Remember Steve Martin in “L.A. Story”? He played a TV weatherman who takes a week’s vacation in the summer, where the local daily forecasts are interchangeable. So he pretapes his broadcasts ahead of his vacation. That’s what trying to come up with changes and trends for 2013 movie box office is like — at first glance you could recap 2012 with few variations for 2013. But a careful look at the year’s successes and failures yields some intriguing developments. (See the Top 20 2013 Box Office Chart below.)
What was the same? Total domestic revenues at $10,920,000 –up $83 million, or 0.8%– are a wash. Of the top ten grossers, for both years eight were either sequels or franchise starters, one a Disney animated feature, and only one a stand-alone original (“Ted” and “Gravity” respectively). Eight of the ten films each year reported budgets over $100 million, and only two came in under $50 million. International totals for both years tilted more toward sequels and animation (although animation scored higher domestically in 2013 than 2012). Female directors were missing in action for wide release films (“The Peeples” and “Carrie” — both minor performers — were two exceptions).
Going into summer 2013, it didn’t look like it would be status quo. Year-to-date totals were down over 12% at the end of April, so the turnaround — a solid summer followed by a strong fall — came as a welcome surprise. Much of this came from the date shift of the second “Hunger Games” film from March to November as well as the strong showing of “Gravity,” a record-level October release.
Budgets, while still oversized, did not see a huge jump (summer films continued to be the most expensive). And there was a dip in international revenues. The saving grace of the year was the depth and range of releases, which made up (on the domestic side) for top films falling short of 2012.
The top film worldwide in 2013 was “Iron Man 3,” which grossed just over $1.2 billion, $300 million less than 2012’s #1 “The Avengers” (both Marvel/Disney releases). And it was the only $1 billion-plus global performer, compared to two for 2012. So the rough parity came from more films doing strong business — 40 topped $75 million domestic in 2012. When all of 2013’s releases are played out, 45 should hit that mark.
But a closer look at the figures reveals some significant trends that studios and their financing partners will be looking at as they try to get ahead of the game going forward. Among these are:
1. Girl Power: Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy
Six of the top 20 domestic grossers were centered on women, five of them live-action. This includes three of the top seven, the ultimate #1 for the year (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) and could rise to three of six if “Gravity” gets an awards rerelease. This compares to four of 20 in 2012, and three of the top 8, with “Hunger Games” ranked at #3.
What happened? Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy starred in four films that grossed over $100 million, a remarkable showing of box office power. Throw in the $100 million-plus that “Silver Linings Playbook” took in during 2013, and combined they were responsible for more than $1 billion of gross alone. And unlike, say, Chris Hemsworth in “Thor: The Dark Avenger” or Henry Cavill in “Men of Steel,” their star presence was a marquee draw for their films. And Jennifer Aniston had yet another $100 million-plus film with “We’re the Millers,” her sixth (without adjusting for inflation) over her successful film career. (“Frozen,” like “Brave” last year, also centered on a female character.)
The most bankable stars in domestic films: Lawrence is #1, followed by Bullock and McCarthy. This is another reasons why domestic was up slightly. “Gravity” was by far Bullock’s biggest international hit (over $400 million so far), and “Catching Fire,” unlike “Hunger Games,” looks to end up with more than half its take overseas. But female-based comedies like “The Heat” and “Identity Thief” tend to lag on foreign shores.
2. Men Count Worldwide
Big name actors remain important, particularly overseas. One survey showed Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson actually was the #1 star overall internationally (though his biggest film, “Fast & Furious 6,” didn’t have him in lead).
Several big names who have been draws for years scored well in 2013, particularly for big-budget films that managed to eke out success despite high budgets because of their foreign draw. Robert Downey Jr. (“Iron Man 3”), James Franco (“Oz: The Great and Powerful — $493 million worldwide), Brad Pitt (“World War Z” — $540 million), Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Great Gatsby” — $351 million, with “The Wolf of Wall Street” just starting its run), Hugh Jackman (“The Wolverine – $415 million), Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips” — $209 million), Tom Cruise (“Oblivion” — $286 million) were all crucial to their films’ success, particularly in foreign runs. Even two of the year’s most notorious flops– “The Lone Ranger” (Johnny Depp again — $216 million) and “After Earth” (Will Smith – $245 million) counterintuitively showed the draw of their stars — they were likely the main draw for both.
3. Make Them Laugh
“Ted” was the only live action comedy film in 2012’s domestic top 20, with “21 Jump Street” the only other live-action comedy to gross over $100 million. 2013 saw eight over that total (apart from the female comedies there was “Grown Ups 2,” “The Hangover Part III,” “Anchorman II,” “This Is the End” and “Bad Grandpa”). And the comedy draw was deeper — four of the six top animated releases also were comedies, as well as some dramas with comic edges (“American Hustle” will easily pass $100 million, “Now You See Me,” the year’s biggest sleeper, likely benefited from its lighter side). And under $100 million but still profitable were “Last Vegas,” “The Best Man’s Holiday” and “Pain and Gain” among others.
What delights their studios even more? Except for “The Hangover III,” more costly because of the added costs involved with getting key people back for a sequel, all the live-action ones had budgets under $100 million, with only another sequel “The Grown Ups 2” more than $50 million, and several with much less. And many were stand-alone (at least in their initial planning films), not sequels or franchise entries. Thus, at least domestically, the safest bet to make a profit is to go funny.
The only drawback is that, unlike action and other series films, comedies tend not to gross as well international, which has made studios less likely to greenlight them. Of this year’s hits, only “The Hangover III” did more foreign than at home (and by a huge margin, enough to push it into profit). But with so many hitting big (particularly compared to expense), expect more comedies to be added to studio lineups.
4. 3-D Still Rules
12 of the top 15 2013 grossers were released in 3-D. And among the top 20, only three live action non-comedy hits weren’t 3-D (“Catching Fire,” “Fast and Furious 6,” “The Conjuring”). That’s up from 8 of the top 15 in 2012. Yet fewer ticket buyers are choosing the 3-D option (with its higher prices and profits for theaters and studios), at least domestically. When “Gravity” opened to a huge $55 million October weekend, with 80% of the revenue from 3-D screens and most of that also IMAX, it came as a major reversal of audience wariness. Even more so, it came with an older audience that had likely kept its 3-D experience at some distance. Otherwise, 3-D is still a crucial part of most action series (“Fast and Furious” and “Hunger Games” notwithstanding) and even extends to big-ticket dramas like “The Great Gatsby.” It likely continues as a staple, but filmmakers (such as Christopher Nolan, who continues to resist) can point to the success of the handful of films that have thrived without it as a way to keep if from becoming universal any time soon.
5. Market Share Is Nice, But Not the Last Word
Warner Bros. took #1 in domestic market share for 2013, helped in no small part by releasing 25 films along with nine holdovers from 2012, the most of any company. These included three of the top 10 (when “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” finishes) and six of the top 20. More fortunately, though they had some lower-budget turkeys (“The Getaway,” “Bullet to the Head,”) their sole huge bust was Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” (which cost and grossed under $200 million, leaving losses in the tens of millions).
Placing #3 (with over $4 billion worldwide, a record, including the #2 and 3 worldwide smashes “Despicable 2” and “Fast and Furious 6”) didn’t stop an executive upheaval at Universal, despite their best placement and share in many years. Why? They also had two of the three biggest duds, “R.I.P.D” and at year’s end, “47 Ronin,” whose failure was anticipated far before its release. No doubt the studio would have been happy to drop a place or two if then had managed to avoid at least one of those flops.
At the other extreme, Paramount didn’t make much noise much of the year, with only nine releases (one, “Nebraska” in limited release thus far), ending up with 9% of total business. But they are the envy of the business — all eight of the wide pictures will make a profit (including pricey “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “World War Z,” the latter scoring particularly well overseas), with three others (including “Wolf of Wall Street”) likely to end up over $100 million domestic. And 4 of their 8 cost $50 million or less, thus increasing their chances of profit. Eight out of eight breaking even or better? Few can make that claim. Near year’s end, Sony, usually at the high end of output, announced they were retrenching and following Paramount’s lead on cutting back on the number of productions.
6. African-Americans and Hispanics are Growing Markets
Denzel Washington and Will Smith have been among the top stars for decades now, but almost always with white costars. 2012 saw only four films with both an African-American director and main cast gross over $15 million, three of them comedies (“Think Like a Man” lead with $91 million; the drama “Red Tails” grossed far less than its $80 million cost). In 2013, six managed the feat, led by “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” reaching $116 million. Two other dramas, Tyler Perry’s production of “Temptation” and the critically-acclaimed “12 Years a Slave” grossed well, along with comedies “The Best Man Holiday,” two Tyler Perry Madea films and a Kevin Hart concert film, which at a profitable $32 million is the only one not to pass $50 million (“12 Years” has its Oscar boost to come). With the lack of much international appeal, studios tend to shy away from what they consider a risky niche (other than Lionsgate, which has Perry as well as a well-developed marketing team to maximize results). This year hopefully encourages more development.
The Latino market has never targeted as many films as those for the African-American market, but still shows signs of attracting increased attention. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron directed the most acclaimed of the year’s biggest hits (“Gravity”), but “Instructions Not Included,” a small Mexican family comedy starring Eugenio Derbez, someone unknown beyond the Latino community, managed to gross $45 million in Spanish without ever reaching more than 1,000 theaters. With the Latino audience estimated to be around 25% of total ticket buyers (and even higher among frequent ones), if the studios ever manage to place a few more actors in prime roles and develop some Latino-themed stories, the growth here could be impressive.
7. Animation Keeps Growing
In 2012, the animation foreign market was way ahead of the U.S., with only one (“Brave”) in the domestic top 10 at #8, while two others were in the top seven internationally. Things radically changed in 2013. Three of the top six domestic titles were animated. This increase more any other is responsible for the uptick in overall gross. All three grossed over $250 million domestic, more than “Brave,” with “Despicable Me 2,” “Monsters University” and “Frozen” (which might yet become the biggest of them all). These are not inexpensive films usually — Dreamworks Animation will at best make a small profit on “Turbo” — but the rewards can come from unexpected places. Disney had planned “Cars” spin-off “Planes” as a direct-to-DVD release, but it ended up grossing $220 million worldwide; the widely scorned “Smurfs 2” did huge foreign business, getting to $345 million. If anything is certain, animation is going to come to dominate even more.