Like a filly galloping toward the finish line to win the Derby by a nose, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire overtook Iron Man 3 last weekend as the top-grossing film of 2013 at the North American box office. It also certified—as if she needed it—Jennifer Lawrence’s standing as Hollywood’s golden girl.
The domestic box office had an O.K. year in 2013. Thirteen films earned at least $200 million in the U.S. and Canada — the highest ever, after 11 in 2012 and seven in 2011. Revenue was at an all-time best of $10.9 billion, up from 2012’s $10.84 billion, but that was thanks only to higher ticket prices. The number of tickets sold declined, from 1.361 billion in 2012 to 1.354 billion last year. In fact, the number of admissions has risen only three times in the past 12 years. Movie theaters sold at least 1.5 billion tickets in 2002, 2003 and 2004, with 2002’s total coming in at about 1.6 billion. Last year’s number was fully 16 percent below that peak. The industry must be thanking God, or at least James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg, for the extra revenue brought in by 3-D and IMAX.
(READ: Last year’s box office wrapup)
In general profile, 2013 was similar to previous years. Of the year’s top 10 grossers, only Frozen and Gravity were not sequels, prequels or reboots of franchises. There’s nothing new about there being nothing new; the movies are a business, and its merchants know that familiarity breeds content. Not since 2008 have even half of the top 10 been “original” films. The argument that populists make against the super-rich—that the 99 percent needs to make enough money to buy the stuff the one percent is selling—also applies to movies: Hollywood needs to create some original cash cows if they’re going to milk them for sequels and prequels.
Four other box-office rules applied this year:
1. Big spending pays off…
Despicable Me 2 was the only top-10 movie to cost less than $100 million. (The last film to cost less than $30 million and make the top 10 was The Blind Side in 2009.)
2. …Except when they’re cheap horror movies.
The Conjuring earned $318 million worldwide on a $20-million budget, Mama $146 million on a $15-million budget and Insidious 2 $161 million on a $5-million budget.
3. Animation still rules…
Despicable Me 2, Frozen and Monsters University accounted for half of the top six finishers. Frozen was the year’s fourth film to cross the $300 million domestic threshold and has passed the $312.9 million earned by The Lion King in its 1994 release (when ticket prices were much lower) to become the highest domestic earner for a Disney animated feature not made by Pixar.
4. …at the cost of live-action comedy.
No live-action comedy made the top 10, but four finished in the top 20, and only one (the Adam Sandler Grown Ups 2) was a sequel. The others — The Heat, We’re the Millers and Identity Thief — were R-rated romps that didn’t cost much ($35 million to $45 million) and earned about $450 million total in North America, plus another $300 million abroad. That’s good money, just not great money. Not Iron Man 3 or Catching Fire money.
(READ: Mary Pols on The Heat and female-skewing comedy)
The Iron Man bonanza is no surprise: the three films in the series have earned more than $1 billion domestic, and The Avengers, a 2012 franchise extension, is the all-time highest grossing movie not made by Cameron. So IM3 could sail to the $400-million mark without attracting much attention. Ho-hum, another Marvel megahit. The success of Catching Fire was also no shock, since The Twilight Saga had already established the appeal of a series with a young female lead. But no franchise before The Hunger Games had earned at least $400 million domestic in its first two episodes. And the Katniss Chronicles had something Twilight didn’t: a blooming star in Jennifer Lawrence.
The 23-year-old had quite a calendar year in 2013. Her quirky romance Silver Linings Playbook, a holdover from Nov. 2012, earned $103.7 million from Jan. 1 through its journey to an Oscar-night win for Lawrence as Best Actress. Catching Fire took in $395.5 million from its opening on Nov. 22 through New Year’s Eve. And American Hustle, her second weird kind-of-comedy with writer-director David O. Russell and co-star Bradley Cooper, racked up $67.5 million in a few weeks in December. That’s a total of $566.5 million for one blockbuster and two less-than-sure things. And American Hustle, now at $105.8 million, could easily surpass $150 million before it’s done.
(READ: Laura Stampler on Jennifer Lawrence, Your Imaginary Best Friend)
How impressive is Lawrence’s feat with Catching Fire? It’s damned near unique. No film that was the biggest earner in its year has had a top-billed female lead since… drum roll… 1965, when The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews was no. 1. The year before that, the highest-grossing movie was Mary Poppins, also starring Andrews. (They were the actress’s first and third films.) In the 48 years since the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash, no woman has had her name at the top-billed lead in the year’s most popular movie. (Asterisks: Kate Winslet may be the anchor of Titanic, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s name appeared before hers in the credits. And Dee Wallace, the mom in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, was billed first, but 10-year-old Henry Thomas was the leading player.) And now J.Law has done it.
The past 12 months offered a glimmer of females cracking the glass ceiling. Sandra Bullock starred in Gravity and The Heat (total domestic gross: $415.9 million); Melissa McCarthy broke out as a comedy star (Identity Thief, The Hangover Part III and The Heat earned more than $400 million domestic); Amy Adams lent her blue-eyed soul to Man of Steel and American Hustle; the sister princesses of Frozen keeping families warm over the Christmas holidays and beyond.
Those females can be ladies in waiting to the new queen—for 2013 was Jennifer Lawrence’s Silver Linings Yearbook.
(SEE: TIME’s “Top 10 Best” Movies of the Year)
Here are the revenue stats for the 10 top-grossing films released last year in North American theaters, as tabulated by Box Office Mojo. (Month of release and estimated production budget are in parentheses.) An asterisk (*) indicates that the movie is still in theatrical release. All revenue figures are as of the close of business on Thu., Jan. 16.
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Nov., $130m), $415 million*
2. Iron Man Three (May, $200m), $409.0 million
3. Despicable Me 2 (Jul., $76m), $368 million
4. Frozen (Nov., $150m), $320.6 million*
5. Man of Steel (Jun., $225m), $291.0 million
6. Monsters University (Jun., c. $200m), $268.5 million
7. Gravity (Oct., $100m), $256.4 million*
8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec., c. $225m), $244.8 million*
9. Furious 6 (May, $160m), $238.7 million
10. Oz the Great and Powerful (Mar., $215m), $234.9 million
THE REST OF THE WORLD: JUST LIKE US
We make them, everyone else buys them. Except for armaments, movies may be America’s most potent export. The list of worldwide grossers at the bottom shows that the top films are popular here and far away. Almost identically popular, in fact: the only difference is in the 10th slot (Thor: The Dark World replacing Oz the Great and Powerful), and both movies earned at least a quarter-billion dollars abroad.
Often, foreign moviegoers take time to warm to the franchises beloved of North American audiences. They flock to sequels, not so much originals. The big movies typically earn 60-70 percent of their income abroad, but some film series take a while to click over there: Star Trek Into Darkness was the first in that 35-year franchise to earn more than half of its income (and barely that) overseas. The Hunger Games films have yet to reach their full international potential; the first episode took in only 41 percent of its revenue on distant shores, Catching Fire 51 percent. Foreigners love animation (The Smurfs 2 grossed 80 percent of its $347.6 million global take abroad) and usually don’t get our comedies — except for The Hangover Part III; go figure.
They are also much more loyal to their favorite, aging stars. Johnny Depp’s The Lone Ranger was deemed a costly flop in North America — $89.3 million box office on a $215-million budget — but earned $171.2 million abroad, or two-thirds of its $260.5-million global revenue. The Western is still in the red, but more in hues of pink than crimson, thanks to the rest of the world’s deep Depp love.
Tom Cruise is another star who remains economically viable because of his solid appeal overseas. His fourth Mission Impossible scored big at home, Knight & Day and last year’s Oblivion not so much; yet all earned at least twice as much of their total income abroad as at home, keeping Cruise, at 51, still in control of his career. In North America, Will Smith’s After Earth garnered just $60.5 million, his poorest showing since the 2001 Ali. Abroad, the movie amassed $183.3 million offshore, bringing the worldwide take to $243.8 million — nearly break even for a film budgeted at $120 million.
In the middle of the last decade, Brad Pitt was a star starring in star vehicles: Troy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the Oceans movies. Since then, he’s concentrated on indie films — The Tree of Life, Killing Them Softly, 12 Years a Slave — that he helps produce. (At the Golden Globe awards, Slave director Steve McQueen said the movie couldn’t have been made without Pitt.) With World War Z, he took an epic risk as star and begetter: a $190-million budget and a host of script and production problems. The gamble paid off: $202 million domestic and a heady $337.6 million abroad made this original sci-fi property a worldwide hit. Being a clever producer didn’t hurt. Having Brad Pitt on marquees around the world was smarter.
Can a director be an international star? Maybe Guillermo Del Toro is. The Mexican director’s Pacific Rim—like World War Z, a sci-fi destruction epic with a $190-million tab but no stars—struggled to reach $100 million at North American theaters. Yet it earned more than that ($111.9 million) in China alone. Pacific Rim ended up with $411 million worldwide, enough to realize Del Toro’s dream… of a sequel. In Hollywood, and especially in the worldwide market, repeating yourself is just good business.
Here are the 10 top-grossing movies, worldwide, as taken from Box Office Mojo’s All Time Box Office chart. We list title, domestic gross, international gross (plus the international percentage of the worldwide gross) and worldwide gross. An asterisk (*) indicates that the movie is still in theatrical release.
1. Iron Man Three, $409m, $806.4m (66%), $1,215.4m
2. Despicable Me 2, $368m, $567.1m (61%), $935.1m
3. Hunger Games: Catching Fire, $415m, $433m (51%), $848m*
4. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, $244.8m, $566m (70%), $810.8m*
5. Furious 6, $238.7m, $550m (70%), $788.7m
6. Monsters University, $268.5m, $475.1m (64%), $743.6m
7. Frozen, $320.6m, $394.6m (55%), $715.2m*
8. Gravity, $256.4, $418.8m (62%), $675.2m*
9. Man of Steel, $291m, $377m (56%), $668m
10. Thor: The Dark World, $204m, $428.4m (68%), $632.4m*