'The Avengers'
'The Avengers'

On the surface 2012 doesn't look like a game-changer, after a decade of film business upheaval. In many ways the top fifteen top-grossers are all-too familiar--sequels, tentpoles, animated family fare and a comedy. But dig into the hits a bit and there are developments that could change how future films get made.

Much the same as in recent years, eight of the the Top 15 of 2012 (see chart below) are live-action franchise films (either sequels or new series launches) and five are animated (including two sequels). Of the two originals, "Ted" (#8) already has a forthcoming comedy sequel, and "Snow White and the Huntsman" (#15) has one in the works (starring Kristen Stewart). In 2011, only literary adaptation "The Help" and femme comedy "Bridesmaids" fell outside the franchise mold ("Thor" was a Marvel title).

Ice Age Continental Drift

While 2012 yields some new trends, some encouraging, some not, the central business model for movie studios remains the same, so don't expect much to change.

U.S. Market - Not so important?

Last year, Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" raised eyebrows by opening throughout Europe two months before its U.S. release (with most of the rest of world opening ahead of that date). This year, several highly anticipated films got the global jump on their domestic release. Among the top performers, "The Avengers" (one week), "Skyfall" (two weeks), "The Amazing Spider-Man" (one week) all were established as major international hits before opening stateside.

In fact, only one of the 2012 top 10 ("Ted") hadn't opened in at least one territory at least two days before premiering in the U.S. Among other films that got the jump were "Ice Age: Continental Drift" (two weeks), the ill-fated "Battlestar" (five), "Taken 2" (one), "Prometheus" (one). Five years ago, even same-week wide international releases were the exception. Now, they are commonplace. This reinforces the fact that, at least for their tentpoles, the studios treat the domestic market as an increasingly small part of the pie (1/4 to 1/3 of the revenues). Not only do overseas territories frequently rescue films with flat domestic revenues, but the studios increasingly target movie genres and globally known stars to that market. The growth of the foreign market was particularly intense for animated films: at the extreme end, "Ice Age; Continental Drift" did an OK $161 million in the U.S., but a staggering $714 million in the rest of the world.

A-list directors delivered major hits--and flops

This year the creative caliber (based on previous acclaim) of the top seven grossing films is striking. Directors Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan, Gary Ross, Bill Condon, Sam Mendes, Marc Webb and Mark Andrews had been either critically hailed or nominated for Oscars (in various categories). Seven of the top ten Thanksgiving weekend films came from Oscar nominees or winners (Mendes, Condon, Steven Spielberg, Ben Affleck, Ang Lee, David O. Russell, and Robert Zemeckis). And the likely top four films released in December were directed by Oscar-winners Peter Jackson, Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper and Quentin Tarantino, respectively. Throw in earlier 2012 successes from past Oscar contenders Tony Gilroy, Ridley Scott, Steven Soderbergh and John Madden and clearly, the studios are corraling top talent in the name of wide-release films targeted at the global market (where those brand-names count).

Not all top directors succeeded. Pixar animation superstar Andrew Stanton flopped with live-action "John Carter," which yielded a Disney regime change and a $200 million write-off. Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" failed to repeat the massive success of "Alice in Wonderland," and his "Frankenweenie" was at the low end of Disney animated releases. Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" yielded a modest Weinstein Co. release despite a massive platform opening en route to a so far anemic awards boost. The Wachowski siblings (working with Tom Tykwer) found little interest ($66 million worldwide) with $102-million indie-and-self-financed "Cloud Atlas." But the overwhelming evidence is that betting on top talent in a variety of projects paid off bigtime, both in grosses and prestige.

2012 Top 15 Box Office Chart
2012 Top 15 Box Office Chart

Genre tentpoles not guaranteed

Some of the biggest flops of 2012 came from would-be sci-fi/action/special effects tentpoles, usually at the high end of budgets. Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation "John Carter" (Disney) misfired on several counts in terms of execution, built-in target audience and genre marketing; "Battleship" (Hasbro/Universal) looked like a "Transformers" retread; and flaccid remake "Total Recall" (Sony) also lost money. The genre hybrid "Cloud Atlas" was a major global failure (which Warner Bros. lost money on, acquiring it for $25 million for North America).

Audiences are clearly becoming more discerning after an over-reliance on comic book characters and remakes of earlier hits. Other sci-fi features worked well - Scott's "Prometheus" and lower-budget "Looper" were smart well-made hits that earned decent or better reviews with the help of twisty original plots. Expect the same old from the studios going forward, as studios have hundreds of millions already invested in characters and brands. But launching new would-be franchises will bring extra scrutiny on built-in fan bases: these films aren't automatic cash cows.

Hits spread more across the whole year

2012's domestic grosses will be on par with last year's, despite a significant drop in summer numbers. The Olympics -- both as competition for 17 nights, but also because studios shifted most major pictures out of the period, thus making a decline more likely -- played a big role. In a rare move, Lionsgate launched the first of its highly anticipated "Hunger Games" series in March, not summer, coming just $40 million under "The Dark Knight Rises" domestically ("Games" was the rare blockbuster not to gross more internationally).  The rest of late winter and mid-autumn through Thanksgiving performed a bit above normal. With release dates staked out often a year or more in advance, it doesn't look like March 2013 will see anything like the success of "Hunger Games," but going forward, evidence from this year could encourage studios to not limit their biggest tittles only to peak seasons.

Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow
Women directors almost non-existent for studios

Less than three years ago, Kathryn Bigelow broke new ground when she won the Best Director Oscar and "The Hurt Locker" became the first film directed by a woman to win Best Picture. This year, she also delivered the most high-profile live-action film directed by a woman, "Zero Dark Thirty." With its limited late-year release, it will make the top 100 grossing films released this year. But the rest of that list shows only two female directors -- "Brave" (co-directed by creator Brenda Chapman, who was thrown off the movie) and "Cloud Atlas" (co-directed by two men and Lana Wachowski). That's the pathetic grand total. (Anne Fletcher's comedy "The Guilt Trip" is flailing badly at the year-end box office.)

Nora Ephron died in July, too young, after a career that boasted four significant commercial hits. Bigelow came back with the most critically acclaimed film of the year with commercial potential when it goes wide in 2013. And the indie and documentary worlds are rife with acclaimed, modest successes films from women (Jennifer Westfeldt's relationship comedy "Friends With Kids" lead the way in 2012).

But all that attention rarely leads to the big-budget assignments landed by such talented male foreign imports as Daniel Espinosa ("Safe House" #20), Tarsem Singh Dhandwar ("Mirror Mirror," #41) and Timur Bekmambetov ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" #78). Marc Webb was hired for "The Amazing Spider-Man" (#6) after a single successful crossover indie romance ("500 Days of Summer")-- which Bigelow reportedly turned down. And when "Zero Dark Thirty" came under widespread attack from Washington, the silence from Hollywood's creative community was telling -- would they not have defended Steven Spielberg or George Clooney or Clint Eastwood had the government attacked them?

African-American directors fared only slightly better tham women, generating at least six of the top 100 films, although none was a summer or Christmas release.