2012 Turnaround: The Avengers Brings People Back to the Movies

Batman and Katniss place strong, as Hollywood regains its B.O. mojo

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Zade Rosenthal / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Everett

The Avengers, from left: Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, 2012.

As the digital clock reached midnight on New Year’s Eve, the solons of Hollywood didn’t croon “Auld Lang Syne”; they joined in a group sing of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” After a parlous 2011 — when total revenue from North American theaters dropped to $10.174 billion, and fewer tickets were sold than in any year since 1995 — the domestic box office rebounded to set an all-time record of $10.831 billion, beating the previous high of $10.6 billion in 2009. Inflation over the decades and surcharges for 3-D and IMAX edition do rob some of the majesty from these numbers, but ticket prices have remained relatively stable the last two years; 2012 saw an increase of 6% over 2011 in both income and tickets sold, up to 1.36 billion in North America. Social media haven’t killed the cinema stars quite yet.

For the first time ever, three movies — The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games — broke the $400-million mark at domestic theaters; and for only the second time (first was 2007), 11 pictures earned at least $200 million each. In the 2012 tally at the worldwide box office, three films (Avengers, TDKR and the James Bond golden-anniversary Skyfall) broke $1-billion threshold. Even notorious flops like John Carter and Battleship made a lot of money, mostly abroad, though not enough to break even.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Dark Knight Rises)

Hollywood may finally have perfected its goal of repackaging of old products that can be sold as shiny new baubles. The Avengers, the No. 1 movie of 2012, was part of a film franchise — just like the top-grossing movie of every year this century except for Avatar. And the rest of the 2012 winners’ board provided the same déjà vu that moviegoers have been consuming for ages.

(SEE: TIME’s “Top 10 Best” Movies of 2012)

Consider the top seven grossers at the North American box office: all were live-action fantasies based either on comic books (AvengersTDKRAmazing Spider-Man) or on their literary equivalent, best-selling series of escapist fiction (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth books). All seven movies were rated PG-13. And to prove you have to spend money to make it, all these winners cost at least $200 million to produce except for The Hunger Games ($78-million budget) and Breaking Dawn Part 2 ($120 million) — two female-centered adventures with 22-year-old stars. Apparently the ladies work cheaper.

(READ: TIME’s critique of Skyfall)

Animation, which in 2010 claimed fully half of the top-10 slots, slipped a bit in 2012. The highest grossing animated feature was Pixar’s Brave (eighth place), followed by DreamWorks’ Madagascar: Europe‘s Most Wanted (10th), Universal’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (11th), Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (13th, but still in theaters), Fox’s Ice Age: Continental Drift (14th) and Sony’s Hotel Transylvania (16th).

(READ: TIME’s brief on Brave)

Today’s moviegoers prefer their humor in cartoon form; Adam Sandler, a major comedy star for more than a decade, had a hit with Hotel Transylvania but flopped with his live-action That’s My Boy. Sacha Baron Cohen struck out with The Dictator, and Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn couldn’t get fans to watch The Watch. Only Seth MacFarlane, who graduated from TV comedy animation (Family Guy, American Dad), held the farce banner high with Ted, the year’s most popular R-rated movie — and the first flat-out comedy without the word Hangover in its title to finish in the year’s top 10 since Wedding Crashers in 2005.

(READ: TIME’s take on Ted)
Ted‘s $50-million budget won it another distinction: least expensive film among the year’s 20 highest grossers. But that sum was lavish compared with the $7 million Steven Soderbergh spent on his male-stripper drama Magic Mike, which earned $113.7 million in North America — and, with the hot numbers for The Vow ($125 million) and 21 Jump Street ($138.4 million), made Channing Tatum the year’s top young male star.

A YEAR AT THE DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE: FROM THE DEVIL TO DJANGO

Here are the revenue stats for the 15 top-grossing films released last year in North American theaters, as tabulated by Box Office Mojo. An asterisk (*) indicates that the movie is still in theatrical release.

  1. The Avengers, $623.4 million
  2. The Dark Knight Rises, $448.1 million
  3. The Hunger Games, $407 million
  4. Skyfall, $289.6 million*
  5. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, $286.4 million*
  6. The Amazing Spider-Man, $262 million
  7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $228.7 million*
  8. Brave, $ 237.3 million
  9. Ted, $218.7 million
  10. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, $216 million
  11. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, $214 million
  12. Men in Black 3, $179 million
  13. Wreck-It Ralph, $176 million*
  14. Ice Age: Continental Drift, $161.1 million
  15. Snow White and the Huntsman, $155.1 million

From its very first days, 2012 perked up over the dismal 2011. The Devil Inside, an exorcism exploitation film with a minuscule $1-million budget, earned a Satan-tastic $33.7 million the first weekend of Jan. and went on to scare up $53.3 million at the domestic wickets and a worldwide total of $101.4 million. (That’s a 100-t0-1 return on investment, for those of you who majored in Media Studies instead of Math.) In 2011, from Jan. to late Apr., no movie managed to reach as high as $40 million on any weekend. In 2012 four early-year releases topped that number: The Vow and Safe House (on the same Feb. weekend), then The Lorax (a very green $70.2 million) and The Hunger Games, which earned $152.5 million in late March for the fourth best opening ever.

(READ: TIME’s view of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax)

This vernal flurry was a mere fanfare for The Avengers, the Marvel superhero movie whose gestation will be taught in business schools, if not film schools, for decades to come. From 2003 to 2011, Marvel primed its fan base with two Iron Man movies, two Incredible Hulks and one each on Thor and Captain America; these six films earned a cumulative $1.255 billion in the U.S. and Canada and nearly $2.5 billion worldwide. Writer-director Joss Whedon added Black Widow and Hawkeye, plus a lot of muscleman bickering and an astral assault on Manhattan, and hatched an entertainment designed to bust the box office.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Avengers)

That it did, corralling a herd of box-office records: biggest opening weekend in domestic movie history ($207.4 million) and biggest second weekend ($103.1 million), on its way to becoming the No. 1 summer hit ever — and the all-time top-grossing movie not directed by James Cameron. Avatar and Titanic retain the top spots, but $623.4 million domestic and $1.5118 billion worldwide is still a Marvelous hunk of cash.

(READ: TIME revisits Titanic)

Despite the summer success of Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man reboot ($262 million), Pixar’s girl-power Brave ($237.3 million) and the surprise hit Ted, which earned $218,7 million, the warm-weather business cooled off: summer revenue was 3% below 2011, $4.17 billion to $4.4 billion. Some attributed the slide to moviegoers’ anxiety after the 12 deaths from the shooting at an Aurora, Colo., theater hosting the first midnight showing of TDKR. Yet the finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy went on to earn more money worldwide than its 2008 billion-grossing predecessor. The real reason people stayed home in late July and early Aug. was to watch the London Olympics, which pulled record TV ratings and kept folks entertained for free. Studio bosses had anticipated the Olympics competition: they released all their big summer films before the Games began.

(READ: TIME’s summer box-office wrapup)

After the usual back-to-school lull, patrons returned to theaters in Nov. for the 50th-anniversary James Bond film and the final episode of The Twilight Saga. These blockbusters were buttressed by solid autumn hits with higher IQs: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln ($134.2 million through Dec. 31) and Ben Affleck’s Argo ($109 million), both of which aim to stick around until Oscar Night.

(READ: TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel’s Q&A with Steven Spielberg on Lincoln

Because some major films open in late Dec., and earn much of their money in the early part of the following year, the final tally on any top-grosses list will necessarily evolve. For example, The Hobbit, which has been in first place each of its three weeks in theaters, and which took in more than $50 million in the last week of 2012, will vault from its current seventh position into the top five sometime this month. Perhaps one or both of the big Christmas Day releases — Les Misérables ($73 million through New Year’s Eve) and Django Unchained ($68.6 million) — will eventually earn $160 million or so and break into the final top-15. That would give a slightly different cast to the list, which currently includes neither a traditional musical (Les Mis) nor, and this is sad, not a single original drama (Django).

AND NOW, A BRIEF PSA ON INDIE FILMS

For original dramas, discriminating consumers go to “independent films” — a vague label, indicating of the sort movies that are often released by subsidiaries of the major studios and premiere in art houses to rapturous reviews but rarely make a lot of money. Particularly in 2012. Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris broke through in 2011 with $56.8 million domestic (and a très belle $94,3 million foreign), had less luck with his To Rome With Love: $16.7 million at home, $56.6 million abroad. Though The Master won several critics’ year-end awards, and Beasts of the Southern Wild heralded a visionary director in Behn Zeitlin and an elfish star in Quvenzhané Wallis, those two films together didn’t earn as much in their entire runs as The Devil Inside did on its first weekend.

(READ: TIME’s reviews of The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild)

No “indie” film got as high as $50 million domestic last year, though the Anglo-Indian romance The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which earned an even more impressive $89 million abroad) and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom came close. If there was any surprise on the upside, it came from Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-Barack doc, 2016: Obama’s America. The left wing usually owns documentary films, but 2016 became the second all-time top political movie screed, after Michael Moore‘s Fahrenheit 9/11.

(READ: TIME’s take on 2016 Obama’s America)

With the repeated caution that this category is hard to define, we present the 2012 “indie” movies that grossed more than $5 million at North American theaters: 1. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, $46.4 million. 2. Moonrise Kingdom, $45.5 million. 3. 2016 Obama’s America, $33.4 million. 4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, $17.4 million. 5. To Rome With Love, $16.7 million. 6. The Master, $16.1 million. 7. Seven Psychopaths, $15 million. 8. Beasts of the Southern Wild, $11.2 million. 9. Anna Karenina, $11 million. 10. The Intouchables, $10.2 million. 11. Bernie, $9.2 million. 12. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, $9 million. 13. Arbitrage, $7.9 million. 14. The Sessions, $5.6 million. 15. Hitchcock, $5.2 million.

(READ: TIME’s praise for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

The year’s signal box-office calamity was not an indie film but a live-action kids’ movie: The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, which played at 2,160 theaters and took in only $443,901, for the worst wide opening in movie history. As Box Office Mojo’s Ray Subers calculated: “If each location played Oogieloves five times a day on one screen at an average ticket price of $7, that would translate to fewer than two people per showing.” You don’t get much fewer than two.

THE FOREIGN BOX OFFICE: ICE AGE FOREVER!

Here are the 15 top-grossing movies, worldwide, as taken from Box Office Mojo’s All Time Box Office chart:
  1. The Avengers, $1.5118 billion
  2. The Dark Knight Rises, $1.081 billion
  3. Skyfall, $1.0002 billion*
  4. Ice Age: Continental Drift, $875.2 million
  5. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, $799.6 million*
  6. The Amazing Spider-Man, $752.2 million
  7. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, $742.1 million
  8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $702.1 million*
  9. The Hunger Games, $686.5 million
  10. Men in Black 3, $624 million
  11. Brave, $535 million
  12. Ted, $501.8 million
  13. Prometheus, $402.5 million
  14. Snow White and the Huntsman, $396.4 million
  15. Taken 2, $365.5 million

Note how similar the lists of highest-grossing domestic and worldwide films are: 13 of the 15 titles are the same. Only Taken 2 and Prometheus missed the top-15 domestic chart; they finished 17th and 20th, respectively. And of the domestic winners, the only absentees on the worldwide list are Wreck-It Ralph (which has yet to open in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Brazil and Japan) and The Lorax. You may take this adage as exciting or dispiriting, but it’s true: What America makes, the world buys. Around the globe, moviegoers want our stuff more than their own.

(READ: TIME’s review of Wreck-It Ralph)

And, sometimes, more than we want our own. In North America, the animated feature Ice Age 4 amassed a demure $161.1 million, finishing well behind Brave, Madagascar 3, The Lorax and Wreck-It Ralph. Yet abroad it earned an astonishing $714 million — the year’s second highest foreign gross, trailing only the $888.4 million posted overseas by The Avengers.

(READ: TIME’s dismissal of Ice Age: Continental Drift)

The foreign market can often make the different between financial fiasco and not-so-very-bad. Disney’s John Carter, which cost at least a quarter-billion dollars to produce and opened to mostly excoriating reviews, earned just $73 million at North American theaters but another $210 million abroad. And Battleship, with a production budget of $209 million, took in $65 million domestic but a feisty $237.6 million offshore, for a respectable $302.8 million worldwide gross. There’ll be no sequels to these action-adventures, but they aren’t quite the disasters their domestic performance made them seem.

(FIND: John Carter among the Worst Movies of 2012)

Other movies that are huge at home can lag abroad. Most blockbusters earn about two-thirds of their revenue in the international market. If The Hunger Games had met that standard, it would be a billion-dollar winner. Yet it earned only 41%, or $278.5 million, outside North America, for a worldwide cume of $686.5 million. A hopeful glimmer for Katniss and her clan: foreign audiences are slower than Americans to warm to franchise-starters. They really start queueing for the sequels. Look for a future episode of The Hunger Games to reach the 60-65% level abroad that The Twilight Saga eventually attained. And that could be a picture worth a billion dollars.

(READ: TIME’s appraisal of The Hunger Games)

Do foreigners ever go to foreign movies? Occasionally, and mostly to local comedies. Lost in Thailand, Xu Zheng’s farce about a Beijing businessman who loosens up on a trip to Bangkok, has quickly become China’s all-time highest grossing film: $160 million and counting. (China’s top import of 2012: the 3-D reissue of Titanic.) The popularity of the French buddy comedy The Intouchables is even more startling. This fact-based story of a crippled aristocrat and his African therapist has earned $410.6 million worldwide, which would place it 13th on the global list if it hadn’t opened in France in 2011. The movie pulled in $12 million in North America, making it the highest-grossing European foreign-language film since Pan’s Labyrinth six years ago. But that’s still less money than The Intouchables earned in either the Netherlands or South Korea.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Intouchables)

American comedies usually don’t travel well abroad, unless they’re The Hangover. So Ted scored another happy shock when it added a $283.1 million foreign gross to its $218.7 domestic take, for a rousing $501.8 million total. Even odder was the overseas popularity of American Reunion, which convened the American Pie gang after three hit movies more than a decade ago and, more recently, some direct-to-DVD spinoffs. Reunion earned an OK $56.8 million in North America but a cum-laude $178 million (or 76% of its total earnings) abroad. The moral? Sophisticated comedy may encounter language barriers, but bad taste knows no borders.

(READ: TIME’s stern grade for American Reunion)

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