Despite the bombs, Hollywood posts record summer

NEW YORK — In the end, Hollywood made it through a precarious minefield of summer box-office bombs with a heftier wallet. The summer concluded with a record $4.7 billion in box-office revenue despite much maligned flops like “The Lone Ranger,” ”After Earth” and “White House Down.”

The summer movie season closed out on Labor Day weekend as the boy band concert film “One Direction: This Is Us” took in an estimated $18 million from Friday to Monday for Sony Pictures, according to studio estimates Monday. That wasn’t enough to unseat the Weinstein Co. historical drama “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which stayed on top for the third week with $20 million.

It was a positive note on which to end a tumultuous but profitable summer for Hollywood. More than ever before, the industry packed the summer months with big-budget blockbusters that ranged from the hugely successful “Iron Man 3” to the disastrous “The Lone Ranger.” Though the movie business has always been one of hits and misses, this summer brought particular attention to some big whiffs.

Yet the box office saw a 10.2 percent increase in revenue over last summer (not accounting for inflation), with attendance rising 6.6 percent. A portion of the revenue bump could be attributed to rising ticket prices which, on average, went up 27 cents from last year.

But the plethora of major releases — a more than 50 percent increase from last year in films costing $75 million or more to make — meant moviegoers had a parade of highly-marketed, big-budget options through the early, most sought-after weeks of the summer. That meant faster blockbuster turnover that may have been better for the industry as a whole, but often came at the expense of individual films.

“It was one of the most interesting summers I’ve ever seen,” said Paul Dergarabedian, analyst for box-office tracker Hollywood.com. “It was this mix of great news and bad news at the same time.”

So what to make a summer (which is considered to run from the first weekend in May to Labor Day) that often seemed like a weekly punch line but ended up doing robust business overall? The lessons were hard to deduce.

The biggest hit of the summer was Disney’s “Iron Man 3,” which made $408.6 million domestically and $1.2 billion worldwide. Disney gave some of that back, though, with Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger,” which took in just $88.4 million in North America despite costing more than $215 million to make. (Studios split box-office revenue in half with theater owners.)

Despite successes like Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel,” Universal’s “Despicable Me 2” and Paramount’s “World War Z,” ”The Lone Ranger” became the masked face of Hollywood’s summer. It was the most spectacular flop among many others, including “Turbo,” ”After Earth,” ”White House Down,” ”The Wolverine” and “The Hangover Part III.”

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, applauded the record summer revenue as a sign of industry strength but suggested studios are jamming too many blockbuster releases into too narrow of a summertime window. This summer followed an especially poor first quarter for the box office.

“A few of those films suffered because of the congestion,” said Fithian. “I would encourage studios to look at some of those other months. In January and February of this year, we had very little product. We had very few big budget movies. Maybe one of the takeaways of the summer is: We’ve got a whole bunch of movies, let’s spread a few of them out a bit more and take advantage of the whole calendar.”

Studios, though, consider the first few months of summer to be, as Dergarabedian says, “primetime” — when kids are out of school and movies have the widest audience possible.

“I don’t think anything’s going to change,” says Dergarabedian. Rather, he says, “The lesson is: Try to keep the costs down.”

That worked for several low or medium budget horror films this summer, including “The Conjuring” and “The Purge.” Several less expensive comedies also succeeded, like Seth Rogan’s apocalyptic romp “This Is the End,” Jason Sudeikis’ road trip farce “We’re the Millers” and the summer’s top comedy, “The Heat,” with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock.

Some, like Sharlto Copley, who co-stars in the science-fiction thriller “Elysium” ($178 million worldwide on a $115 million budget) hoped some of the summer’s high-cost misfires would push the studios to devote more resources to other types of films. Even Steven Spielberg, generally considered the father of the modern blockbuster, made headlines when he said Hollywood would “implode” if it continued to focus only on bigger and bigger blockbusters.

“The opportunity to do something original and on a very big scale seems to be getting rarer and rarer these days,” said Copley. “Maybe if you have a few more bad times, you’ll see the studios investing in smaller projects.”

But the top six films of the summer were all sequels or part of existing franchises, including “Monsters University” and “Fast and Furious 6.” The high cost of marketing a film (which can rival or surpass production costs for summer tentpole releases) also makes it likely studios will continue to increasingly depend on summer popcorn fare.

North American box-office performance is only part of the story, anyway. The robot-monster clash “Pacific Rim,” made for $190 million, was considered one of the summer’s failures after opening with $37.2 million domestically. But it’s made more than $404 million worldwide.

Ultimately, the movie business remains an unpredictable animal, where supposedly sure things like Will Smith and Johnny Depp don’t always come through, and micro-budget horror like “The Purge” or an unremarkable caper like “Now You See Me” can bring in tens of millions.

“There’s something to be said for the stars all being aligned,” said Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony Pictures, which released “One Direction: This Is It,” as well as several of the summer’s biggest disappointments like “White House Down” and “After Earth.” ”Sometimes you don’t hit it at the right moment.”

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Monday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers for Friday through Sunday are also included. Final domestic figures will be released today.

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