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Summer Box Office Lessons: Grosses Dip, Dozen $100 Million Grossers, Wahlberg Rocks

Box Office
by Tom Brueggemann
August 31, 2012 2:25 PM
4 Comments
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'The Avengers'

As summer 2012 ends, studio execs are heaving sighs of relief. The expense of making and marketing a tentpole blockbuster keeps climbing, and with it the need to gross $500 million or more worldwide to ensure profit. Twelve films will gross more than $100 millon domestically (numbers through 8/26) in the US and Canada, down dramatically from 17 last year. (Remember, studios get roughly half of the revenue from tickets sold, a slightly higher share for long-running hits.)

Total US/Canada theatrical gross for the "summer" period (May 4, when "The Avengers" opened), through last Sunday, August 26, was $4.1 billion, down 2.5% from $4.2 billion last summer. Without the 17-day Olympics --which competed for audiences and likely prevented several films from opening, since distribs steer clear of opening new films against it--total gross likely would have equalled or slightly increased over last year. Still, no one likes a graph that is heading down. See the Top Twelve Chart on the jump.

So what happened this summer?

The rich got richer

The two top films this summer -- "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" -- have grossed about $1,150,000, which by itself was better than 1/4 of the total business. The top two last year -- "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2" and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" -- grossed $733 million (some of it post-summer), or around 1/6 of the total. This just reinforces the "winner take all" mentality that feeds studio production decisions.

But at the other end, only 12 films will pass $100 million this year -- 17 did last summer, a huge falloff.

The big winners

Hard to deny Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan among others their major successes, but three people popped this summer.

Neither Tom Cruise nor Johnny Depp -- both coming off huge hits in their most recent franchise film releases -- was able to make "Rock of Ages" or "Dark Shadows" (both Warner Brothers films) a success. Yet Mark Wahlberg, far less acclaimed, far less an obvious "A" player came back with yet another in a string of hits, "Ted." And more than his previous many big deal films -- "Boogie Nights," "The Departed," "The Fighter" -- he was the face of this film, the draw for audiences initially. And it is his second film of the year whose worldwide gross quadruples its initial budget (after "Contraband"), rarified territory for most actors to find themselves in.

But no film showed a better performance-to-budget ratio than "Magic Mike." With massive deferred payment and profit participation, this $7 million independent film (distributed in the US, but not elsewhere, by Warner Bros.) has so far grossed more than 20 times that cost. For director Steven Soderbergh, it's his biggest hit other than the "Oceans" franchise since his dual smashes of 2000, "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." For star and producer Channing Tatum, who developed this project based on his own experiences--on top of his earlier year success in "21 Jump Street"--this will open doors even wider.

Movies are made for the world, with the US decreasing in importance

Last year, the top 12 US grossing films did 37% of their total business domestically. With much overseas business yet to be calculated due to later openings for some films, it would appear that this will be close to the total this go-round. This suggests that the rest of the world is dealing with the economic downturn, as the recent trend had been for a steady increase in the share of international revenue.

Meanwhile, the studios--conscious of piracy-- are opening more of their big-budget tentpoles much earlier overseas compared to their US dates. Now, not only do many open globally at the same time, but in a move that would have been considered unthinkable as recently as five years ago, some of the most important films open elsewhere first.

It made sense last fall for "The Adventures of Tintin," with its legion of comic-book fans not extending to the US, to play Europe weeks before here (the first Steven Spielberg film to do so). But this summer has seen this pattern become almost the norm. "The Avengers" opened in at least 50 countries, including Vietnam and Bulgaria, before the US. "Battleship" played most of the world a month or more earlier. "Prometheus" had a one to two week jump elsewhere. Multiple factors come into play -- local holidays and vacation schedules, sports events, even fear of the more influential American critics damaging a film's reputation worldwide. But this trend reinforces the notion that appealing mainly to US audiences is no longer an alternative.

The world has caught up with American theaters, but more importantly, US marketing no longer dominates. As all the studios have elevated their international sales and marketing departments, and production decisions -- not only the stories, but the stars and the directors become increasingly non-American -- it has become easier to establish a film's image with little or no regard to the American reaction and publicity, at least when far away from Oscar season.

And that in turn explains why the summer is dominated by a narrow range of films.

Families first

Animated film, led by Pixar, of course is for all moviegoers, but its primary appeal is to family audiences. This year, three of the top nine summer films were animated -- a new high. And although their costs are high, they usually fall below what the top live action films cost to make. And their post-theatrical life, particularly in DVD sales (perfectly timed for Christmas) is much ahead of most other films in revenues earned.

It's truly extraordinary how much more successful they are outside the US. "Ice Age: Continental Drift" provided the shocker of the year -- at the moment, it is second only to "The Dark Knight Rises" in gross outside the US for any summer release, making more than 80% of its total overseas. "Madagascar 3," with figures from Italy, Germany, the UK and Australia still to come, will do over 2/3s of its business in foreign markets.

The one exception is "Brave," the most expensive of the group, but also the lowest in worldwide gross, which will likely only see a small profit. The reason for that is tied into another trend.

Women and minorities last

Studios tend to have their summer slates close to finalized a year or more in advance, so last summer's successes "The Help" and "The Bridesmaids" were too recent to have had an impact on this year's productions. But even so, the dearth of top titles aimed at and/or directed by women was dramatic.

Nora Ephron's death this summer reminded people of how successful she was as a director, including summer playtime ("Julie and Julia" just three years ago.) And yet for the second summer in a row, no wide release live-action film was directed by a woman. (2008 also saw "Mamma Mia" pass $600 million worldwide for Phyllida Lloyd.)

And in a year of the great success of "The Hunger Games" and the continued appeal of the "Twilight" series, female characters are much less front-and-center during summer months. Among the top live-action films, only "Snow White and the Huntsman" (not exactly an adult-female centered film) had a non-male lead. "Madea's Witness Protection" had a lead female role played by a man. "Hope Springs" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" appealed to a range of much older moviegoers.

Of the African-Americans in the summer's big-budget films, from Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman to "MIB 3"'s Will Smith, still a global marquee draw, only Smith a lead.

Denzel Washington is one of the most reliable and successful actors around -- yet of his nine most recent films going back to 2005, only one, "The Taking of Pelham 123," has had a summer release. The reasons for this likely include his lesser success (though still considerable) in the rest of the world. "Safe House" did a solid $125 million in the US as a February release, which was 60% of its worldwide total. For summertime playtime, with our summer films being the same as for the rest of the world, that just isn't good enough.

While foreign directors from far-flung corners of the world (say, Russian Timur Bekmambetov, "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter") are entrusted with expensive studio films, no African-American director had the same opportunity this summer (although Tyler Perry did have his second $65 million-plus indie film of the year).

But back to "Brave." Its lead character was female (and its female writer-director Brenda Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews, presumably to widen its commercial appeal). Is that why it fell far short of two other animated films in the rest of the world? It likely was a contributing factor.

Comedies are great, but risky

This year's breakout summer comedy hit was "Ted." But its success goes against most summer rules -- it's not a franchise film (either sequel or intended to start a series), it has no obvious overseas hook, it can't be described in five words. Last summer had "Hangover 2." But comedy hits are far more rare than what historically has been the case -- and again this likely is because of the internationalization of the business, particularly in the summer. Comedy doesn't always travel. Even though they usually are less expensive to make, they become bigger risks in the seasonal marketplace, and thus more often are held back for other times of the year.

4 Comments

  • Steve G | September 2, 2012 8:02 PMReply

    Was Mark Wahlberg really drawing audiences to TED? Wasn't it just as much the crass teddy bear (a concept easily conveyed in the poster and trailer) and it being 'the first motion picture from the creator of FAMILY GUY'? Sure, Wahlberg probably helped draw in a bigger crowd - I could imagine Adam Sandler in the role turning off a lot of people. But as the comic 'straight guy', it seems odd for Wahlberg to get the lion's share of credit for a hit comedy.

  • Jill c Brooke | September 1, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    I wonder if the reason that American comedies that are hits in the US but don't sell overseas, is that the low-brow, men-behaving-like-spoiled-boys silliness isn't appreciated by other cultures that don't have the leisure to let entitlement get in the way of growing up?

  • Amyiseverywhere | September 1, 2012 3:23 AMReply

    Excuse me, but you say Magic Mike was a top grosser and also there were very few films
    aimed at women this summer because there was nothing like Bridesmaids. Who do you think went to see a film about male strippers? And took all her girfriends with her? Probably on their hen night? Hasn't the success of Fifty Shades taught you anything? We aren't all about the wedding, guys, that's just a male fantasy anout the purity of woen.Weddings only came into existence so the church could legitimise, control and monitor SEX. A female writer of this piece would not have got this so wrong. Ha ha ha

  • Tom Brueggemann | September 1, 2012 4:29 PM

    Amy -

    I think only 1 of the 12 top grossers of the summer aimed at adult women qualifies as proving that there were very few films geared for them. And last year both "The Help" and "Bridesmaids," both much bigger than "Magic Mike" (which indeed relied primarily on female interest) filled this niche better than what the studios presented this year.
    Again, this is all tied in with any film going in the summer having to justify a simultaneous worldwide release, and most of the rest of the world is even less interested than American audiences, at least according to what those who greenlight movies think. Last year's successes hopefully will result in a better balance by next year.
    I doubt many female writers on box office results would have brought the traditional reason for marriage into the discussion to be honest.

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