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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.