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Summer 2011 Wrap: Box Office Heads Toward Record $4.5 Billion

Summer 2011 Wrap: Box Office Heads Toward Record $4.5 Billion

While 2011’s box office is still lagging last year’s tally, the summer scored record totals thanks to a raft of sequels, reports Anthony D’Alessandro:

Even though Hurricane Irene shuttered theater wickets last weekend, the sun never set at the summer’s domestic box office, which is clicking toward an estimated record of $4.5 billion-plus through Labor Day, set to beat 2009’s high water mark of $4.48 billion. The summer breakdown and studio-by-studio report and market share rankings are below.

If these grosses seem outsized, thank Universal, which launched the season a week early on April 29 with Fast Five’s impressive $86.2 million bow.

Fast Five’s seismic waves launched a series of boffo sequels that defined Summer 2011. Sequels such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Hangover 2 trumped original fare and propelled Warner Bros. toward a seasonal record of $1.02 billion (per Rentrak Theatrical). Last summer’s slowdown in ticket sales, in hindsight, was partly due to several majors trying to launch franchises such as Salt, The A-Team and The Last Airbender.

While distribs did well with this year’s surplus of low-budget R-rated comedies, studios and financiers continued to spend lavishly on summer tentpoles. The total production cost of the season’s wide releases tallied $3.3 billion, which is about even with last year’s total.

For better or worse, there were number of other B.O. motifs at play this summer:

The movie as part of the marketing: For some media conglomerates, a movie is just one detail of a larger property. Cars 2 ($187.4 million) might have paled stateside next to its first installment ($244 million), but the sequel is just one piece in Disney’s $10 billion-plus auto toon empire. Above all, Cars 2 is a huge advertisement for Disneyland’s $200 million 12 acre Cars Land, a mini-park that is expected to restore the gold value to its flagging California Adventure in December 2012. By budget standards, Green Lantern ($115 million) is a bomb, but Warner Bros. believes that the DC comic adaptation is popular enough to resonate through ancillaries. “When viewing this movie and what the property is about, you have to assess its success by looking at all platforms, i.e. home entertainment, TV and consumer products,” says Warner Bros. distribution executive vp Jeff Goldstein. “You can’t just look at its first theatrical cycle as its entire story.”

Superhero films aren’t for kids only: Comic-book adaptations — X-Men: First Class ($146.1 million), Green Lantern, Captain America: The First Avenger ($169 million) and Thor ($181 million) – fell short of drawing four quadrants: they pulled in a devoted older male (over 25) fan base. The takeaway for studios seeking to reach younger crowds: think outside Comic-con box, social networks and web marketing. Expect more origin reboots like Spider-Man and Batman Begins. But if producers target boomer Dads and bachelors, they need to rein in their spending.

Kids – the lost generation: The debate continues as to whether the under-25 set has abandoned the cinema. They showed up for event sequels like Harry Potter and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but have been largely absent on opening weekends. Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($150 million) and Cowboys & Aliens ($93.7 million) looked like prime attractions for youngsters, but were largely populated by adults.

One distribution head’s theory is that studio exit polls skew toward adults because they’re conducted on Saturday. Another studio chief theorizes: “I believe that high ticket pricing is linked to the infrequent attendance of the under 25 set. At first the older generation stopped going because they didn’t want to attend crowded theaters where young people were chatting and texting. The irony is: those are the people who are going now. The aforementioned teenagers are busy gaming or social networking. There’s no urgency for them to go to the movies in great numbers.”

Smart career choices: Several stars tried to grow their audience this summer by stretching. Cameron Diaz traded goofy for mean while hanging on to her sexy persona in Bad Teacher, a global hit. James Franco extinguished his smarmy Oscar host image as the brainy Frankenstein figure in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Kristen Wiig proved she’s not just the Sybil of comedy, she can play straight-girl too in Bridesmaids ($168 million).

Dumb career choices: It’s tough these days for actors depending on commercial studio fare. Jim Carrey needs better scripts than family-friendly Mr. Popper’s Penguins in order to avoid becoming the next Chevy Chase. Fright Night‘s Colin Farrell risks heading toward second-banana roles; he’s better off sticking to indie projects such as In Bruges. His name above DreamWorks/Disney’s Fright Night ($14.6 million) meant nothing. Larry Crowne tells us that no one wants to watch Tom Hanks in romantic comedies anymore, even alongside Julia Roberts. Anne Hathaway should steer clear of British accents after One Day ($10.1 million). And Paul Bettany’s bid for action stardom hit another roadblock with Priest.

From April 29 to August 28, 2011 (versus the same frame last year, courtesy of Rentrak Theatrical):

1. Warner Bros.
Summer Take: $1.02 billion (+83% vs. ’10)
Hits: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 ($372 million), The Hangover Part 2 ($254.3 million), Horrible Bosses ($114 million); Misses: Green Lantern ($116 million)

What’s the difference between this summer and last summer for Warner Bros.? “The final chapter to the highest grossing film franchise in the world,” beams Goldstein about Deathly Hallows Part 2, which catapulted the studio to a record summer domestic take. A balanced diet of comedies, Hangover 2, New Line’s Horrible Bosses and Crazy, Stupid, Love ($71 million) assisted in padding grosses and buffering such write-offs as Green Lantern.

2. Paramount
Summer Take: $993.3 million (+26% vs. ’10)
Hits: Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($350 million), Thor ($181 million), Captain America ($169 million), Super 8 ($126 million); Misses: Kung Fu Panda 2 ($164.3 million)

Though No. 2 this summer, Paramount is No. 1 for the year with $1.4 billion thanks to its copious sequel and superhero line-up. Commenting on Transformers 3’s rejuvenation of 3-D, distribution exec vp Don Harris says: “A film needs to be jaw-dropping and enhance 3-D in a significant way, especially since the domestic market has moved on from the format as the new- fangled thing.” Meanwhile, Kung Fu Panda 2 only pulled in 45% of its stateside audience in 3-D (Kung Fu Panda earned $215.4 million without it), but did better abroad where it has generated 58% of its $474 million gross – a perplexing scenario for DreamWorks Animation’s gung-ho 3-D advocate Jeffrey Katzenberg, as 2-D families outnumber adults willing to pay for the 3-D upcharge.

Walt Disney Pictures
Summer Take: $586 million (-5% vs. ’10)
Hits: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($240.5 million), Cars 2 ($187.4 million), The Help ($100 million) Misses: Fright Night ($14.6 million), Winnie the Pooh ($26.1 million).

When it comes to the ratio of foreign to domestic B.O., is 80/20 the new 60/40? Although Pirates 4 was the lowest chapter of the franchise stateside, it was the second highest worldwide in the series with an outstanding $1.04 billion–thanks to 3-D. While it’s too early to tell if such ratios are the norm for global tentpoles, what it does demonstrate is that the studio has their eye on feeding global appetites with their Disney, Pixar and Marvel brands. Fright Night’s death at the B.O. boils down to its disconnect with horror fans and a competitive August. However, Disney’s adept handling of DreamWorks’ The Help has already jump-started the autumn adult movie going season. “The only way to see consistent weekend to weekend holds (for an adult film) is that you have to play all quadrants including upscale theaters, the heartland and urban,” assesses Disney exec vp of sales and distribution Dave Hollis.

Summer Take: $550 million (+13% vs. ’10)
Hits: Fast Five ($209.8 million), Bridesmaids ($168 million); Misses: Cowboys & Aliens ($94 million), Larry Crowne ($35.6 million), The Change-Up ($34.6 million)

If summer started on May 6, then Universal would rank sixth. That’s not fair considering the major mustered more crowds at Fast Five on the weekend of April 29-May 1 than Paramount did with Thor ($65.7 million) during May 6-8. If there’s a theme running through Universal’s slate, it’s that they took chances on unique material–seeBridesmaids and Cowboys & Aliens–rather than rolling out branded properties. Universal knew the inherent risk and co-financed accordingly. Cowboys will be lucky to scrape the century mark. Also the studio scored its numbers “without being in 3-D,” exclaimed distribution president Nikki Rocco.

20th Century Fox
Summer Take: $508.6 million (+39% vs. ’10)
Hits: Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($151 million), X-Men: First Class ($146.1 million); Misses: Mr. Popper’s Penguins ($67.1 million), Glee the 3D Concert Film ($11.7 million)

Smart sequels were key in putting Fox over the top of its lackluster summer a year ago when they attempted to start fresh series with Knight & Day ($76.4 million) and A-Team ($77.2 million). On the resurrection of Apes and X-Men reboot, Fox distribution senior vp Chris Aronson says: “It takes excellent source material that is extremely satisfying to the existing fan base. However, these movies were so high quality, I believe we even broadened our audience.” Glee was limited from the onset in that it was a family concert film geared toward fans of the show, a niche unlikely to shell out for 3-D. Between May 6 and August 28, Fox ranked fourth among all studios.

Summer Take: $480.5 million (-25% vs. ’10)
Hits: The Smurfs ($127 million), Bad Teacher ($98.3 million), Friends With Benefits ($55.2 million), Jumping the Broom ($37.3 million); Misses: Priest ($29.1 million), 30 Minutes or Less ($32.5 million), Zookeeper ($77.2 million)

Next to last summer when four films – Salt, Grown-Ups, The Karate Kid and The Other Guys each powered beyond $100 million, Sony opted to have a tentpole-less summer this year, which explains its decline. Instead, they went largely for pure profit with cheap bawdy comedies. Zookeeper’s domestic take barely matched its $80 million cost and pales next to Kevin James $146 million hit Paul Blart: Mall Cop ($146.3 million). However, the family film looks to break even abroad with $66 million to date. As gorgeous as it looked, Priest was a development miscalculation: it was so obscure and dark, it turned away both fanboys and vampire girls. 30 Minutes was more of a gimmick than a raunchy comedy that spoke to the younger generation ala 2007’s Superbad ($121.5 million). However, Sony is giddy over The Smurfs: “We were doubling down on them,” says worldwide distribution president Rory Bruer about the studio’s year-long promotion. “It took a village (in making it a success) with every department at Sony, from animation to marketing and merchandising having a part in this film.”

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