So we’re completing a year of record domestic box office returns, but it’s impossible to ignore that the international market is a hefty player, taking a bigger overall chunk of the pie. It’s not good enough for a picture to perform in America – if it doesn’t grab more than half its share from international crowds, it’s not a complete success. The proliferation of franchises and 3D have turned most American films into our most in-demand export, and it’s changed the box office landscape immensely.
Many will say this was a strong year for films made for adults. “Lincoln” easily hit nine figures domestically, while “Argo” ($162 million) “Flight” ($96 million) and this spring’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” ($134 million) proved that the multiplex wasn’t just teeming with evidence that only our youth is being served. But that might just be the rare oasis of hope in a sea of defeat, given that the top nine highest-grossing films of the year were all franchise entries – the tenth was a Pixar film.
Here’s a look at the year’s box office at a glance: the highest grossing pictures of the year, the biggest flops, the cheapest hits and the most unexpected earners.
The Fifteen Highest Grossing Films Of 2012 (All Figures In Worldwide Gross)
"The Avengers" (Disney) – $1.5 Billion
Heavy expectations were placed on Disney’s first Marvel release, though few could have expected this. Within its first weekend, “The Avengers”’ three-day take of $207 million bested the total domestic tallies of “The Incredible Hulk,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor.” Business remained brisk during the rest of the summer, as the film handily proved that the first weekend of the summer remains the most plum release date of the year. Disney’s moving full force on follow-ups to the Marvel universe, with “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” slated for 2013, and several other standalone features paving the way for “The Avengers 2” to hit in summer 2015.
"The Dark Knight Rises" (Warner Bros.) – $1.08 Billion
While “The Avengers” began Marvel/Disney’s onslaught on Hollywood, Christopher Nolan was allowed to end his Batman trilogy with the biggest Batman film yet. Audience excitement was blunted, however, as the picture had to contend with a horrible tragedy that weighed heavily on a fervent blockbuster audience that nonetheless led the picture to the second biggest opening of all time. This wasn’t a zeitgeist picture like “The Dark Knight,” but it still managed to outgross that last effort thanks to the strength of a more muscular international take. Stateside the picture was an underperformer compared to the earlier film, though Nolan’s pursuit of a more earthbound spectacle ensured these films didn’t break the bank. While Nolan closed the book, the WB will open it again, with Batman appearing in a “Justice League” movie coming in 2015, followed by “The Batman,” or whatever it ends up being called.
"Skyfall" (Sony) – $1 Billion Plus
While the James Bond series took on a new pedigree with director Sam Mendes aboard, few thought it would take the character into a new stratosphere. But that’s exactly what happened as “Skyfall” became the highest grossing film in the series within days, by a considerable margin. Bond’s victory took the film to the top of the all-time U.K. charts, and the picture is still playing in American theaters as it threatens $300 million stateside. Not bad considering no previous Bond film ever grossed more than $180 million domestically.
"Ice Age: Continental Drift" (Sony) – $875 million
This series continues to march towards improbable heights. The last picture became the highest-grossing animated international hit, and this effort easily broke that record, even if its American receipts were the lowest in the franchise’s history. You’d think Sony and Blue Sky would march ahead with a follow-up, but none has been announced.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2" (Lionsgate/Summit) – $795 million
No franchise picture was more exultant this year than Summit’s fifth and most successful “Twilight” movie in a five-year span, a model of franchise efficiency that may change the way studios adapt established properties. While the series peaked with the box office returns on the second one stateside, the films continued to bring in new fans overseas, even as the story wound down to a close. This is the biggest of the franchise films to be closing shop, but since Summit’s merger with Lionsgate, you wonder if they can’t help but think that there’s still milk in this cow. They still have “The Hunger Games” in their arsenal (not to mention “The Expendables,” which saw a second installment gross $300 million this year), though like “Twilight” that series is also finite, so it could be possible that audiences are re-invited to Forks, Washington in the near future.
"Madagascar: Europe’s Most Wanted" (Paramount/Dreamworks) – $782 million
With a plum release date and a solid ad campaign, almost anything CG-animated can do killer business. So while it seemed that no one was exactly asking for another “Madagascar” film, the new one still handily out-grossed earlier efforts in the series both here and abroad. This franchise may not be “iconic,” but it’s proven to be a solid successor to the defunct “Shrek” series for Dreamworks.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" (Sony) – $752 million
While Sony initially sought the chance to make a less-expensive “Spider-Man” than the previous three, this effort still ballooned to a considerable $230 million budget, which may or may not count the numerous reported reshoots. Still, it looks like you’ll find success with whatever you can slap the Web-Slinger’s name on, as this picture grabbed a final tally only slightly lower than this franchise’s regular performance, though enhanced 3D prices played a role. Word-of-mouth was rougher this time around, as this series has usually been beloved by (weirdly undemanding) critics, so all eyes are on “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” slated for a summer 2014 release.
"The Hunger Games" (Lionsgate/Summit) – $687 million
The only non-sequel amongst the top nine highest-grossing films this year, the Suzanne Collins’ adaptation had a cozy spring release date and a marketing juggernaut behind the picture, scoring a spectacular $400 million domestically. The fervor didn’t exactly carry over internationally, but overseas audiences are usually less receptive to franchise-starters, so expect that to change with next year’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” And in case you were wondering, yes it is a little depressing to continue typing out the fact that these films will all have even bigger sequels.
"Men In Black 3" (Sony) – $624 million
Big Willie Style couldn’t get this film over the first picture’s domestic tally even with fifteen years of inflation and 3D prices. Fortunately, again, it was the overseas audience to the rescue, making this the biggest in the series thus far worldwide. Sony has claimed they are considering a follow-up, but given the profit participation of all involved (including producer Steven Spielberg), there might be some paycheck adjustments. Still, $624 million isn’t bad for a film that was shot and reshot through a sea of rewrites that stretched out over months.
"Brave" (Disney) – $535 million
Even with robust box office numbers, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the general vibe about this film from audiences and critics was largely, “Fine.” Domestically it was a mid-range performer for the studio, and overseas the same, but it’s rare that in one year Pixar could so handily be outdrawn internationally by not one, but two competitors, in the latest from the “Ice Age” and “Madagascar” series. With the diminished grosses of “Cars 2,” the middling returns on 3D re-releases of “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters Inc.,” and upcoming retreads including “Monsters University” and “Planes” (not technically a Pixar offering, though it’s clearly a product of the “Cars” machine), the suggestion seems to be that the brand is beginning to stretch itself thin.
"Ted" (Universal) $501 million
The most unexpected success in a year of completely predictable hits, “Ted” shot writer-director-star Seth MacFarlane to the A-List. Passed over by Fox with a $60 million budget, “Ted” picked up Mark Wahlberg and ended up at Universal, giving the actor his biggest hit, and leading to the raised industry profile of MacFarlane that now has him hosting the Academy Awards.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (Warner Bros.) – $500 Million Plus
Within days, “The Hobbit” will pass the $500 million mark worldwide, with likely more to come. The question is, how much more? With most overseas regions receiving the film already, there’s very few audiences left for “The Hobbit” to enchant, and it looks like it will collect far less than the $1 billion gross for “The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King,” despite 3D prices. This is still a middling showing for a series that had previously excited audiences and critics, but unless the second film takes a serious box office nosedive, it was worth the WB kicking the tires on another Middle Earth trilogy.
"Prometheus" (Fox) – $402 million
Derided and mocked by sci-fi fans, “Prometheus” lost a chunk of its audience after its solid opening, but overseas the film went over like gangbusters. Fox seems interested in another adventure in the world of “Prometheus,” but it does seem as if they won’t be able to persuade director Ridley Scott or writer Damon Lindelof to return. Oh well, can’t wait for “Prometheus The Second” directed by John Moore and starring Gemma Arterton, with Ben Foster as Michael Fassbender’s disembodied head!
"Snow White And The Huntsman" (Universal) – $396 million
The block wasn’t exactly busted by this fairy tale re-telling, and the film seemed overshadowed by the controversy regarding star Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders. But interest in a sequel was high even before the film’s release, as there were discussions on following the Huntsman character in another adventure. That being said, there seems to be some confusion over where to take this narrative between him and Snow White herself, as Kristen Stewart remains locked in for a second installment.
"Taken 2" (Fox) – $365 million
Here we go again, again!, said audiences who opted for Bryan Mills’ return. In a rare move, the poorly-reviewed sequel actually nearly matched the American gross of the first film, while heavily over-performing internationally. Fox and Liam Neeson seem all-in for a “Taken 3.” And with Fox originally considering other tough guy character actors to replace Neeson in this sequel when schedules couldn’t be worked out, it’s possible they could allow Neeson to bow out with this series on a high, allowing a different actor a shot in the spotlight.
The Five Biggest Bombs
"John Carter" (Disney) – $282 million/Battleship (Universal) – $302 million
Poor Taylor Kitsch. No one faults you for taking two big sexy blockbuster paychecks. But it’s a bad year when they both have to fight an avalanche of bad buzz and end up being the victim of preposterous hubris from their ill-equipped filmmakers. “John Carter” was the ambitious live-action debut of Pixar surehand Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) and its early-year bellyflop was due to one of the worst self-sabotaging ad campaigns in blockbuster history, partially aided by an in-house opposition to any projects shepherded by former Disney chairman Rich Ross. As the underwhelming grosses piled up, the rumored post-reshoot $300 million production budget loomed that much larger
“Battleship” proved to be the afterbirth of the shotgun wedding between Universal and Hasbro, a partnership that dissolved when the studio willingly paid kill fees to extract themselves from the pressures of making $100 million-budgeted toy commercials. That decision wasn’t made until the studio saw the dailies on “Battleship,” a schizophrenic sci-fi blockbuster that not only ha d no relationship to the game, but seemed to be simultaneously advertised as a badass naval adventure, an alien invasion picture, and “Transformers.” At a cost of $200 million, they likely needed to make twice as much to break even.
"Cloud Atlas" (Warner Bros.) – $65 million
It can’t possibly be true that Warner Bros. knew they were taking a bath on the release of “Cloud Atlas,” a wildly-ambitious sci-fi parable from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer (though technically the studio took almost no risk, as they only distributed the picture and didn't fund it). But somewhere along the line, this went from genre-defying blockbuster, to potential awards contender, to October dump. Somewhat logically, no one at the studio knew how to market a film containing so many storylines, characters, timelines and terrible haircuts, and it showed. Budgeted somewhere between $120-$150 million, “Cloud Atlas” carried several financiers, and it’s likely none of them saw a decent return.
"Total Recall" (Sony) – $198 million
Despite the original film being only a modest R-rated hit in the early nineties, Sony went ahead and remade the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic as a PG-13 actioner with a ridiculous $200 million budget. Apparently they had close to no recall as to how Colin Farrell fares as a leading man – even after his career-revitalizing Golden Globe win for “In Bruges,” the respected veteran simply added this faceless action adventure to a stack of flops that includes “Alexander,” “Miami Vice” and last summer’s instantly-forgotten “Fright Night” remake.
"The Watch" (Fox) – $67 million
Teaming a superstar cast of comedians made tons of sense for Fox with what was then called “Neighborhood Watch.” Then the production allowed this group of funnymen to lazily improv as if this was the third most important film production of the year for them (which it likely was), as director Akiva Schaffer failed to find a movie in the editing room. This showed especially during a hard-to-place ad campaign that obscured the science fiction element of the film. Naturally, it only added insult to injury when the controversial George Zimmerman story forced Fox to alter their campaign for the worse, resulting in a film ignored both here and aboard.
Here Comes The Boom/That’s My Boy (Sony) – $59 million/$57 million
Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison banner finally showed some rust with this one-two punch of apathy. “Boom” played throughout November as a decent fourth option for desperate families, but it couldn’t quite overcome a dismal opening weekend and the audience’s general aversion to MMA-themed films. It was a better situation than 'Boy,' a rancid piece of filth that lines up Sandler to win a host of Razzies. There was more kindness shown overseas, but his latest in a long career of braindead time-wasters was borderline toxic to stateside fans. Both “Boom” star Kevin James and Sandler will reunite next year for Sony’s “Grown-Ups 2” so there’s a chance filmgoers will be able to wipe them both off our screens in one fell swoop. Don’t let us down, audiences.
Bang For Your Buck… The Five Best “Bargains” Of The Year
Magic Mike (Warner Bros.) – $167 million
Though Channing Tatum was this year’s golden boy, with hits in both broad comedy (“21 Jump Street,” $201 million) and romance (“The Vow,” $196 million), his most impressive feat was turning his independently made life story into a hit. “Magic Mike” was produced outside of the studio system for a meager $7 million, with the domestic rights sold to the WB for $10 million. But few thought there was such a market for an R-rated film that so heavily objectified the male body, leading industry experts to react incredulously when groups of women started crowding the multiplex to see Tatum shake his tush. Considering the modest origins of this film, this isn’t just a success, it’s a happening.
Woman In Black (CBS Films) – $127 million
Buoyed by the star presence of Daniel Radcliffe a year removed from “Harry Potter,” this modest shocker nonetheless played strongly stateside and abroad. Budgeted at only $15 million, it’s prompted development of a sequel, though you wonder if audiences can get excited without Radcliffe’s involvement.
Paranormal Activity 4 (Paramount) – $140 million/Chronicle (Fox) – $126 million/The Devil Inside (Paramount) – $101 million/Project X (Warner Bros) – $100 million
Found footage still brings ‘em in. The 'Paranormal' series saw a sharp downturn from installments three to four, it but still played to ecstatic overseas reception, even if the profile was dimmed in the US. It remains one of the cheapest bets out there for Paramount, a studio that had gone five months between any releases before the new entry in their prized horror franchise debuted. “Chronicle” twisted the found footage genre to create something wholly peculiar, though it’s unfortunate that a step into the big leagues for director Josh Trank involves getting trapped in the “Fantastic Four” series. “The Devil Inside” earned boos and derision when it opened this year, but that first weekend was enough to guarantee a massive return on profit, while party hit “Project X” maximized its cost for a $20 million opening weekend.
Think Like A Man (Sony/Screen Gems) – $96 million
One romantic comedy, from schlocky low-rent Screen Gems, featured no above-the-title stars and an all-black cast. The other, a major Universal release in the same genre, featured Oscar nominee Jason Segel, magazine cover regular Emily Blunt, and boasted super-producer Judd Apatow. Quick, which one proved to be the flop? “The Five Year Engagement” tucked its tail between its legs with a middling $53 million worldwide tally, while the much-cheaper “Think Like A Man,” released just a week before, proved to be a huge hit with stateside audiences, even if all-black casts simply don’t translate to overseas audiences — $91 million of the gross originated from the U.S.
Pitch Perfect (Universal) – $84 million
Don’t look now, but we may have a new “Bring It On.” This $17 million-budgeted a capella comedy boasted no major stars, but through a canny platform release, it played hard to its core audience of young women. A sequel has been announced, though with leading lady Anna Kendrick not returning, the budget probably won’t rise much higher.
You Wouldn’t Think… Here Are Five “Flops” That Actually Performed Respectably
"American Reunion" (Universal) – $234 million
Despite the weakest reception domestically of all the “American Pie” films thus far, the latest entry in the bawdy sex franchise was devoured by international crowds. While a direct follow-up is unlikely, the straight-to-DVD knockoffs will probably continue.
"The Dictator" (Paramount) – $177 million
The buzz was weak for the latest from Sacha Baron Cohen, and most considered him to be continuing a downward trend that traveled from “Borat!” to “Bruno.” Not so, said enthusiastic international crowds, who helped nearly double the $59 million domestic gross.
"Mirror Mirror" (Relativity) – $166 million
Overshadowed by its significantly gaudier opposition, “Snow White And The Huntsman,” this goofy kiddie-centric concoction was still a strong performer domestically and abroad in relation to its $85 million budget. No one’s lining up for a sequel, but this was far from the debacle it seemed to be when it debuted to modest U.S. numbers in the spring.
"Step Up: Revolution" (Summit/Lionsgate) – $140 million
Left for dead by original distributor Disney, the “Step Up” franchise had seen each entry gross less than the others. But overseas, the films had nonetheless become major attractions, especially when 3D was added to the formula. Both trends continued with the latest film, a definite weak sister stateside which nonetheless packed auditoriums in other countries. Perhaps that has something to do with the series using the name “Sexy Dance” in foreign territories.
"The Intouchables" (The Weinstein Company) – $420 million
While it wouldn’t be considered a flop exactly, no one was bowled over by the $10 million domestic take of this French import, one of The Weinstein Company’s Best Foreign Film Oscar hopefuls. But few would likely realize that the American tally is just a mere blip on the film’s worldwide take, with “The Intouchables” collecting that massive worldwide number from a host of generous countries. Everybody knows that those involved in “Battleship” took a massive bath financially, but does anyone know that this tiny French comedy-drama outgrossed it by more than $100 million?