The best roller-coaster ride this summer wasn't in a theme park, it was at the multiplex, as the box office grosses did more bobbing and weaving than the stock market on a bad day.
Superheroes, sequels, special effects extravaganzas, R-rated comedies, family films, animated films, horror films and more than the usual number of original films made this an unpredictable summer at best. Thrown into this miasma of movie mania was a record 18 3-D films and a consumer push back to both the technology and the higher ticket price associated with the three dimensional movie-going experience. When the dust settles at the end of Labor Day weekend, Hollywood.com projects record summer revenues of $4.4 to $4.5 billion as another one goes in the books and we are left to ponder the summer of 2012.
Lesson #1: R-rated comedies are the new “go to” genre for the summer—and the raunchier the better. Universal’s Bridesmaids caught the bouquet and ran with it as the film built an audience while generating great word-of-mouth week after week and wound up with nearly $170 million in domestic revenues. Warner Bros. The Hangover Part II ($254.1M) and Horrible Bosses ($112.6M), Sony’s Bad Teacher ($98.1M) and Friends with Benefits ($54.7M) were all solid performers with budgets that made them a studio executives dream come true. In all there were seven such films with five that performed well at the box office. In Hollywood, five for seven is a stellar showing for any genre.
Lesson #2: Superheroes are not invincible: You can’t just slap a cape on some hulking dude, give him some super powers and expect the audience to show up. You have to earn the audience’s respect and the first film out of the gate did that as Paramount’s Thor won over audiences with a solid performance from Chris Hemsworth, a dash of Anthony Hopkins and a sprinkling of Natalie Portman which is never a bad thing. The movie delivered and was rewarded with a domestic tally of over $180 million and grudging respect from skeptical fan boys. Fox’s X-Men: First Class also garnered accolades and respect as Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn did a terrific job of coalescing the excellent ensemble cast into a solid package that delivered on the promise of a great marketing campaign. Paramount proved to be very consistent with their superheroes as late July’s Captain America debuted with $65 million (only about $700k less than Thor) and also engendered a level of respect from community and has pulled in nearly $165 million to date in North America. Unfortunately not all of the films from the genre are able to benefit from the mere label of superhero film as Warner Bros. Green Lantern took some major heat from the critics and though it opened with a respectable $53.2 million was unable to gain much traction as the naysayers piled on the negative bandwagon and slowed the film to a total gross of close to $116 million.
Lesson #3: The audience is as fickle as a 16 year old Twilight fan. Give ‘em Cowboys & Aliens and they want Smurfs, give them Super 8 and they are like, “What does Super 8 mean?” Place two of the biggest movie stars in the world in a movie and Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks AND Julia Roberts opens in fourth place and makes just $35.6 million in total North American revenue. Conversely who knew audiences would go ape for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and give it a $54.8 million opening weekend that was a whopping $20 million over the weekend projections!
Lesson #5: You pretty much need a big franchise with a major brand name to pull in families and kids. From Kung Fu Panda 2 to Cars 2 to Harry Potter to The Smurfs, it helps if little Johnny and Susie have already seen the first installment of a major franchise and then they will drag the parental units to the theater.
The jury is still out on 3-D. It’s a price point thing combined with a honeymoon phase that ran out long ago. The novelty aspect of 3-D was fueling huge ticket sales during the Avatar era and the afterglow was sweet with Alice in Wonderland also posting massive 3-D percentages. But as with all relationships, some rocky times have befallen the third dimension of moviedom and the results are manifest in a rapidly dropping percentage (on a film by film basis) of the revenues that are generated by the up-charge associated with the immersive movie experience.
On average we have seen percentages drop below 50% on many of the 3-D releases. Of course, give people a tremendous 3-D experience and they will not complain as evidenced by Paramount’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon which pulled a solid 60% of its gross from 3-D presentations and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 which delivered a great movie and a terrific 3-D experience. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides put a fine point on the fact that overseas audiences are currently enamored with 3-D they way Americans were a couple of years ago. The film became a billion dollar blockbuster on the back of a 3-D powered international gross that is over three times bigger than the domestic total. The pre-summer megahit Fast Five is a great example of a film that did not need 3-D to be a hit. That movie was plenty immersive enough in IMAX and delivered arguably the best popcorn-style summer movie experience of any film not technically released in the summer. Last weekend three 3-D films were released and the result was one of the lowest grossing weekends of the year.
The bottom line: 3-D is not a panacea, but rather a technology that should be used judiciously and only with the right kind of movie and at a price point that makes sense to the consumer.
Lesson #7: If you want your film to be a blockbuster, release it in IMAX. 3-D may come and go, but IMAX is forever. From the pre-summer hit Fast Five to the top two grossing films of the summer (Harry Potter 7B and Transformers 3), audiences love the immersive movie-going experience and seem willing to pay for it without complaint. An average of 10% (and growing) of opening weekend gross is generated by IMAX so it’s a win-win for the studios and exhibitors, as well as fans looking for a truly superior experience. On top of that, a veritable who’s who of filmmakers insist upon it (and who are we to argue with Christopher Nolan!).
Lesson #8: Audiences say they want original films, but in actuality are scared of them. Even Bridesmaids took awhile to build an audience (after a second place debut with $26.2M) as petrified males determined not to be dragged kicking and screaming to another ungodly chick flick heard through the grapevine that this was a female comedy with some real balls and then showed up. The Hangover Part II however already had huge built-in brand recognition and posted the biggest comedy opening of all-time with a staggering $85.9 million. Super 8 whose title, lack of big stars and no box office track record gave it a somewhat slow start given the film’s pedigree; luckily quality won out and the film built an audience and took in over $125 million in North America. Another case in point is the unique and original Cowboys & Aliens (a descriptive title, but an unknown commodity) that went head to head with a little blue man group called The Smurfs. The industry watched in awe as familiarity turned into green as gazillions of kids gave their little blue buddies the power to take on the Spielberg, Favreau, Ford, Craig quadruple threat and wound up in an unthinkable and unprecedented Sunday morning tie for first place.
Lesson #9: The Help proves that any movie can be a summer movie. Like Midnight in Paris, the intimate period character study won over the audience by presenting a sort of “anti-blockbuster” as an alternative or antidote to the monstrous big budget behemoths that permeate the cinematic landscape during the summer months. Both felt like fall season films and this became their strength as the allure of an unexpected and ultimately fulfilling movie-going experience grabbed a significant audience regardless of the temperature outside.