Summer Box Office Wrap: Winners and Losers, from Karate Kid to Cats and Dogs

by Anthony D'Alessandro
September 8, 2010 7:14 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
In the final analysis the summer box office doesn't look so bad, writes TOH numbers cruncher Anthony D'Alessandro, who insists that weighing cost vs. return is more important than tallying the grosses or admissions.

The domestic box office totaled its second best summer ever with $4.21 billion, the fourth year in a row that the season surpassed the $4 billion figure. 
 
Sure, summer was off 3% from last year’s record $4.33 billion (per Box Office Mojo), however, most studios and exhibitors didn’t sweat the heat wave which is totaled from the first Friday in May through Labor Day Monday.
 
Nonetheless, the media is asking why the summer tallies were down by some $120 million from last year. Theatrical admissions, currently totaling 552 million, are at 13-year low, emphasizes THR.  While attendance is another means of measuring theatrical performance, it’s a misleading statistic. From the POV of most distributors and exhibitors, this summer's returns are anything but in the gutter. Still, some had it better than others.

Reasons abound for the minor B.O. shortfall: Fewer wide releases (49 in 2009 vs. 45 in 2010), studios’ failure at launching new franchises, Jerry Bruckheimer’s epic misfires and that god-awful Memorial Day holiday frame.
 
As we stated in our mid-summer wrap, moviegoers made prudent choices at the multiplex: Many valued a second viewing of Inception or Toy Story 3 more than the plethora of pics on the marquee.  Younger crowds saved their pennies by opting for two films instead of three in a week.
 
After starting off with a bang, the studios’ 3-D craze failed to push summer grosses to a record level, stirring debate on the visual format’s potency.  Though genre films like Piranha 3D (current B.O. $23.1 million) and Step Up 3D (the lowest installment of the series with $41.3 million) reaped 80%-90% of their ticket sales from 3-D hubs on their opening weekends, they soon fell off the charts.  Summer’s top film Toy Story 3 ($408.8 million) and Universal’s animated surprise Despicable Me ($240.4 million) made more than half their bread in 3-D, thus supporting the majors’ arguments that 3-D cinema is ripe for four quadrant and family tentpoles, not Z-grade titles. 
 
There’s some movement among the studios in their summer rankings since last reported on August 5:
 
--Fueled by Iron Man 2 and Shrek Forever After, Paramount rallied with $778.4 million (-12% vs. ’09).   Don’t be misled by their seasonal decline: Last summer the studio had Transformers 2 ($402.1 million), but that wasn’t enough to make them No. 1 among the majors.
 
--Sony sprung past Disney for second place with $679.7 million (+24%) thanks to its chick lit pic Eat Pray Love ($70.3 million) and guy-pleaser The Other Guys ($108.1 million). 
 
--Disney took third with $634.6 million (+4%), riding on Pixar's Toy Story 3
 
--Over the last month, Warner Bros. outpaced Universal for fourth place with $522 million (-48%), thanks to repeat biz on Inception  and three August also-rans.  Though the studio was down from its $1 billion take last summer, it’s partly due to studio's reallocation of product into the year-end frame: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Yogi Bear and  Due Date
 
--Universal took fifth with $500.2 million, per Box Office Mojo, (+45%), thanks to Despicable Me’s repeat family viewings which propelled it past Par/D’Works’ Shrek Forever After ($238.4 million).
 
--Summit sewed up $365.2 million (+987%) in sixth thanks to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($298.8 million).
 
--Fox took what it could from a string of failed attempted franchises with $349.5 (-43%) million in seventh.  Last summer there was security in pre-sold brands, i.e Night at the Museum 2, Wolverine and Ice Age 3.
 
--Lionsgate wound up with a decent summer after its B.O. blood bath with Killers ($47 million).  Kudos to Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables ($94 million) and cash cow The Last Exorcism ($33.5 million).  The distributor took last place among the majors and mini-majors with $179.9 million (up 1300%).
 
Though Hollywood.com’s Paul Dergarabedian is sour on admissions, he’s actually bullish on summer 2010’s final B.O., exclaiming that it’s a record of $4.35 billion.  I’m more inclined to believe the Hollywood Reporter’s figure of $4.2 billion The trade crunches figures with Rentrak, a B.O. service whose stats are held accountable by both exhibitors and distributors.  Box Office Mojo’s number also jives with THR.
 
Various trade stories have mimicked Dergarabedian’s assertions that admissions are off:  Variety says they’re down 8% from 2009. THR says 6%.
 
The truth: We don’t know the actual number of admissions.  There isn’t an accurate counter in place at Canadian and U.S. theaters that tallies turnstile clicks.  Nor is there a metered sampling, similar to the way that Nielsen Media Research extrapolates the TV viewing population.
 
Admissions are computed by dividing the total summer B.O. by the quarter’s current average ticket price, which the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) reports at $7.88 (+ from 2009’s $7.50).  The question always begged is: When was the last time a moviegoer paid $7.88?  In fact, admissions could be severely lower than what’s already reported.  Metropolitan folk shell out between $10-$13 at theater and if that number was used as a divisor, summer ticket sales could be as low as 334.6 million. 
 
NATO’s un-weighted measure is the only head count barometer at the industry’s disposal.  The trade organization hires an accounting firm which polls exhibitors on their ticket prices.  Hence, matinee, senior citizen and evening prices are built into a theater average.
 
Of greater importance to any studio is the amount of cash it is depositing in its coffers.  Likewise, here’s a rundown of what worked and didn’t work based on their domestic box office to cost ratio. 
 
BLOCKBUSTER HITS
 
1.      The Karate Kid (Sony), $176.3 million cost: $40 million, ratio: 4.4
2.      The Twilight Saga: Eclipse(Summit), $298.8 million, cost: $68 million, ratio: 4.39
3.      Despicable Me (Universal)    $241.5 million, cost: $69 million, ratio: 3.5
4.      Toy Story 3(Disney), $408.9 million, cost: $200 million, ratio: 2.04
5.      Grown Ups(Sony), $160.2 million, cost: $80 million, ratio:2.00
6.      Inception (Warner Bros.) $278.5 million, cost: $160 million, ratio:1.74
7.      Iron Man 2 (Paramount)$312.5 million, cost: $200 million, ratio: 1.56
8.      Shrek Forever After (Paramount/DreamWorks Animation)$238.4 million, cost: $165 million, ratio:1.44
9.      The Other Guys (Sony)$108.1 million, cost: $85 million, ratio:1.27.
10.  Expendables (Lionsgate)$94 million, cost: $82 million, ratio:1.15
 
CASH COWS
1.      The Last Exorcism (Lionsgate), $33.5 million, cost: $2 million, B.O. to cost ratio: 16.5
2.      Vampires Suck(Fox) $33.2 million, cost:          $18 million, ratio:1.84.
3.      Just Wright(Fox Searchlight) $21.5 million, cost: $12 million, ratio:1.79
4.      Letters to Juliet (Summit), $53 million, cost: $30 million, ratio: 1.77
5.      Ramona and Beezus (Fox),$25.3 million, cost: $15 million, ratio:1.69.
 
 
LOSERS
 
1.Jonah Hex (Warner Bros), $10.5 million, cost: $65  million, ratio: 0.16
2. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney), $61.8 million, cost: $150 million, ratio: 0.41
3.The Prince of Persia (Disney), $90.7 million, cost: $200 million, ratio:0.45
4. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Universal), $29.3 million, cost: $60 million, ratio:0.49
5. Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, $42.2 million, cost: $85 million, ratio:0.50

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