From blockbusters ( Inception) to bombs ( The Switch) to surprise performers ( The Expendables), The Daily Beast’s Peter Lauria factors in budget, gross, buzz, and expectations to rank 10 winners, 10 losers and 5 surprises.
Not unlike the weather, the summer movie season got off to a scorching start with Iron Man 2’s opening-weekend take of $134 million way back in May. But while the weather only got hotter, the box office cooled considerably in the intervening three months, ending the 17-week stretch well short of the $5 billion peak it seemed destined to summit.
Hollywood studios will no doubt portray the summer of 2010 as another record year at the box office, and technically they are right—the $4.35 billion in total estimated revenue after accounting for this weekend’s haul will rank as the most ever for the three-month period, up roughly 2.4 percent from last year’s high-water mark, according to Hollywood.com. But the victory is a hollow one, built on the back of an average ticket price of $7.88, up 38 cents over 2009, and considerably more for 3-D movies.
“The movies released this summer felt like the equivalent of rentals,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com’s box-office division. “People weren’t going to pay to see them on the big screen.”
Or, to put it another way, though studios again played it safe by sticking to proven franchises, bankable stars, and lighter fare, filmgoers were fickle about where they spent their money. Only 13 movies topped $100 million in domestic box-office gross this summer, according to Hollywood.com, the lowest number of films to cross that threshold since 2006.
So erratic was the performance of this summer’s film slate that we felt compelled to compile a list of 25 films that won, lost, and surprised at the box office. Our subjective, unscientific methodology took into account such things as production budget, worldwide gross, studio buzz achieved, and performance relative to expectations. Using those metrics, some clear-cut winners emerged, like Warner Bros.’ Inception and Sony/Columbia’s The Karate Kid, which earned $657.5 million and $300.2 million worldwide on production budgets of $160 million and $40 million, respectively. Both also outperformed studio expectations and earned beaucoup positive buzz.
The key barometer of Hollywood’s health, attendance, reveals the movie industry to be rather sickly. Just over 552 million tickets were sold this summer, says Hollywood.com, which is not only a decline from last year, but also the lowest number of tickets sold since 1997.
Conversely, films such as Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Universal’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, fall on the losing side of our equation. While being considered a loser may seem odd for Prince of Persia, a film that grossed $329.6 million worldwide on a production budget of $200 million, keep in mind that it was one of Disney’s two summer tent poles, and hopes inside the studio were that the film would rival other animated movies like Shrek Forever After and Despicable Me in terms of performance and become a new franchise.
And then there were movies like The Last Airbender or The Expendables that, when the summer tally is looked at in aggregate, both rank among the top 15 in domestic box-office gross, positions few would have predicted they would hold down at the start of the season.
With 40 percent of the year’s entire box-office gross generated over the summer, odds are good that 2010 will be another $10 billion-plus, record-setting year at the box office—which, at more than $7.5 billion in revenue so far, is already tracking 4 percent above last year’s pace. But Hollywood needs to be mindful of that attendance figure. After all, charging more money to fewer and fewer people isn’t a sustainable business model in this digital age.
(All data sourced from Hollywood.com or Boxofficemojo.com. Domestic gross figures are through Aug. 29, 2010. Foreign gross figures are through Aug. 30, 2010.)
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.