Summer at the Movies: Comic-Book Heroes Rule, Comedy Stars Flop

'The Avengers' and "The Dark Knight Rises' each earn more than $1 billion worldwide, while Adam Sandler and Sacha Baron Cohen land on their tuchuses

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First with the worst. Like some fat old man forced to run a marathon, the summer box office season closed today with a grateful wheeze. Labor Day, traditionally one of the year’s weakest weekends, lived down to its reputation: one minor hit (the PG-13 horror film The Possession), one tepid arty entry (the Prohibition-era drama Lawless) and  — drum roll, please — the most pathetic “wide” opening in recent movie history.

Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure, a toddler-aimed animated feature, played in 2,160 venues and earned $448,000 for a pitiful $207 per-screen average. (The previous anti-champion, last year’s Creature, averaged $217 per screen.) Even at kids’ prices, that’s about 30 people in each theater the whole weekend. Yet Oogieloves‘ producer, Kenn Viselman, proclaimed victory. “This was never about box office,” he told the industry website The Wrap. “It was about exposure. We’ve now got the notoriety we were trying to get for weeks before the film opened.” By Viselman’s standard, Clint Eastwood also had a great last few days.

Also on the Presidential campaign front, the anti-Barack doc 2016 Obama’s America held fairly steady, earning $5.6 million over the usual three days and $7 million for the full holiday weekend. Dinesh D’Souza’s warning of the end of days if Obama is reelected has now amassed $20.2 million, raising it to fifth on the all-time list of political documentaries. It should soon overtake Michael Moore‘s Bowling for Columbine ($21.6 million, though that revenue came 10 years ago when ticket prices were much cheaper). Next to knock off: Al Gore‘s An Inconvenient Truth and Moore’s Sicko, both at $24 million-plus.

On the indie front, three new films from Sundance — The Ambassador, Little Birds and For a Good Time, Call… — had underwhelming numbers, while some holdovers remained potent performers. Sleepwalk With Me expanded from last weekend’s one Manhattan theater (where it grossed a head-swiveling $90,000) to 29 venues, with a $331,000 take; that’s quite solid, considering that Mike Birbiglia’s comedy, produced by Ira Glass of public radio’s This American Life, is also available on Video on Demand. Ron Fricke’s spiritual travelogue Samsara, which opened on two screens last week, was on nine this time and earned a hallucinogenic $113,000. Robot & Frank, the warmly received buddy-caper comedy starring Frank Langella and his cyborg pal, took in $691,000 at 144 theaters for a three-week total of $1.1 million. It could keep going, and going, and going…

Here are the Monday estimates of the three-day (Fri.-Sun.) and four-day (Fri.-Mon.) holiday weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Possession, $17.7 million, three days; $21.3 million, four days of first weekend

2. Lawless, $10 million, three days; $13 million, four days; $15.1 million, first six days

3. The Expendables 2, $8.9 million, three days; $11.2 million, four days; $68.6 million, third week

4. The Bourne Legacy, $7.3 million, three days; $9.4 million, four days; $98.4 million, fourth week

5. ParaNorman, $6.5 million, three days; $8.9 million, four days; $40.3 million, third week

6. The Odd Life of Timothy Green, $6.2 million, three days; $8.5 million, four days; $38.8 million, third week

7. The Dark Knight Rises, $6.1 million, three days; $7.9 million, four days; $433.2 million, seventh week

8. 2016 Obama’s America, $5.6 million, three days; $7 million, four days; $20.1 million, eighth week

9. The Campaign, $5.6 million, three days; $7.1 million, four days; $74.6 million, fourth week

10. Hope Springs, $5.6 million, three days; $6 million, four days; $53.4 million, fourth week


What Hollywood freakishly calls the summer season begins the first weekend of May. This year, it might almost have ended there. The Avengers broke records for an opening weekend in North American theaters ($207.4 million) and a second weekend ($102.4 million), on its way to becoming the biggest-ever summer hit. With $1.5 billion in the worldwide bank, it is the all-time top film not directed by James Cameron (Titanic and Avatar, both of which were December premieres). The Avengers made this the first summer since 2003 (Finding Nemo) when the top grossing movie was not a sequel — although it kind of is, considering the four prequels of Marvel’s musclemen.

You have to admire the comic-book company’s years-in-the-making game plan: establish a platoon of superheroes (Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America) with their own franchises; then bring them together for a supersuperhero spectacle, then hatch more sequels. The five prequel films and The Avengers have earned $1.743 billion in North America, $3.793 billion worldwide. And for dessert: the studio’s reboot of its Spider-Man character, which is closing in on $700 million worldwide. Talk about Marvel-ous!

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Avengers)

Eleven weeks after The Avengers, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises opened with a bang — tragically, for the victims of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings at a midnight screening of the climax to the Batman trilogy. Despite this awful prelude, and the purported damper it put on audience’s appetite to see the movie, TDKR broke the worldwide billion-dollar mark this weekend, a bit over the global gross of The Dark Knight in 2008 (again ignoring inflation). With this film sandwiched between The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, the summer’s top three grossers were all based on comic-book heroes, as was the seventh-place finisher, Men in Black 3.
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Dark Knight Rises)

For all the megahits, the summer 2012 box office was down nearly 3% from last year: $4.27 billion to $4.4 billion. According to Exhibitor Relations Co., the number of tickets sold fell from 545 million in 2011 to 526 million this summer — a 3.56 percent drop. But don’t blame the Aurora scare; credit the London Olympics, which pulled record ratings and kept folks at home for two big summer weeks.

Three of the top nine summer movies were animated features: Pixar’s Brave, DreamWorks’ Madagascar 3 and Fox/Blue Sky’s Ice Age: Continental Drift. A rare toon with a female protagonist, Brave shared the top 10 with another girl-power movie: Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart before she was a home-wrecker. For return on investment, Magic Mike couldn’t be beat: it cost about $7 million to make, earned $113.2 million in domestic theaters. Add the early-2012 hits The Vow ($125 million domestic) and 21 Jump Street ($138.4 million domestic), and Channing Tatum could be a certified box-office stud.

(READ: Steven James Snyder’s review of Magic Mike)

Ah, remember stars? Star power? The summer didn’t have a lot of it — except for Will Smith’s return after 10 years to the Men in Black franchise, and arguably Robert Downey Jr. (when he plays Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes) and Kstew (when she appears in fantasies, and behaves herself). But it was a slow summer for comedy stars. Adam Sandler, for more than a decade a reliable magnet for movies than earned $100m+ domestic, flopped big time with That’s My Boy: $36.9 million in North America and only $10 million more abroad. Sacha Baron Cohen, post Ali G, Borat and Brüno, could not persuade or persecute enough customers to see The Dictator. Johnny Depp, a dramatic star who often wears a clown mask, was no lure in Dark Shadows. Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn couldn’t get fans to watch The Watch.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of That’s My Boy)

So what did moviegoers choose to laugh at and with? A bear. Seth Macfarlane and Mark Wahlberg had the summer’s surprise hit — made on the cheapest budget of any top-10 film (see the figures in the next chart) — with the raunchy, ursine Ted. On the milder, indie side, the summer’s two modest hits, in the $45-million range, were the communal comedies The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which earned an even more impressive $85.5 million abroad) and Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s first crossover success since The Royal Tenenbaums earned $52.3 million in 2001.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Ted)

Here are the big 10 of summer in North American theaters as of this weekend (with estimated production budgets), as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Avengers, $619.5 million ($220 million)

2. The Dark Knight Rises, $431.2 million ($250 million)

3. The Amazing Spider-Man, $260 million ($230 million)

4. Brave, $231.7 million ($185 million)

5. Ted, $215.9 million ($50 million)

6. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, $214.5 million ($145 million)

7. Men in Black 3, $178.5 million ($225 million)

8. Ice Age: Continental Drift, $155.6 million ($95 million)

9. Snow White and the Huntsman, $155.1 million ($175 million)

10. Prometheus, $126.3 million ($130 million)


People still went to the movies: the same ones North Americans did. The top 10 global and domestic lists featured the identical movies*, though some did much better abroad. Ice Age 4 was No. 3 worldwide because it earned more than four-fifths of its gross abroad.

*With one piquant asterisk. On the same May weekend as the debut of Men in Black 3, The Weinstein Company opened The Intouchables, a French buddy comedy about a wealthy paraplegic (Francois Cluzet) and his lippy African caretaker (Omar Sy). In three months the movie earned $8.1 million in the U.S., plus another $3 million in French-speaking Canada, making it the top Francophile hit in North America in nearly five years — since Marion Cotillard won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf in La vie en rose. But $11 million is nothing compared with the $352.6 million The Intouchables amassed abroad; except for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (in Aramaic and Latin), which grossed $611.9 million, it’s the biggest non-English-language hit of all time. And for comedies released in the U.S. this summer, only Ted can touch The Intouchables.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Intouchables)

Here are the top 10 global winners, with worldwide theatrical revenue (followed by the percentage that was earned in the foreign market), as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Avengers, $1.502 billion (58.7%)

2. The Dark Knight Rises, $1.003 billion (57.1%)

3. Ice Age: Continental Drift, $828 million (81%)

4. The Amazing Spider-Man, $734.9 million (65%)

5. Men in Black 3, $623.5 million (71.4%)

6. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, $602.5 million (64%)

7. Brave, $469.3 million (51%)

8. Snow White and the Huntsman, $394.1 million (61%)

9. Ted, $384.3 million (43%)

*10. The Intouchables, $363.6 million (97%)

10. Prometheus, $351.2 million (64%)