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Good Summer/Bad Summer: Who Were The Victors & The Victims Of The Blockbuster Box Office This Year?

Good Summer/Bad Summer: Who Were The Victors & The Victims Of The Blockbuster Box Office This Year?

While we’re only a few weeks into August, summer blockbuster season is pretty much winding down for the year. Last weekend brought “Elysium,” the last major tentpole for the moment (albeit an underperforming one), and the rest of August is mostly made up of lo-fi programmers and would-be-franchises that, if their studios had any confidence in them, would be coming out at a different time. So it seems like a good time as any to take a look at the summer box office over the last few months, and discuss who had a good May-August in 2013, and who really didn’t.

The box office conversation has been dominated by a few high-profile flops, but on the whole, it’s actually been a strong summer. While the profit from the hits might have been dented by the money-losers, theaters have been packed out, and Variety reports that we’re running 12% ahead of the previous record-breaking year, 2011. That said, there are plenty of lessons to be learned here, and below, you can see who’ll be popping open the champagne to celebrate come Labor Day, and who’ll be drowning their sorrows. Let us know your own thoughts in the comments section when you’re done.

Good Summer


Just for a change, this summer’s been dominated by costumed crime-fighters. Last year featured the big names of Batman, Spiderman and the Avengers, so it would have been hard to top that, but superheroes remained highly reliable box office performers in 2013. There’d been some question of how much of a bump, if any, Marvel‘s movies would get after “The Avengers,” but “Iron Man 3” provided the answer: a lot. Shane Black‘s picture is the biggest film of the year, by far (it’s almost half-a-billion ahead of its closest summer competition, though that gap may close), and suggested that Marvel may come to rival or surpass Pixar in terms of being a reliable brand—at least while they have Robert Downey Jr. on hand. “Man Of Steel” perhaps didn’t quite hit the sky-high expectations that some had (outgoing Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov predicted it would be the studio’s biggest ever hit), but nearly $300 million domestic and $647 million worldwide is nothing to be sniffed at, especially when put against under $400 million for “Superman Returns” or even under $375 million for “Batman Begins“—though inflation and 3D bumps help close the gap a little. Finally, “The Wolverine,” while still rolling out, is the smallest grosser of the three, but with China & Japan still to come, it should overtake its predecessor and end up somewhere near $400 million, and given that it cost less than other blockbusters (about $120 million), that’s a win for Fox, albeit a smallish one.

Animated Sequels

While this year has marked something of a crisis point for animated movies in some ways (see below), the artform proved as reliable as ever when it came to sequels. After two relatively low-grossing Pixar flicks, “Monsters University” bounced back at the box office (though reviews were still relatively cool)—the film’s just overtaken “The Incredibles” to become the company’s fourth biggest worldwide grosser. Universal‘s “Despicable Me 2” was even more profitable. The first film was a huge surprise, and the second has been a runaway success; it’s the second biggest film of the year at the domestic box office with $338 million, and has made $745 million worldwide. Crucially, it was also a lot cheaper than most animated pictures, with a production budget of around $75 million, which makes it apparently the most profitable film in the history of Universal. Expect these to keep coming until the end of time.

The Fast & Furious Franchise

The “Fast & Furious” series is unlike any other in that it’s only gotten bigger and bigger over time. And the sixth entry suggested there’s no sign of it running out of gas (see what we did there? Gas? as a metaphor for… oh, you got it) any time soon. Justin Lin‘s film was comfortably the biggest of the series so far: at $238 million, it made thirty million more than “Fast Five” in the U.S, and took nearly $150 million worldwide for a total that’s nearing $800 million. Given how warmly received the movie was, and given the barnstorming reaction to the credits teaser that sets up the next film (due next summer), “Fast 7” has a damn good shot at a billion.

Brad Pitt

For someone who’s graced as many magazine covers as he has, Brad Pitt‘s had relatively few solo megahits. While he’s been a consistent draw, it’s often as part of an ensemble or a pairing (as with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” or “Inglourious Basterds“). So “World War Z” was going to be an interesting experiment, in that the actor was so central to both the movie and the marketing. The film had a troubled production and poisonous buzz, but ultimately, it proved that Pitt vs. zombies was an irresistible proposition to many moviegoers. Pitt’s presence and the PG-13 horror vibe enabled the film to capture female audiences in a way that other blockbusters struggled, and it proved well-liked enough to play in theaters for a while, when other blockbusters opened strong and dropped off fast. At nearly $200 million in the U.S. and over $500 million worldwide, it’s overtaken “Mr. And Mrs Smith” and “Troy” to become the biggest hit of his career, and while the film’s excessive costs cut into the profit this time out, a franchise has undoubtedly been born. 

(Secretly) “Pacific Rim

Plenty of movies have been thrown around as flops this summer, mostly deservedly so, but the mud doesn’t quite stick to “Pacific Rim” in the way that it does with others. There’s no denying that the film’s $96 million domestic gross to date is a disappointment—questionable marketing, destruction fatigue and a cast lacking in names all leading to the film’s underperformance in the U.S. But abroad, it’s been a very different story. Clearly rewritten and recalibrated in order to maximize its international appeal (hence the Chinese and Russian Jaegers), the film was a damp squib in much of the English-speaking world, but enormous in much of the rest of the world, particularly China (though interestingly, it performed less well than expected in Japan this weekend). By the time it’s done, it should close out near $400 million, which, like “World War Z,” makes it only just on the edge of profitability , but is more than enough money to justify a sequel going into development, even if, like the mooted follow-up to “Tron: Legacy,” it’s probably announced to save face and then never goes anywhere. (See also “The Golden Compass,” which did similar numbers and never led to a follow-up.)


One of the studios’ biggest mistakes was to aim way, way too many movies at the teenage-boys-of-all-ages demographic that’s been their bread-and-butter for years. It’s been proven out by the way some of these movies underperformed, but also in the way that audiences starved for other kind of things flocked to other fare. “The Great Gatsby” hit at the beginning of the summer, well before blockbuster fatigue had set in, and did sterling numbers despite lukewarm reviews, ending up with about $330 million worldwide (whether it turned a profit or not depends on how accurate reports of the film’s budget really are, but still). Elsewhere, “Now You See Me” turned into a surprise hit by landing older audiences who wanted a break from CGI fare, while “The Heat” is a bona-fide smash, topping $150 million in the U.S even as it begins its international roll-out. The three were pretty much the only movies aimed at female audiences all summer, and all performed like stars. Lesson learned, Hollywood?


Horror tends to be confined to January, August or October, where a cheap buck can be made with something crappy to fill up a theater. But expect to see a lot more of it in the summer after this year, when a pair of films proved surprisingly strong and outperformed much more expensive competition. First up, “The Purge” landed in theaters at the beginning of June, and the $3 million picture made a whopping $34 million in its first weekend (more than the new movies that starred Will Smith, Johnny Depp and Matt Damon in the same season, embarrassingly). As is common with the genre, it peaked early, failing to double its first three days, but for a film that cost as little as it did, Universal have to be delighted. Meanwhile, “The Conjuring” was even bigger: aided by unexpectedly great reviews, James Wan‘s film has had legs almost unheard of in the genre, and is about to overtake “The Ring” to become the fifth most successful film in the genre to date. The film cost a little more—$20 million—but was still cheaper than almost anything else this summer, so Warner Bros. have to be delighted with the result here.

The Indie Scene

While nothing proved as successful as a mini-blockbuster like a “Midnight In Paris” or a “Moonrise Kingdom,” arthouse theaters have had a decent breadth of fairly successful films to pick from over the warm months. “Mud” and “The Place Beyond The Pines” remain the biggest indies of the year so far, and were still playing into May, while behind them, “The Way Way Back,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Before Midnight,” “The Bling Ring,” “Much Ado About Nothing” “Frances Ha” and “20 Feet From Stardom” all performed strongly, while “Blue Jasmine” has a good chance of supplanting “Midnight In Paris” as Woody Allen‘s top grosser by the time it plays out. With an atypically strong August to come, things aren’t looking too bleak in the indie world, even if not everything landed (we lament that CBS Films didn’t do a better job with “Kings of Summer,” which deserved to be a crossover hit).

Bad Summer

Original Animation

While the pre-existing animated franchises performed strongly this year, not a lot of new ones were established. “The Croods” performed very strongly back in the spring (nearly $600 million worldwide), but by the end of May, Fox‘s “Epic” was something of a damp squib; the adventure made only $250 million worldwide, making it by some distance the lowest grosser from “Ice Age“‘s Blue Sky Studios. “Turbo,” from DreamWorks, has fared equally poorly; the film opened poorly, after following close behind “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2,” and there wasn’t much room in the marketplace for another such animation. It’s likely to be the first film since “Flushed Away” not to cross the $100 million mark in the U.S. for the studio, and will likely make less than the disastrous “Rise of the Guardians.” It’s not reason to panic—”Frozen” and “Lego” should both perform well over the next six months—but it’s hardly a great showing.

“The Hangover” Fatigue

One of the biggest surprises was the underperformance of the third entry of “The Hangover.” The previous two films had been absolute monsters, each becoming the biggest R-rated comedies up to that point, with a whopping $467 million and $586 million respectively. And make no mistake, $350 million worldwide for “The Hangover Part III” is highly profitable, even if the film somehow managed to cost over $100 million. But it was still a serious crash down to earth for the franchise, the movie making well under half what the the previous picture had domestically (and outgrossed by “Now You See Me“), and mostly being saved—unusually for a comedy, which rarely travel—by the foreign take. Todd Phillips & co. had been upfront that they considered this the last in the series, but clearly, the mostly recycled and rehashed second film had drained much of the goodwill towards the franchise.

Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp & Matt Damon

Ten years ago, even five years ago, these four were pretty much atop the stardom treehouse—Smith had an unbeatable run of box office hits, Cruise hadn’t yet alienated fans with his ‘quirky’ behavior, Depp had just been revived and made bigger than ever thanks to the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and Damon was suddenly an action star thanks to “The Bourne Identity.” They’ve had their ups and downs in the intervening years, but none had a great time over the last few months. Cruise came off the best—an April release for ‘Oblivion” meant it got to nearly $300 million (it likely would have been crushed had it gone later), and the film was actually one of the better movies of the summer. But it was still the actor’s third film in a row not to cross $100 million domestically, and the backers of his next sci-fi picture “Edge Of Tomorrow” have to be a little nervous at this point.  Smith’s vehicle, the M. Night Shyamalan-directed “After Earth,” fared even worse domestically, barely clearing $60 million, though international box office (particularly in China) again came to the rescue, taking it to a more respectable $240 million worldwide. But coming off a long absence, pre “Men In Black 3,” it shows that the Smith brand’s been a little tarnished, and the star could do with picking his next move carefully. Meanwhile, “The Lone Ranger” was a disaster all around, and with “The Tourist” and “Dark Shadows” still fresh in the memory, certainly calls into question the Depp brand. It’ll be more interesting to see how “Pirates 5” performs in a few years—have we reached a general fatigue with the actor’s showboating? Whatever the answer is, next year’s “Transcendence” was probably a good choice. Finally, Damon vehicle “Elysium” only just opened this weekend, and has the benefit of being one of the summer’s last movies, so there’s a slim chance it could be redeemed by the international box office. But there’s no denying that it’s opening is a disappointment—given that it opened nearly $7 million less than “District 9,” it gives the impression that audiences would rather see a movie with no stars than one with Damon (that’s unfair, but still). It’s been a long while since Damon had a real hit, so a return to the “Bourne” series becomes more feasible all the time. 

Channing Tatum & Ryan Reynolds

It’s not just the old guard of stars who had a rough few months: two bright hopefuls from the last year had a pretty rough time of it, too. Ryan Reynolds has been tipped for seemingly forever, but after a pretty good year with “The Proposal” in 2009, the actor had a rough time in 2011 when both “Green Lantern” and “The Change-Up” flopped. But 2011 was a triumph compared to this summer, when “Turbo” and “R.I.P.D” tanked on the same weekend. The former wasn’t such a problem—animated films barely count, and it’s not like he was getting the credit when “The Croods” was a hit earlier in the year. But “R.I.P.D” was a bruiser, and if Reynolds leads another tentpole, it’ll be after a Colin Farrell-esque spell in the indie wilderness. Tatum was on a hotter streak, with several big hits in 2012. But while *spoiler* his fearless cameo in sleeper hit “This Is The End” was good fun *end spoiler*, the Tatum train was briefly derailed when “White House Down” underperformed. The film was essentially sunk when spoiler picture “Olympus Has Fallen” proved to be a hit a few months earlier, so Tatum won’t be blamed too badly, and he has more indie cred with “Foxcatcher” and a near-sure-fire thing with “22 Jump Street” on the way. But a lot will ride on the Wachowskis‘ “Jupiter Ascending” next year; it could be the next “Matrix,” or could be the next “Speed Racer.”


We feel like we say this every year, but audiences seem to actively reject 3D more and more each year. In the aftermath of “Avatar,” audiences were flocking to dimensionalized screenings of blockbusters, where available, with a 3D audience share of somewhere between 70 and 80 percent being common. But in 2013, the bottom has fallen out: almost no blockbuster sold more than 50% of its tickets to 3D screenings—”World War Z” managed only 34%, and “The Great Gatsby” 33%. Animation proved even worse, despite 3D screenings pre-dating the “Avatar” boom. “Monsters University” managed the worst audience share for 3D movies up to that point in its opening weekend, with 31%, a record that was smashed two weeks later when “Despicable Me 2managed a dismal 27%. It seems to suggest that the novelty is officially wearing off, and that audiences, fed up of paying the surcharges (particularly, it seems, on family outings) are actively seeking out 2D screenings. It can’t be a huge coincidence that 3D has been so rotten in most of this summer’s movies (“Pacific Rim” was perhaps the only film we saw that managed to be a decent conversion job, with “Iron Man 3” and “World War Z” proving to be particularly dismal in 3D), but the rot has clearly set in long ago domestically. Still, the boom internationally continues, especially in China and other Asian territories, and as long as that continues, don’t expect the trend to disappear any time soon.


Perhaps a creative note more than a financial one, but 2013 was the year of the bloated blockbuster. Running times were almost always over two hours, with “The Lone Ranger” breaking the bank at 150 minutes, and perhaps more importantly, the films felt overstuffed, with extraneous characters (Hello, Rebecca Hall in “Iron Man 3“! Hi, Matthew Fox in “World War Z“! Nice to see you, Paul Walker in “Fast & Furious 6“!), over-extended subplots, and uneven storytelling prevalent. Some of these films were successful, some less so, but almost all felt bloated and in need of paring down. We blame “The Lord of the Rings” to some extent—the three-hour run times of that franchise became increasingly standard over the last decade. It’s also to some degree a generational thing—the shorter attention spans of Generation X replaced by the reared-on-long-form-TV-boxsets expectations of millennials. But if a summer movie clocked in at 90 minutes next year, we would not be upset.

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