I hate being wrong. Really hate it.
The only thing I hate more than being wrong is publicly admitting I’m wrong.
And, man, when it comes to how 2012 played out at the movies matched up against what I’d predicted in my end-of-2011 box office wrap-up, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Want a prediction for 2012 at the movies?” I wrote. “It’s going to look a lot like 2011. An awful lot…the creative machinery is broke…The reviewers will wail, the ‘serious’ cineastes will weep.”
The upside is that sometimes you’re glad you were wrong. This is one of those times. I don’t hear much weeping, not from the reviewers, not from the serious cineastes, not from the studios, and certainly not from me.
By any relevant measure – box office, quality of releases, admissions – 2013 has been the best year for the American movie business in a long, looooong time.
The year-end domestic box office tally rang up at $10.8 billion, a record high which defiantly broke a two-year slump (which I had assumed would keep slumping). The year boasted the third all-time biggest earning summer, but more impressive is how the box office churned out strong numbers throughout the year.
There wasn’t much in the way of a fall lull. September saw the release of animated Hotel Transylvania ($146.6 million domestic gross), then came October with Taken 2 ($139.5 million), and Argo ($113 million and still earning), followed by a solid stream of big earners in November with Skyfall ($300.1 million — making it the highest-earning James Bond movie of all time – and still earning), The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 ($290.3 million), another animated winner with Wreck-It Ralph ($179.5 million), Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-nominated prestige project Lincoln ($156.6 and still polling well at the box office), leading into December with Santa leaving some choice goodies under the Hollywood tree in Peter Jackson’s follow-up to his Lord of the Rings box office monsters, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ($282.5 million and still picking up golden rings), Quentin Tarantino’s latest bit of revisionist history with Django Unchained ($132.3 million and still on the loose making it the maverick’s biggest hit), and the screen adaptation of the hit musical Les Miserables ($124.6 million and still singing a sweet box office tune).
The early part of the year – usually a fallow one – was so strong Entertainment Weekly wrote, “March is the new July,” citing hits like The Hunger Games ($408 million), animated Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax ($214 million), and the loopy big screen revamp of the old Fox TV hit, 21 Jump Street ($138 million).
In short: there wasn’t a single season where the industry didn’t have some muscle players out there bringing home big bucks.
Twenty-six releases passed the $100 million mark (this includes late-year releases whose earnings crossed into 2013), the lowest number since 2007, but they were bigger earners than those of previous years. The year’s Top Ten earned a combined total of approximately $3.29 billion (about one-third of 2012’s total domestic box office) compared to $2.86 billion for 2011’s Top Ten, and $2.49 billion in 2010.
The year also saw a number of strong mid-range earners like the political comedy (as if real politics weren’t ridiculous enough) The Campaign ($87 million domestic), “found footage” sci fier Chronicle ($65 million), Parental Guidance ($66 million), and “Glee”-like Pitch Perfect ($64 million). More impressive is the solid performance of a number of inexpensive flicks aimed at the adult audience: Hope Springs ($63.5 million), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($46 million), Moonrise Kingdom ($46 million), and Silver Linings Playbook (whose initially slow earnings were jump-started by Oscar noms and now stand at $55 million and still pulling an audience).
And then there were a couple of out-of-the-blue smashes which – hopefully – got across the message to studio execs that it doesn’t always take big bucks to make big bucks. In particular, I’m talking about Seth MacFarlane’s no-holds-barred comedy Ted, which despite mixed reviews dirty-joked its way to an astounding $219 million domestic against a budget of just $50 million. Then there was Magic Mike which showed an even better Return On Investment by pole-dancing its way to $114 million against a paltry outlay of $7 million.
What it adds up to is strength across the board: earners throughout the year, and strong performers from across the demographic spread, from families (six of the year’s Top 20 earners and two of the Top 10 were animated features) to fanboys (three of the Top 10 were superhero flicks) to fangirls (the screen adaptation of Hunger Games and the concluding Twilight chapter, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 placed third and fifth in the Top 10); from stuff for the kids to stuff for their parents slipping out on date night (Hope Springs finished #49 for the year).
So, even though some of that box office uptick owed itself to ticket price inflation and 3-D surcharges, some of it came from the best news of all: admissions were up. In their best year since 2009, American movie theaters sold approximately 1.4 billion tickets v. 1.3 billion last year. I’d like to think that means more people went to the movies because there was more movies worth seeing.
And don’t even get me started on the overseas box office. While for some years now, the overseas b.o. has been a huge source of revenue for Hollywood, for a number of 2012 releases, overseas was a monster. The top three domestic earners alone – Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games – earned a cumulative $1.6 billion from foreign markets v. their combined domestic take of $1.5 billion. For some films, overseas bucks turned middling performers into blockbusters. Animated feature Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted turned in a healthy $216.4 million domestic but its overseas earnings pushed its total worldwide tally to $742 million. Likewise Ice Age: Continental Drift was the lowest domestic earner of the franchise at $161 million, but its worldwide total came in at $875.2 million. Thriller Taken 2 more than doubled its $138.9 million domestic tally with a worldwide final score of $365.5 million. Other overseas winners: Prometheus ($126.2 million domestic/$402.5 million worldwide); Safe House ($126.2 million/$207.9 million), The Bourne Legacy ($113 million/ $276 million); Looper ($66.4 million/$166.4 million); The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($46.4 million/$134.4 million).
Maybe the biggest overseas story was MIB 3. The poorly reviewed Men in Black sequel did $179 million domestic, which, in light of its whopping $225 million cost, made it a serious underperformer. But roll in overseas earnings and MIB 3’s worldwide haul was a straotspheric $624 million; eighth highest worldwide box office for 2012.
The other upbeat news is how many box office winners were also damned good movies.
Last year’s Top 10 was overwhelmed with such tired schlock as Transformers: Dark of the Moon (#2 for the year), The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (#3), The Hangover Part II (#4), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (#5), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (#9), and Thor (#10).
Compare that to some of this year’s Top Tenners:
Marvel’s The Avengers (#1), The Dark Knight Rises (#2), The Hunger Games (#3), Skyfall (#4), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (#6), The Amazing Spider-Man (#7), and Brave (#8).
The persistent schism between the good and the gold-producing narrowed considerably this year in the 2012 Oscar nominations. For quite a few years, the Academy Awards have been dominated by small and/or indie-produced flicks, testifying to Hollywood’s inability to mesh its mass audience commercial instincts with the ability to make a decent flick. But this year, four of the nine Best Picture nominees were mainstream hits: Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and Lincoln, and – depending on how you define “mainstream” – by my count, about 40% of the combined 35 nominee slots for Best Actor/Actress Supporting Actor/Actress, Director, Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay went to talent from major releases.
What seemed to confirm the idea that you could make good money with good movies was the disastrous performance of some big-budget, heavily-hyped but decidedly awful flicks like John Carter (even worldwide couldn’t bail this dog out: $282.8 million against a budget of $250 million), Dark Shadows (a feeble $79.7 million domestic against a price tag of $150 million), and the stunningly lousy Battleship ($65 million/$209 million).
Was all the news good? Well, a lot of it was, but not all. There were disappointments, some of them almost inexplicable.
Despite overwhelmingly glowing reviews, James Cameron out there declaring it the best 3-D film since his own Avatar (2009), and a couple of Oscar nods, Life of Pi was a domestic underperformer, only recently crawling to the $100 million mark; a long crawl since its November release. A hundred million may sound good, but against the movie’s $120 million cost, it comes off less than impressive. Overseas audiences seemed far better able to plug into Ang Lee’s spiritual tale taking Pi to a nirvanesque $493 worldwide, but the movie’s sluggish U.S. performance may say something about the domestic crowd’s limited appetite for such challenging fare.
Similarly, Robert Zemeckis’ critically acclaimed drama Flight also hit a low ceiling, even though the flick earned Oscar noms for Denzel Washington as a druggie pilot who miraculously saves his crippled airliner, and for John Gatins’ compelling screenplay. Flight leveled off at $93 million and picked up only a few stray bucks overseas for a worldwide total of $97.5 million. Not a bad take at all for a movie with a budget of just $31 million, but – especially looked at next to Life of Pi – it gives some idea of what the maximum cruising altitude for such adult fare might be.
A strikingly puzzling underperformer was Tim Burton’s return to animation with Frankenweenie. Almost universally hailed as one of the best – if not the best – animated feature of the year, this stop-action charmer flatlined at just $35 million. The toon’s weak performance seems even more stupefying when so many other animated films not nearly as novel or fresh – Hotel Transylvania, for example – did so much better.
Other unexpected duds:
Oliver Stone continues on his arc from one-time cinema enfant terrible to just plain terrible with his narc thriller Savages ($83 million worldwide against a budget of $45 million; calculating breakeven at 2-3 times cost, Stone is a long time from his Platoon  glory days);
Seven Psychopaths looked to fill the quirky/comic/crime caper slot for the year but the movie could only muster a misdemeanorish $15 million box office;
The time-traveling Looper was a sharp blend of sci fi and crime story whose box office performance ($66.4 million) suggested moviegoers who like sci fi and who like crime stories don’t particularly want one that’s also a bit of a think-piece;
The $75 million Rock of Ages, based on the hit stage jukebox musical of the same name, sank like a stone with a rock-bottom worldwide box office of just $56.4 million;
Judd Apatow’s latest, more reflective (in as much as fart and sex jokes can be reflective) This Is 40 couldn’t match the appeal of his early hits, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005, $109 domestic), and Knocked Up (2007, $149 million), petering out at a menopausal $65 million;
And then there’s Killing Them Softly, an offbeat crime flick from director Andrew Dominick with Brad Pitt in the lead. Despite good reviews and a hell of a cast behind Pitt (including Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini), the audience didn’t show up and the movie was D.O.A. with $15 million domestic.
There were other sour notes in a generally melodious year. That admissions uptick was nice, but ticket sales are still far below 2002’s peak of 1.58 billion. Measured as a percentage of population, the uptick isn’t much of an uptick at all. Those numbers also mean that Hollywood is still overly reliant on ticket price increases and 3-D add-ons to juice the box office.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that despite all the winners I’ve been talking about, 655 films were released in 2012. Five hundred and eighteen of them didn’t make $10 million, and only 83 of them did better than $40 million. Hollywood’s annual fortunes still rest on a frighteningly small number of films hopefully offsetting the frighteningly large number that flop.
Other not-so-great news: The business remains committed to and carried by the idea of the franchise. Half of the year’s Top 20 were either sequels or franchise reboots and the year’s release slate was zitted with the likes of such needless retreads as Total Recall, Red Dawn, and Dredd.
And, while a wider variety of flicks helped bring home the bacon, the top of the chart is still ruled by youth-targeted movies. There’s not a truly adult pic on the chart until Lincoln at #16, and then you’re out of the Top 20 before you find the likes of Les Miserables and Safe House.
Still, good news may not be great news, but it’s better than bad news, and when you run up the year-end tallies for 2012, it definitely comes up more good than bad.
– Bill Mesce