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

Photo of Tom Brueggemann By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood August 31, 2012 at 2:25PM

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.

Hits are not necessarily in 3-D

Seven of the 12 $100 million films this summer were released in 3-D (including three animated hits). Last year had exactly the same number. The big difference was that Christopher Nolan had the clout to refuse to shoot "The Dark Knight Rises" in 3-D. Last year, four of the five biggest films were 3-D (only "Hangover 2" wasn't). This year the Nolan film was joined by "Ted" as a top five non-3-D release. That hardly qualifies as a trend though, and expect the studios to continue to push the digital process.

Imax however continues to be a bigger draw. Movietickets Inc. reported this week that for the summer they had a 30% increase in ticket sales for higher-priced Imax presentations.

This emphasis on visual spectacle and special effects, along with all the other factors mentioned, will just reinforce the narrow range of films released during the summer.

Adults still had films to see

To Rome With Love

Most of the "older" (in Hollywood terms, over 30) audience of course saw the big studio releases. But this summer saw a surprisingly strong group of specialized films released and, more importantly, succeed. Led by two May releases - Fox Searchlight's "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and Focus' "Moonrise Kingdom," both grossing in the mid-40s domestically ("Marigold" doing more than $90 million additionally internationally) found close to the success that Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" had last year. His own "To Rome With Love" only did a fraction of last year's hit, but still added to a wide range of successes that also included "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Bernie" and "Intouchables" all grossing $7 million or more during this period, where last year only "The Tree of Life" joined "Midnight in Paris" at that level. This will only encourage specialized distributors to counterprogram more next year.

The lessons learned from this summer, in terms of future production, won't be applied for another two years. But while there's evidence that studios are shifting away from over-reliance on too-few tentpoles, the globalization of Hollywood will continue, and the studios will continue to bat for the fences. The risks are just too high to stray too far from the tried and mainly true.

Title (Distributor)                                           US/Canada gross     Total world gross                                Budget

  1. The Avengers (Buena Vista)                               $618 million     $1.5 billon                                      $220 million

  2. The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros.)          $423 million        $942 million                                       $250 million

  3. The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony)                       $258 million      $705 million                                   $230 million

  4. Brave (Buena Vista)                                           $230 million      $443 million                                    $185 million

  5. Ted (Universal)                                                   $215 million     $371 million                                     $ 50 million

  6. Madagascar 3 (Paramount)                                $214 million     $583 million                                    $145 million

  7. MIB 3 (Sony)                                                       $179 million     $622 million                                    $225 million

  8. Snow White & the Huntsman (Universal)           $155 million     $394 million                                    $170 million 

  9. Ice Age: Continental Drift (Fox)                        $154 million       $816 million                                     $95 million

10. Prometheus (Fox)                                             $126 million   $341 million                                        $130 million

11. Magic Mike (Warner Bros.)                           $113 million      $154 million                                   $7 million    

12. The Bourne Legacy (Universal)                         $86 million        $131 million                                   $125 million

(All of these films will add to their totals at least slightly. "The Bourne Legacy" will pass $100 million easily. Worldwide is tougher to project, but with much of the world yet to open, somewhere between $200-250 million looks likely).

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Box Office, The Dark Knight Rises, Brave

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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.