5 Box Office Lessons From the Middle of Summer 2012

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The star system is battered, the movies are too pricey and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" author Seth Grahame-Smith is the kiss of death

“The Avengers” shattered records while “Battleship” sank in spectacular fashion. Family films  “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” and “Brave” are thriving. What a strange trip it has been to the mid-point of the movie business’ most profitable season.

“The money comes in waves,” Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research at the National Association of Theater Owners, told TheWrap. “The first weeks we were way up, the next we were down, then we were way up and then down again. It’s the quirks of the product.”

Also read: 7 Anti-Blockbusters You Must See This Summer

To date, this summer is essentially even with last year at $1.81 billion in revenue, but with “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” still to come, there’s a chance box office numbers could still pull ahead. Even without knowing how audiences will respond to the latest installments in the wall-crawler and caped crusader franchises, there are lessons to be learned from what has hit and missed over the past two months. 

The Star System is Tarnished

It used to be that studios could put Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler or Will Smith in a movie and kick back and watch the film bank nine figures on their names alone.

No more. With the failures of “Rock of Ages” and “That’s My Boy” and the domestic disappointment of “Men in Black 3,” yesterday’s mega-stars are looking decidedly more earthbound.

Also read: 6 Breakout Stars of Summer 2012

“Moviegoers care more about premise than star power,” Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, told TheWrap.

It probably didn’t help that Cruise and Sandler were way outside of their comfort zones, starring in a musical and an R-rated comedy respectively. Put them in “Mission Impossible” or a laugh-fest with fewer swear words, and they still deliver the goods. But their failures are a reminder that picking the right vehicle is just as important as finding the brightest name.

In Smith’s case, the so-called “biggest star in the world” was faced with the unenviable task of trying to re-launch a franchise that had been absent from screens for nearly a decade. Nobody would label the third “Men in Black” film a failure, but most of its $577 million gross came internationally, meaning that like the movie business itself, the former “Fresh Prince” is becoming increasingly dependent on foreign audiences.

The Movies Are Way Too Expensive

When it comes to summertime fare, it's feast or famine. Yet studios seem to believe that the more money they spend on a project the better insulated they are from the vagaries of audience tastes. Not true.

At a reported production cost of $225 million, even a film like “Men in Black 3” faces a steep climb to profitability when marketing costs are taken into account. Likewise “Prometheus” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” have raked in a sizable $260.8 million and $298.6 million at the box office. However, they cost $130 million and  $170 million, respectively, to produce, meaning that they too will find turning a big profit to be a challenge.

Also read: The Blockbuster That Ate Hollywood: Why ‘Avengers’ Is Crowding the Box Office

Those figures might have been alright in the old days when a theatrical release was little more than a launching pad for home entertainment. But with DVD sales a distant memory and Blu-ray growing at a modest pace, big movies are no longer the cash cows they were five years ago.

The dearth of mid-budget movies at the summer box office means that nearly every film a studio releases from May to August has the potential to be a “John Carter”-sized disaster and that even films that do find an audience may not make any money until cable and VOD. Heck, even stage versions are taken into account years down the road.

Seth Grahame-Smith = Box Office Poison

Seth Grahame-Smith is this summer’s kiss of death. The mash-up maestro watched helplessly as not one, but two films which he wrote  — “Dark Shadows” ($210 Million worldwide) and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” ($24.1 million worldwide) — crashed and burned at the box office.

Just as “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” demonstrated two years ago, the films' failures are proof that what plays like gangbusters Comic-Con may not translate to the average moviegoers.

Too few people were fans of the original 1960s soap opera that inspired “Dark Shadows,” and a series of jokey advertisements made it difficult for audiences to understand whether this was a horror film or a parody.

Likewise, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was marketed as a deadly serious enterprise, until trailers cut to the title, which inspired loud laughter at many theaters. Not helping matters was its R-rating, which seemed to cut off what otherwise might have been its core audience — teenage boys.

The twin disappointments cast a shadow over Grahame-Smith and his longterm Hollywood prospects. It also likely means that the proposed, but long delayed adaptation of his “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” won’t be emerging from development purgatory anytime soon.

Indie Films Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You

Arthouse audiences have been one of the most reliable sources of box office revenue in a summer that has seen mainstream movies’ fortunes see-saw wildly. Nothing has yet to hit the $56 million domestic heights of last year’s “Midnight in Paris,” but the indie crowd has had plenty to crow about.

Also read: How 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' Became This Summer's Surprise Indie Smash

In particular, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has leveraged its tale of senior citizens retiring in India into one of this summer’s most unlikely success stories. The film, which features graying thespians Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, has earned nearly $40 million in the U.S. so far, and its worldwide gross stands at over $120 million.

Likewise, Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” has racked up $11.6 million over five weeks despite never showing in more than 400 theaters. It is ready to top Anderson’s previous live-action film “The Darjeeling Limited” ($11.9 million domestic) and could surpass “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” ($24 million domestic) despite being made for a fraction of the latter film’s $50 million budget.

Last summer’s art house star may find himself leading the pack yet again. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” was an Energizer bunny at the box office last year, and his “To Rome With Love” is also enchanting audiences with its gauzy look at a different European capital. The romantic comedy debuted last weekend to $379,371 on five screens, representing a stunning $75,874 per-screen average.

Take note, Hollywood — the summer doesn’t have to just be about superheroes and explosions.

Never Bet Against Animation

Fun fact: Most box office reporters are not pre-adolescents. Hence, the films that get the most attention tend to be the tent-pole fare and awards contenders that are geared at their demographic, not the mystical princesses and lovable circus animals that populate two of this summer’s best performers.

That’s a shame, because while superhero films that don’t feature a Batman or an Iron Man can be a mixed bag, animated fare has been one of Hollywood’s enduring sources of gold and deserves some respect.

Pixar added its 13th consecutive No. 1 debut at the box office last weekend when “Brave” premiered to $66.3 million. It is a feat unsurpassed by any other major player in the movie business, but it doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves.

Nor does DreamWorks Animation. The studio’s “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” has earned $365.5 million worldwide in three weeks of release. That lofty gross makes it the ninth consecutive film from the animation house to make north of $300 million, a pretty impressive batting average.

Up next in the animation line is Fox's “Ice Age: Continental Drift” on July 13.The fourth film in the prehistoric franchise should make about four times what “Prometheus” did while receiving a tenth of the coverage enjoyed by Ridley Scott’s alien prequel. Talk about an unsung hero.