News Column

Hollywood's summer box office was boffo, despite big flops

September 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 02--The biggest Labor Day moviegoing weekend of all time, estimated at $150 million, capped a record box office summer.

And we do mean record.

With an estimated domestic gross of more than $4.7 billion from the first weekend of May through Labor Day, the film industry is a whopping 10.23 percent ahead of what was earned during the same period in 2012. Additionally, the deficit suffered since the beginning of this year compared to 2012 has been wiped out by the summer surge. Estimates by Hollwood.com from Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 are at $7.66 billion for 2013 versus $7.59 billion in 2012.

Admittedly, last summer was a down one compared to 2011, the previous largest money-earner. But 2013's warm weather months also handily topped 2011's $4.4 billion summer haul.

Wait, you say. Haven't we been hearing about big-budget flops pretty much every week for the past two months? Yes, we have. And doesn't the $409 million figure for the season's top earner, "Iron Man 3," pale in comparison to 2012's big summer winner,"The Avengers," which took in $623 million, and even fall short of the $448 million that last year's number two film, "The Dark Knight Rises," made?

Yes, it does. But box office analysts say that a healthy crop of midrange hits made all the difference this year.

"It's a pretty massive summer," noted Phil Contrino, chief analyst for Boxoffice.com. "There wasn't an 'Avengers' this year, but there were a lot of very healthy films. If you call 'The Avengers' a grand slam, there are a lot of triples this year, and that adds up. No one movie had to match 'The Avengers'; it was a combined effort."

"I got a call from a British journalist and he was like, 'So tell me how bad the summer was'," added Hollywood.com's box office division president Paul Dergarabedian. "Well, it's up 10 percent, but the perception of decay has become the reality. It's about that rhythm, the ebb and flow was not balanced this summer. If you look at last summer, it was far worse in terms of the box office, yet I don't remember talking about big-budget, high-profile flops last year in the way we did this year."

The midsummer drumbeat of disappointment was steady as one high-priced mega-release after another -- "After Earth," "The Hangover Part III," "White House Down," "The Lone Ranger," "Turbo," "Pacific Rim," "R.I.P.D.," "Smurfs 2," "Elysium" -- failed to sell enough tickets to justify their massive production and promotional budgets. Even hits such as the season's third-ranked "Man of Steel" and seventh-placed "World War Z" seemed like they didn't reach their full potential or just barely recovered their outrageous costs, respectively.

The number two film, "Despicable Me 2," was widely acknowledged as an incredible success with more than $350 million and counting in its coffers. But the generally negative perception of the season caused many observers to downplay the very solid, $200-million-plus performances of films four through six, "Monsters University," "Fast & Furious 6" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness."

The really good news, however, lays further down the chart, where much cheaper movies made nine-figure coin. "The Heat," "The Conjuring," "Now You See Me" and "We're the Millers" were all major cost-to-profit winners, as was "This Is the End," which finished the summer just under the $100 million mark. "The Great Gatsby," "Grown Ups 2" and "The Wolverine" were more expensive, but their North American grosses, along with overseas and other ancillary profits, made them good investments, too.

"You can try to make $200 million action films all you want, but sometimes it's smart just to put out a really well-made comedy," Contrino observes. "You don't have to spend as much money on it, and it can still be very profitable without as much risk."

"It was the middle-range films which did incredibly well.," Dergarabedian added. "Nobody expected $100 million out of 'Now You See Me,' 'Grown-Ups 2,' 'Gatsby,' 'The Heat'; there were enough middling hits to offset the failures of the films that were expected to do much more."

With that happily acknowledged, it was clear that blockbuster fatigue set in this summer, as audiences stopped flocking in the usual droves to expensive action movies around late June.

"Perhaps they just inundated the market with a flood of advertising, and nobody came out on top because everyone was vying for that top spot," suggested Agata Kaczanowska, senior industry analyst/media specialist for the business research firm IBISWorld. "It's really hard to tell. As the movie market does become more fragmented, it's going to be much harder for studios to successfully promote a lot of big-budget films."

Or maybe the fact that most of the big movies that underperformed this summer simply weren't very good had something to do with it. Hollywood doesn't think that way, though, and at least in the short run can't be expected to alter the summer release strategy that has developed over decades.

"Things don't really change in Hollywood, they kind of evolve very slowly," Dergarabedian said. "Next summer, obviously, is going to continue that superheroes/comedies/action movies approach, all the typical types of films that are released in that summer movie season. The biggest takeaway seems to be that you still need to watch your costs. Even the average person reads about the profitability of movies now. It's pretty simple math to figure out that a $200 million film that makes $100 million isn't a good scenario."

Really though, should anyone in Hollywood care about what went wrong this summer when the season is going out on such a high?

"People in the industry should be cautiously optimistic," Contrino figures. "They're doing a lot of things right but they're also doing a lot of things wrong. It's important to not let the fact that they've succeeded overshadow the fact that there's room for improvement. The release calendar and the diversity of the slate that needs to be there a little bit more -- those two things are something to keep an eye on."

Kaczanowska put the summer movie gamble into perspective.

"The risk has always been high," she said. "Most movies have not been successful in terms of actually breaking even on their budgets, historically. So that's not anything new."

___

(c)2013 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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