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Report Card 2011: Sony Bats for Solid Average

From ”Bad Teacher“ to ”Friends With Benefits,“ the studio fielded an impressive string of moderately-budgeted hits

(Third in a series of Studio Report Cards; Thursday — Fox)

WARNER BROS.: With Biggest 'Potter' Yet, Warner Just Shy of Its Record 2010
PARAMOUNT: Studio Set to Grab the Global B.O. Crown Following Huge Year
FOX: Low Risk, Low Reward for Fox
UNIVERSAL: Studio Rebounded, But Still Had Too Many Misses
DISNEY: Studio Move to Cut Costs With Fewer Films

Grade: B
Sony fielded a string of moderately-budgeted hits from the likes of Cameron Diaz and Adam Sandler, while launching a new family franchise with “The Smurfs.” Not every gamble paid off, with moviegoers giving a cold shoulder to “Anonymous,” but by and large the formula worked. 

Sony left most of the major tentpole films to competitors such as Warner Bros. and Paramount, but what the studio did particularly well was hit for average.

From “Bad Teacher” to “Just Go With It,” Sony peppered the box office with a profitable string of doubles and singles.

By and large, the formula worked, with Sony on pace to lap the $3 billion mark worldwide. It's only the third time that the studio has reached that pinnacle.

Sony is currently in third place behind Paramount and Warner Bros. in terms of domestic theatrical market share, with just over $1.2 billion in receipts to date.

“We didn’t really have any sequels or established franchises, but we had some big wins and some really fresh pictures that exceeded our expectations,” Jeff Blake, Sony's chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution, told TheWrap.

The year also saw the introduction of a new family franchise for the studio. Produced for $110 million, “The Smurfs” racked up $561 million worldwide, doing particularly well in foreign markets. A sequel is already in the works.

Made for a cost of just $20 million, the raunchy “Bad Teacher” cast Cameron Diaz as a money-grubbing, pot-smoking middle school teacher and rewarded the studio with a $216 million worldwide gross. Though slightly less successful, the sex and romance romp “Friends With Benefits” continued the string of low-cost hits, grossing $150 million worldwide on a $35 million budget. 

Also read: Report Card 2010: Sony Bets on Originals in Franchise-Heavy Market

Matthew Harrigan, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities, says making films for underserved audiences, such as older moviegoers or women, is central to Sony's approach.

“They are one of the studios that takes a very interesting approach on the counter-programming side," Harrigan said. "Obviously the big bright point in 2011 was 'The Smurfs' given the disproportionate international performance."

Picking up international rights to Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” is proving to be a coup for the studio. The adaptation of Hergé’s comic strips has racked up $233.7 million worldwide so far, even though it has yet to debut stateside.

Still on the docket and tracking strongly is “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” the adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestselling novel, that Sony hopes will kick off a gritty R-rated franchise.

“We have very high commercial expectations for the film,” Blake said. “The book series was a phenomenon, and we think we have found the perfect director in David Fincher. We think we’ve really got something here.”

Blake thinks that with the film’s Swedish setting, international markets will be as integral to the box-office performance as the domestic marketplace. 

Among its more modest hits, superhero comedy "The Green Hornet" racked up $228 million on a $120 million budget and alien invasion flick "Battle: Los Angeles" grossed $215 million on a $70 million budget, making them profitable, but far from otherworldly. 

Of course, not everything that Sony rolled out connected with audiences. Adam Sandler, who has become a fixture of the studio’s slate, delivered a hit with the $215 million-grossing “Just Go With It.” However, the critically derided “Jack & Jill” left moviegoers cold. With an $80 million budget, the film has so far eked out $83.6 million worldwide — a rare whiff for Sandler.

Not even Roland Emmerich could entice audiences into “Anonymous,” a historical drama about the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays. The $30 million film landed with a thud, grossing just $14.2 million worldwide.

Although its domestic performance has been disappointing, Sony is hopeful that “Arthur Christmas,” produced by Aardman Animations, will catch fire with younger moviegoers abroad as it continues its international rollout. The animated film has grossed $91.6 million worldwide, and has performed particularly well with United Kingdom audiences. 

All of this may just be a palate cleanser for 2012, when Sony rolls one of its most potent lineups in years. The studio is rebooting its wall-crawler franchise with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” returning to its alien comedy series with “Men in Black III,” and bringing back James Bond for “Skyfall.”

It also has a new “Ghost Rider” film, a reboot of “Total Recall” and fresh installments in its “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” franchises on tap.

“We’ve got our biggest franchises on display,” Blake said. “As happy as we are to go over $3 billion worldwide, I think we’ve got the ingredients to go well beyond that next year."