out to be a major flop. Acquisitions "The Lawless" and "Killing Them Softly" recouped and flopped respectively. And they saved the best for last with "Django," which conceivably could end up in the $300-400 range worldwide before it is through.

(NOTE: The "Piranha 3DD" listed in the chart is an error - that was actually "Piranha 3D." Similar confusion likely contributed to the lack of audience response to the 2012 sequel flop, although it never went wide in the U.S.)

2012 results: Smashes - 1; Hits - 1; Low Budget Hits - 1; Recoupers - 1; Flops - 1

#9 - RELATIVITY

Recent newcomer (as a distributor) Relativity had five films out this year. Though they didn't have a breakout hit, two -- the more expensive "Mirror, Mirror" and the low-budget "Act of Valor" -- showed some strength, although the former had been expected to be their first biggest film yet. Though it likely made a small profit, it fell short of their late-year 2011 success "The Immortals" (which at a slightly lower budget broke the $200-million mark worldwide).

Their pre-"Hunger Games" Jennifer Lawrence-starring "The House at the End of the Street" did only modestly, and two other films -- "Haywire" and "The Raven" --failed to gain much traction, though Relativity's share of the losses were likely minor at worst.

2012 results: Low-Budget Hits - 2; Recoupers: 2; Flops - 2

#11 - OPEN ROAD

The acquisition/distribution company formed by the two largest theater chains in the country - Regal and AMC - found some real success in 2012. They acquire solely finished mid-level budget, quality films that the majors tend to avoid, and then spend reduced marketing budgets because of in-house advantages of having these chains' promotional power behind them. They overperformed on two films, the early-year "The Grey" and the September release of "End of Watch." Their other three releases, assuming low-cost buys, likely recouped or came close while providing found revenue for theaters in weeks that otherwise are off-season.

2012 results: Low Budget Hits - 2; Recoupers: 3

#13 - CBS FILMS

In its third year, CBS Films had four releases, three of which had wide breaks ("Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" remained more limited, with modestly successful returns). Their standout film was the Daniel Radcliffe-starring "The Woman in Black," a reasonable low-budget hit. They likely will recoup on "The Words" and "Seven Psychopaths," but the latter was a disappointment after its strong Toronto Film Festival premiere.

2012 results: Low Budget Hits - 1; Recoupers: 2

#14 - FILMDISTRICT

This revamped company veered away from the more niche-market and awards focus from the days of Bob Berney's involvement, and instead came out near year's end with three acquired and/or distribution-for-hire films. All are likely flops for their producers, but FilmDistrict's risk of opening the long-delayed release of "Red Dawn" (post-MGM bankruptcy) at otherwise adult-oriented Thanksgiving paid off to decent and better than expected results, suggesting that in the future they will be a viable company.

2012 results: Recoupers - 1; Flops - 2

#16 - ROCKY MOUNTAIN

A tip of the hat to the most unexpected success of the year, the right-wing polemic nightmare fantasy documentary "2016: Obama's America," which shared with Michael Moore's much bigger 2004 "Fahrenheit 9/11" in rallying partisans to significant theatrical success while not changing the results of the election. Starting in small red-state markets, then expanding to over 2,000 screens, this shocked the film community and shows the potential of niche marketing to those not usually considered part of the specialized world.

2012 results: Low-Budget Hits: 1; Flops - 1

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


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