“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Iron Man 3” are pushing Hollywood to another record-breaking year at the box office.
But moviegoers didn’t just flip for Katniss Everdeen and Tony Stark. The reason that the business hit a new high-water mark goes beyond a handful of blockbusters.
Older audiences turned out in force, “Gravity” reminded ticket-buyers about the power of IMAX and 3D, and horror movies proved that people prefer getting scared in packs.
That’s the good news. Before studio executives pop the champagne, it’s also worth noting that 2013 marked the release of some of the biggest bombs in film history — a murderer’s row of duds including “R.I.P.D.” and “The Lone Ranger” that left moviegoers asking, “why?”
To guard against another series of write-downs and lost profits, TheWrap has cooked up six essential take-aways from the year that was. It’s a prescription studios should consider following to the letter, otherwise the next “After Earth” could be yours.
HALLOWEEN ISN’T THE ONLY TIME FOR HORROR
Horror films were among the year’s most consistent box office performers, as studios discovered that audiences like to get scared whatever the season. Not so long ago, horror was a genre that was largely confined to Halloween, but “The Conjuring,” “The Purge,” “Mama” and “Insidious : Chapter 2” all opened at different points of the fall, winter and summer, drawing crowds of moviegoers looking to get frightened.
But the genre has become important in other ways. These films have some of the widest profit margins in the business, and are frequently produced for a fraction of what most films cost to make. Indeed, “Insidious” producer Jason Blum has become a phenomenon because of his low cost, high thrills formula and it’s being widely emulated throughout the industry.
“The Purge” and “Insidious: Chapter 2,” both of which Blum produced, cost a mere $3 million and $5 million to produce, and made $89.3 million and $160.4 million worldwide, respectively. Films without Blum’s fingerprints, still had his DNA. For instance, “The Conjuring” required just $20 million to shoot and brought in $316.7 million in global ticket sales.
Horror films are social experiences. Even in an age where the internet provides a cornucopia of entertainment options that are instantly available, scary movies still entice ticket buyers to turn off the iPhone, meet up with friends and hit the multiplex. After all, it always helps to have an arm nearby to grab in fright.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
The recipe for major box-office success traditionally has been to score with “four quadrants” – men and women, younger and older. But big screens have never been bigger than they were in 2013, and may be creating a “fifth quadrant.”
Moreover, films such as “Gravity,” with its vast outer space vistas, reminded viewers of the format’s power.
Eight of the top-grossing movies globally were screened in IMAX and domestically, the format on average accounted for 15 percent of opening weekend grosses – up 35 percent from last year. IMAX was even bigger overseas, and is in the forefront of China’s booming market, which is projected to grow by 36 percent this year. IMAX’s grosses will be up by 55 percent and it recently cut a deal with Chinese exhibition giant Wanda that could add 120 more screens.
It’s not just Imax. Premium Large Format screens brought in $223 million this year, a 23 percent hike from last year, and all of the top 20 films played in the format. Grosses at Cinemark, the largest PLF provider, were up 14 percent domestically and 19 percent globally.
So, settle in, grab your popcorn and get blown away.
CATCH SOME FALLING STARS
Audiences don’t care whose name is above the title. Perhaps the onslaught of masked avengers has made moviegoers less picky about the actors and actresses whose films they’re willing to plunk down $18 to see, but star power took another hit in 2013.
By any measure, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Matt Damon and Will Smith are major Hollywood stars. They command big salaries and magazine covers, and, in the case of Affleck and Bale, recently scored Oscars. That wasn’t enough to rescue the likes of “Runner, Runner,” “After Earth,” “Elysium” and “Out of the Furnace,” all of which featured this big-ticket bunch front-and-center in their marketing and all of which flopped.
Even young stars such as Liam Hemsworth and Channing Tatum, who command scores of adoring female fans, weren’t able to translate that libidinal rush into box office sizzle. Hemsworth’s “Paranoia” and Tatum’s “White House Down” were among the summer’s biggest bombs.
Women seemed to fare better than men when it came to flexing box office muscles. Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock for example anchored “Identity Thief” and “Gravity,” driving those films to grosses of $173.9 million and $642.3 million, respectively. Pooling their resources and co-starring on “The Heat” was another shrewd commercial decision, generating $229.9 million in ticket sales. Likewise, Jennifer Lawrence pulled off the impressive feat of fielding both a major blockbuster in the form of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and a critical smash in “American Hustle,” which is currently burning up the indie box office in limited release.
Bet Channing, Liam and Will would trade places with any of those three.
BIG SPENDING DOESN’T EQUAL BIG BOX OFFICE
All the money in the world couldn’t save “The Lone Ranger.” Or “R.I.P.D.” Or “Pacific Rim.” Or “After Earth.” Or, if the miserable tracking is on point, the upcoming Christmas release, “47 Ronin.”
Studios spent north of $100 million on each of these turkeys — in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” fulfilling this particular Johnny Depp fantasy resulted in an $190 million write-down. No one seemed to stop to ask if characters from old time radio shows or cult comic books resonated with a generation of ticket buyers who came of age post-YouTube. In all of these cases, studios bet spectacle and star power would be enough to draw crowds.
They were wrong. Not every film can be a blockbuster, even if its budgeted like one.
MARVEL IS THIS YEAR’S MODEL, AND NEXT
With “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” getting such a significant bounce from “Marvel’s The Avengers” this year, the bottom-line benefits of Disney’s mix-match-and-multiply strategy became crystal clear. Those two movies delivered $1.8 billion at the box office this year, and provided millions more in momentum for the next year’s Marvel movies, “Captain America: Winter Soldier” (April 14) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (Aug. 1). And then there’s the theme park rides, merchandising and TV, video game and TV and streaming spin-offs based on the comic book heroes.
Disney says it will follow the same strategy to integrate the “Star Wars” movies into its master plan, and other studios may not say it, but they’re thinking along the same lines. That the Superman saga “Man of Steel” took in $660 million worldwide for Warner Bros. was great, but setting up its Batman vs. Superman sequel, and subsequent films based on DC Comics Justice League characters, meant just as much to the studio. Sony’s looking to create its own Marvel universe with “Venom” and “The Sinister Six,” upcoming films based on characters from its “Spider-Man” movies. Fox would love to expand the footprint of its Marvel heroes, “X-Men” and “Wolverine,” and next summer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” could do just that.
There’s a great big world of intellectual property out there to explore.
TWO ADULTS FOR ‘GRUDGE MATCH,’ PLEASE
That the county’s 76 million baby boomers – who have the most spending power and have made the movies their first entertainment choice for decades – are increasingly critical to Hollywood isn’t a surprise. But the degree to which they drove this year’s box office raised eyebrows.
It wasn’t just the movies that became hits because they directly targeted mature audiences like “42” and “Last Vegas,” but also the major boost older moviegoers gave to smart, adult-skewing awards contenders like “Captain Phillips,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler.” Star power may not mean what it once did at the box office, but familiar faces like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and “Gravity’s” George Clooney and Sandra Bullock resonated with boomers and had a lot to do with the success of those films.
The movie business may be a young person’s game, but it’s the older folks who are buying the tickets.