Admissions in 2011 were an estimated 1.28 billion, down 4% from 2010’s 1.34 billion and marking the lowest number since 1995’s 1.26 billion. Attendance has been up and down over the past decade, but never exceeding the most recent high of 1.57 billion tallied in 2002.
But to be fair, 2002 could be said to be a case of the perfect boxoffice storm. The top titles that year read like an all-star film team -- “Spiderman,” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Signs,” “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” all of which grossed well more than $200 million each and with 2002 ticket prices, that helped drive up attendance figures.
As usual, sequels dominated the top echelon of the boxoffice last year. Only two of the ten highest grossers were not sequels -- Paramount's “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” both of which were based on established Marvel Comic book characters.
Warner Bros.’ finale to the epic “Harry Potter" franchise, "The Deathly Hallows Part 2” (in 3-D) was the highest-grossing film of the year with $381 million in domestic receipts, followed by Paramount’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” with $352.4 million (in 3-D), and Summit’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” with $276.1 million (in 2-D).
The most popular MPAA rating by far among the top ten films this year was PG-13, as eight films – including the top three – all bore this rating. Only one film was rated R--Warner Bros.’ “The Hangover Part II"--while Disney/Pixar’s “Cars 2” was rated G.
Paramount led the market share pack this year with an outstanding $1.9 billion -- a studio best, topping last year’s second-place $1.7 billion. Among the studio’s 15 releases in 2011, three were from DreamWorks, including the distributor’s top grossing film “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” The third film in the “Transformers” franchise was the second-highest grossing release of the year, and second highest of the franchise. Altogether the worldwide tally for the three “Transformer” films is a hefty $2.7 billion. The second and third-highest grossers for the company in 2011 were both Marvel titles - “Thor” ($181 million) and “Captain America” ($176.7 million).
Animated films figured prominently in Paramount’s mix with two DreamWorks titles landing fourth and fifth-place finishes – “Kung Fu Panda 2” kicked up $165.2 million, followed by “Puss in Boots” with $145.5 million. “Rango” pulled in a respectable 123.3 million, while “The Adventures of Tintin” was released near Christmas and has pulled in $50.8 million to date.
With a miniscule production budget of a reported $5 million, “Paranormal Activity 3” was a huge money maker for the studio as the horror film grossed $103.8 million domestically, while the distributor’s biggest disappointment was Martin Scorsese's $155-million “Hugo,” which has grossed $50.2 million so far. In all, Paramount had ten films gross more than $100 million at the boxoffice in 2011, including “True Grit,” which was released just before Christmas in 2010.
Warner Bros., which came in second in market share with around $1.8 billion in receipts, released the top-grossing film of the year, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.” Warners had finished in the top spot in 2010 with around $1.9 billion. The eighth and final Potter film conjured up $381 million – a Potter franchise best. Altogether the “Harry Potter” franchise has amassed a mind-numbing $7.7 billion worldwide total.
While Warners had the second-highest market share total last year, as usual the studio also released more films--26--than any other distributor. Altogether, five films grossed more than $100 million at the boxoffice, including “Deathly Hallows Part 2” and two more sequels – the R-rated “The Hangover Part II” ($254.5 million) and holiday release “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” ($136.5 million to date).
Another R-rated comedy did well for the studio: $35-million “Horrible Bosses” notched $117.5 million, the fourth highest-grossing release, followed by “Green Lantern.” But “Green Lantern” was the biggest disappointment of the year for the studio as it carried reported production costs near $200 million and grossed a relatively modest $116.6 million. Besides “Green Lantern,” the animated “Happy Feet Two,” VFX-packed “Sucker Punch” and remake “Arthur” all fell short of breaking even at the boxoffice. The romantic comedy-drama “Crazy Stupid Love” ($84.4 million) was the studio's sixth-highest performer, followed by Steven Soderbergh's virus thriller “Contagion” ($75.7 million).
Since 2007, two dominant studios, Warners and Paramount, have held the top two spots in industry market share each year. Paramount took the top spot in 2007, with Warners in second place; Warners won in 2008, 2009, and 2010 as Paramount took second place; and in 2011 Paramount moved into first place while Warner’s held the second spot.
Sony took third place with around $1.3 billion, moving up from its fifth place finish in 2010. Their top-grossing film was the live-action/animated “The Smurfs” ($142.6 million). With a moderate budget of $110 million, and a staggering international gross of $419.9 million, “Smurfs” earned hefty profits for the studio.
Three Sony films grossed more than $100 million including Adam Sandler’s “Just Go with It,” which grossed $103 million (better than his other entry "Jack and Jill" at $70 million), and surprise Cameron Diaz hit “Bad Teacher” ($100.3 million), which only cost $20 million. But Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen's $120-million “The Green Hornet” proved a disappointment in relation to cost ($98.8 million). Brad Pitt-starrer “Moneyball” scored with $74.4 million and a modest $50-million budget, as did the $18-million true heart-tugger “Soul Surfer” ($43.9 million).
In Indiewood, Woody Allen's $17-million “Midnight in Paris” (Sony Pictures Classics) proved to be his highest-grossing ever with $56.3 million. Per usual, the romantic comedy, which starred Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, also translated well overseas, picking up $88.9 million internationally for a worldwide total of $145.2 million.
Two profitable summer sleepers that sparked huge interest from women--as well as awards voters--were Disney/DreamWorks’ $25-million period book adaptation “The Help" ($169.5 million) and Universal’s raunchy $32.5 million “Bridesmaids” ($169.1 million).
Unfortunately, these numbers give the studios little incentive to abandon the pursuit of 3-D sequels, remakes and established brand titles, as adult audiences opt to stay home in their high-tech living rooms. Going forward, Warners will have to replace those "Harry Potter" numbers with something else (in 2012, at least, "The Dark Knight Rises" should deliver) and Disney, not Paramount, will reap the rewards of its DreamWorks and Marvel deals. And indie Summit (which did not close a Lionsgate merger) will face reality after it releases the last of the "Twilight" series, "Breaking Dawn- Part Two."
Originals are largely left in the realm of low-risk comedies and animated fare, but that family niche saw more sequels than ever--and delivered lower grosses as a result. In 2012, Pixar returns with original "Brave," while other new titles include Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," Rian Johnson's "Looper," Steven Soderbegh's "Haywire" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained."
Finally, the lesson of spending too much on loss-leaders, from "Hugo" and "Rango" to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," is not lost on the studios. At least with those films, moviegoers came out ahead.