"R.I.P.D." was D.O.A. and "The Lone Ranger" was unable to lasso moviegoers. Yet at summer's end, Hollywood is riding happily off into the sunset thanks to an unexpected number of $100-million-plus hits that drove the seasonal box office to a record.
Total box office revenue in the U.S. and Canada for the May 2-Labor Day period climbed 10.2% over last year to a record $4.7 billion, while attendance rose 6.5% to roughly 572 million, according to Hollywood.com. The average ticket price also hit a new high of $8.23.
The strong business was needed: Heading into the summer, ticket sales were down about 12% compared with the same period in 2012. Four months later, the box office is now about even with last year.
While the season is ending on a positive note, there were certainly plenty of high-profile tales of woe this summer: Sony Pictures' "After Earth" and "White House Down," Walt Disney Studios' "The Lone Ranger" and Universal Pictures' "R.I.P.D." — each of which cost well over $100 million to produce — all flopped in spectacular fashion. But at least 17 movies crossed the $100-million milestone this summer — five more than in summer 2012.
The six highest-grossing films this summer were sequels, prequels or reboots. A few original titles did crack the top 10, however, including the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy buddy-cop comedy "The Heat" and the low-budget horror flick "The Conjuring."
Like last summer, the top earner came from Disney-owned Marvel Entertainment. "Iron Man 3," starring Robert Downey Jr., grossed over $400 million domestically and more than $800 million internationally. Its $1.2 billion global tally is slightly below that of "The Avengers," which ruled the season a year ago with an astounding $1.5-billion haul.
That superheroes triumphed at the multiplex yet again may not be surprising, but there were at least five other more subtle lessons from the summer movie season:
1. Yes, you can have too many cartoons
Six computer-animated films were released this season — two more than in summer 2012 — but only one was a massive hit: "Despicable Me 2," which has raked in $820 million worldwide since its July 3 debut. The film about bouncing yellow Minions from Universal's Illumination Entertainment overpowered the competition, including DreamWorks Animation's "Turbo." That tale of a racing snail came out two weeks after "Despicable Me 2" and has grossed just under $80 million domestically — the second-worst performance ever for a film from Jeffrey Katzenberg's studio.
"The Smurfs 2," which opened at the end of July, proved similarly disappointing. Because the first "Smurfs" made $563 million worldwide in 2011, Sony Pictures expected the sequel to improve upon that figure. But so far, the second film has collected less than half that, and only $67 million domestically.
As for Disney, its Pixar Animation release "Monsters University" got a jump on "Despicable," hitting theaters in June and ending up a hit with over $700 million in global sales. The studio's "Planes," meanwhile, has been far less successful since its August debut with just over $100 million worldwide — but the film only had a budget of $50 million because it was initially slated to go direct-to-DVD.
The possible takeaway here? Sure, kids are out of school, but families may not want a new animated film every two weeks. Which brings us to:
2. Be creative with the calendar
The colder months have traditionally been home to horror films, but Universal decided to open "The Purge" in June, and Warner Bros. followed a month later with "The Conjuring" — each of which played to enthusiastic crowds. "The Conjuring," made for $20 million, was especially profitable, grossing $133 million stateside.
Counterprogramming also paid off for Lionsgate, whose Summit Entertainment launched its stand-up comedy film "Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain" over the July 4 holiday against "The Lone Ranger" and "Despicable Me 2." Playing in no more than 900 theaters, the movie went on to gross $32 million — a win for a film with a $2.5-million budget.
Early summer, meanwhile, is becoming a hotter blockbuster breeding ground. Many of the season's biggest films were released not in July — which has long been thought of as the ideal launching pad for a potential smash — but in May. This year, four of the summer's top 10 films opened in May, versus just two last summer.
3. Doppelgangers were doomed