A Year-End Box-Office Surge Signals Turnaround for 2012

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Analysis: After hitting its lowest level since post-9/11, the box office has rebounded behind lower ticket prices and some pleasant surprises. A big holiday season means 2012 will top last year

Despite a serious late-summer slump, it's now a safe bet that 2012 will top last year's lackluster box office. Thanks to a rush of awards-caliber and critically-lauded movies, ticket prices stabilizing and a loaded holiday season, the classic Hollywood adage "things turn out fine in the final reel" can be applied to this year's box office.

In mid-September, after a summer of record-setting hits ("The Avengers") and flops ("Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure"), box office had leveled off, and the financials weren't looking good. On Sunday, Sept. 9, in fact, the box office hit its lowest level since post 9-11, with the top films taking in a total of just $68 million. 

But with the year winding down, things have taken a decidedly different turn. In seven of the past nine weeks, overall grosses have improved from the previous week. With $8.4 billion to date, grosses are running 3.7 percent ahead of last year. Even ticket sales are higher, albeit just 2.5 percent, at 1.05 billion to date, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co.

Also read: 'Skyfall' Nears $90M in Biggest Bond Box-Office Debut Ever

That’s a healthy turnaround, and things stand to improve even more starting Friday. That's when Summit's blockbuster “Twilight: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” lands, and it is expected to open to nearly $150 million. That will be on top of Sony's "Skyfall," back for its second week after opening to $90 million, and Disney's animated "Wreck-It Ralph," which is coming off a $33 million second week. Both of those films play to demo groups other than the young females targeted by the "Twilight" series finale, so they should continue to see healthy box office sales.

A crowded holiday slate that looks deep and varied should keep the box-office ball rolling, with titles including Paramount's “Rise of the Guardians” (Nov. 21) and "Jack Reacher" (Dec. 21), Warner Bros.' “The Hobbit” (Dec. 14), and “Django Unchained” (Dec. 25) from The Weinstein Company.

"The strangest thing of all about the 2012 box office will be that holiday movies, not summer blockbusters, will ultimately be the films that push us over the top," Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. "That doesn’t happen very often. But with “Twilight” and “The Hobbit” expected to be two of the top films of the year, and a slate of high-profile moneymakers still in the wings, Hollywood will indeed have a green Christmas and a very happy new year."

Also read: How 'Twilight' Made the Movie Business Respect Girl Power

Fox’s head of distribution Chris Aronson told TheWrap in September amid the box-office doldrums, "If we're seeing those same numbers in the middle of November, then I'll be worried." Safe to say that Aronson, whose studio is distributing Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” (Nov. 16) and “Parental Guidance” (Dec. 25), isn't gobbling Xanax. In fact, Aronson thinks the year will end with a bang.

“As long as exhibition doesn't make pricing a barrier to entry, and we keep creating compelling content, the industry will be in good shape heading into the new year,” he told TheWrap this week.

The end-of-summer slump caused others to raise concerns about the overall direction of the industry. But a look at the scene now shows a changed picture.

>> Ticket Prices
Despite complaints that ticket prices were getting too high, the upward trend has stopped. The average ticket price fell more than four percent over the three months ending in September to $7.78 after hitting record highs. In the previous quarter, ticket prices had hit unprecedented levels, averaging $8.12. Some of that had to do with the fact that the Warner Bros. Batman blockbuster, "The Dark Knight Rises," was not in 3D, meaning  many ticket buyers did not have to shell out a premium.

>> A Not-So-Soft Fall
The season looked uneven, and no film was seen as a lock to register an opening above $40 million until “Skyfall.” But that was before the better-than-expected bows of Fox’s “Taken 2” ($49.5 million), Sony’s animated “Hotel Transylvania” ($42 million) and “Wreck-It Ralph” ($49 million).

There were other pleasant surprises that didn't open to huge grosses, but definitely over-performed. Those included Ben Affleck's Iran hostage thriller "Argo" ($85 million in grosses on a $44 million budget) Sony's sci-fi film "Looper" ($64 million on a $30 million budget) and Universal's comedy about a cappella singing, "Pitch Perfect" ($69 million on a $17 million budget).

>> Scheduling Issues
Some observers wondered why the big-selling action and fanboy films were largely crowded into one season: summer. The answer has to do with the studios’ tracking numbers that go back years; executives tea-leaf the data and time their releases to catch their target audience at opportune moments. Some of it is as simple as the weather; had Hurricane Sandy hit this past weekend, ‘Skyfall” would not have been the biggest Bond ever. It's just safer for the studios to schedule big-ticket movies in the summer when the weather is more reliable.

Also read: 'Lincoln' Logs $81K Per-Screen in Powerful Limited Box Office Debut

>> Movies That Resonate
Critical notices don’t guarantee success; in fact, there are genres — kids' films and horror — in which reviews hardly seem relevant to grosses. But several of the movies that have scored recently — Paramount’s “Flight,” Warner Bros.’ “Argo” and “Skyfall” — are very well-reviewed and thrillers, and that’s a potent combination at the box office. (For the record, the critics hated "Taken 2," but that did fine.)

Adult and awards fare, held for the holiday and pre-awards season rush, should help even without posting blockbuster numbers. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" goes wide this weekend, with David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" (Nov. 16) and Universal's "Les Miserables" (Dec. 28) also ahead.

Spring and summer were wildly uneven at the box office, but fall’s big finish and the heavyweight holiday films will save it — in the final reel.