Hollywood Harakiri: A Bad 2011 for the Movie Business

Sequels slumped, stars went dark and animated features lost their luster in the worst year for ticket sales since 1995.

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L. to R.: Warner Bros.; Bruce Talamon / Universal Pictures

Stars are sooo last-century. These were the “stars” in nine of the year’s 10 top grossers: Daniel Radcliffe, Shia LaBeouf, Kristin Stewart, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Larry the Cable Guy, James Franco, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans. Not a lot of old-time marquee wattage there. Indeed, of the 20 highest earners at domestic theaters, only Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean 4 could be considered a star vehicle. (Tom Cruise, with Mission: Impossible 4, and Robert Downey, Jr., with his Sherlock Holmes sequel, will crash into the top 10 when 2012 revenue is included.) The fans bases of some reliable money-earners evaporated: Jack & Jill was the first “Adam Sandler comedy” of this century (ignoring outside projects like Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish) to take in less than $100 million. Even when stars teamed up — Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne, Vince Vaughn and Kevin James in The Dilemma — audiences stayed away, perhaps figuring they could ignore two stars with one negative decision.

Cartoons are cratering. Animated features have been box-office magnets since Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. In the past decade or so, Pixar, DreamWorks and Fox’s Blue Sky Studios made hit after hit. Has animation entered its after-hit phase? Consider that, in 2010, five of the top 10 grossers were cartoons; in 2011, just one, Cars 2 — and that was the first Pixar feature since 1998 not to hit the $200-million domestic mark. The $60-plus million earned by Happy Feet Two was less than a third of what its 2006 predecessor took in, leading to layoffs of 600 or the 700 employees of the Australian company that produced the animation. Big-studio animated features, which cost between $80 million and $250 million to produce, are a smart bet only if they reap giant rewards, and that didn’t happen this year. Disney’s Gnomeo and Juliet cost more than a quarter-billion dollars to produce but couldn’t reach $100 million domestic. Need three more words to sum up animation’s quandary? Mars Needs Moms.

What American movie studios needs is a new source of revenue. They found a good chunk of it abroad; foreign markets now account for about 60% of total theatrical revenue. Their money is as good as ours, even in Euros, and even if it means that the U.S. is now outsourcing its movie audience. The billions in China and India are inching up to the middle class and seeing more pictures. Better yet, for the bean-counters, they’re seeing Hollywood pictures. Check out the familiar titles on Box Office Mojo’s list of the 10 top-grossing movies, worldwide:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, $1,328.1 million
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, $1,123.7 million
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, $1,043.9 million
  4. Kung Fu Panda 2, $665.7 million
  5. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, $657.7 million
  6. Fast Five, $626.1 million
  7. The Hangover Part II, $581.5 million
  8. The Smurfs, $562.5 million
  9. Cars 2, $559.9 million
  10. Rio, $484.6 million

Note that four of the worldwide winners were animated features. That’s why there will be a fourth Ice Age next July, and might be a second Adventures of Tintin. The CGI adaptation of Hergé’s comic-book classics had grossed a middling $63.7 million in North America as of Wednesday, but has earned a Tintinastic $269 million abroad; producer Peter Jackson may make good on his plan to direct a sequel. The Smurfs, based on another European book franchise, pulled in nearly three times as much abroad ($420 million) as it did in North America ($142.6 million). Kung Fu Panda 2 two tripled its domestic gross in foreign climes, and Cars 2 nearly doubled its stateside take.

Do foreigners ever go to their own movies? The good news is: Yes. The bad news: local megahits seem to be broad comedies of the Sandler stripe. Intouchables (Untouchables), pairing a stuffy Frenchman with a crafty-innocent African, has been No. 1 at the French box office for nine weeks straight, grossing more than $150 million — three times Tintin’s impressive total. The year’s No. 2 film in France was another odd-couple comedy, Nothing to Declare, which earned $75 million. In Spain, 24 of the year’s top 25 hits were financed by Hollywood, but the No. 1 film was home-grown: Torrente 4, latest in a raucous comedy detective series written and directed by its star, Santiago Segura.

Eyyvah Eyvah 2 was at the top of the pops in Turkey; this sequel to a comedy about a portly clarinet player and his blond fiancée earned $20.5 million, nearly twice any other film released in Turkey last year (Pirates 4 did $7.1 million). The biggest local hit in Germany was the family comedy Kokowääh (Deutschland baby-talk for coq au vin), a showcase for its writer, director and leading man Til Schweiger, as a playboy who finds he has an eight-year-old child (Schweiger’s own daughter Emma). If you wondered why Schweiger was the one foreign-language actor included in the “all-star” cast of Hollywood’s New Year’s Eve, wonder no more.

The Brits speak our language, sort of, but even their moviegoers need local heroes, or antiheroes. The year’s third highest-grossing film in the U.K., at $71.2 million, was The Inbetweeners Movie, a spinoff of the popular TV show (aired here on BBC America) about four young layabouts. A blogger’s review of the film on the Internet Movie Database says it all: “If your a fan of p*ss, puke, small c*cks and of course The Inbetweeners [TV series], you’re going to love this.”

Sounds like just the thing for a blockbuster Hollywood remake. Might the industry find its happy ending in The Inbetweeners Go to America? They could pair up with the Bridesmaids.

LIST: The All-TIME 100 Movies

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