DISCLAIMER: For the purposes of this article, we are only focusing on the domestic box office numbers. All totals are as of December 29, 2013.
2013 was a record-breaking year at the domestic box office. Despite a variety of flops during the summer months, hits such as Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Despicable Me 2 contributed to a domestic ticket hall estimated at $10.9 billion this year. Even with rising prices and a variety of alternatives to watching movies, people still enjoy going to the theater to see the stars and franchises they love.
A total of 669 movies were theatrically released over the past 12 months and the performances of those films brought about a number of trends that could potentially have a major impact on the industry. Here, we examine four of the biggest ones and what they might mean.
Superheroes Dominate (Again)
Anyone hoping that the superhero genre reached the peak of its popularity last year with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises was surely disappointed with the box office totals this year. Two of the top five highest grossing films of the year (Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel) were comic book adaptations, making over $409 million and over $291 million domestically, respectively. Thor: The Dark World currently sits just outside the top ten at $202.2 million while The Wolverine posted a solid $132.5 million.
It isn’t exactly news that Marvel and DC characters have dominated the domestic box office (the genre has been the go-to blockbuster movie since 2000), but it is noteworthy for the prolonged reign at the top of the charts. Despite numerous reports that the superhero genre could see a decline in the near future (which, not so coincidentally, gain significant traction anytime a superhero film flops), people still love watching these characters up on the big screen. And if this year is any indication (between box office numbers and Comic-Con response), superheroes will be here for a very long time.
Warner Bros.’ Superman reboot Man of Steel was even considered a possible box office risk (given the damage another lukewarm Superman movie could caused the brand) prior to its release this June. Outside of Batman films, the studio had not had much success with the impressive roster of DC characters, including the mildly disappointing Superman Returns in 2006. Bryan Singer’s love-letter to the classic Richard Donner films grossed just over $200 million domestically (on a reported $270 budget).
Setting a new June record by opening with $116.6 million, Zack Snyder’s film finished off its run with an estimated $291 million. That’s nowhere near Dark Knight territory, but it’s important to keep in mind that Man of Steel was the first in a planned franchise (Batman Begins was the lowest-grossing installment from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy) and the movie also became the highest-grossing superhero reboot of all-time. Those numbers inspired WB to approve a sequel where they will expand the movie’s universe to include new characters like Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Despite a mixed critical and fan reaction to the final product, the Man of Steel series is poised to be a solid tentpole for WB for the next handful of years.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe also had another very successful year. Marvel Studios enjoyed the post-Avengers momentum with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World raking in hundreds of millions. The massive total of May’s Iron Man 3 was expected – as Robert Downey, Jr. has long been the poster boy for the Marvel universe. It was the $200+ million intake of the Thor sequel that was most notable. Becoming the first Marvel movie not featuring Tony Stark to cross the $200 million plateau, The Dark World not only surpassed the 2011 original’s $181 million gross, it also showed that The Avengers increased the popularity of several of Marvel’s “secondary” characters – meaning people are interested in seeing more heroes (not just Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man).
It’s good news for Marvel that their films remain popular choices among moviegoers, as the next few years will see them try riskier propositions like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. By creating fun, entertaining spectacles, they have built a reputation as one of the more reliable studios in the business and have formed a trust with mainstream audiences. The Marvel brand carries a lot of weight and that will make Rocket Raccoon and Groot more accessible.
Young Adult Failures
With the massive success of both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises (not to mention Twilight), many studios believe that young adult book adaptations are the latest cash cow in Hollywood. Desperately searching for a ready-made film series with a built-in audience, they released several movies based on young adult fiction – and the results were largely underwhelming.
Besides the Hunger Games sequel, there were four major releases all trying to become the next big thing in the young adult genre. February’s Beautiful Creatures made only $19.4 million during its entire domestic run. In March, The Host, (which was also based on a Stephanie Meyer book) only did marginally better with $26.6 million. August’s Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters grossed $68.4 million and later that month, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones bombed with $31.1 million. Even the influential Ender’s Game failed to connect by making just $61.1 million.
Unlike superheroes, young adult novels don’t seemingly have success at every turn (even Green Lantern made over $100 million in 2011 – far more successful than any of the films listed above). While the novels are popular and have sold millions of copies worldwide, the film versions do not always have the same appeal. Marketing materials attempt to sell most of these new stories as the next Twilight, which could cause casual moviegoers to become disinterested. The critical response to several of the properties was also very poor and that element could influence moviegoers as well.
Also, there’s a chance that producers are overestimating the potential goldmine that is the young adult genre. The Caster Chronicles (the source material for Beautiful Creatures) has sold 1.3 million copies and The Mortal Instruments have seen 24 million copies purchased. Those numbers seem big, but contrast them with the whopping 450 million copies of the Harry Potter book series sold and they don’t seem nearly as impressive. If you’re going to base an expensive franchise around a young adult series, not only does a strong protagonist like Katniss Everdeen or Harry Potter help – it’s also good if it already has a very large following.
In March 2014, Divergent will be the next young adult adaptation to try to break through. Looking to capitalize on the overwhelming success of The Hunger Games, Lionsgate has already given two sequels release dates. But as our own Hannah Shaw-Williams noted in that article, the first two books of the Divergent series sold 5 million copies, while The Hunger Games have sold 50 million. That’s a large discrepancy and it remains to be seen how successful Divergent can be with casual moviegoers (not just book series fans).
A Summer of Flops
While this year did have its usual fair share of hits, 2013 also saw a rather alarming number of massive box office flops – particularly during the summer months. The major successes of Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Monsters University, and Despicable Me 2 were balanced out by underperforming movies like After Earth, White House Down, Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D. among others. It seemed as if every other week there were reports surfacing about another box office bomb. Every weekend this summer was extremely competitive and with so many options (usually vying for a similar audience) not all of them could be financially successful. Even Pacific Rim, which made $101.8 million domestically, was labeled as a disappointment because it did not meet studio expectations.
This year seemed to make a statement on the downfalls of an overcrowded marketplace. As we mentioned at the top of this article, 669 movies came out, and even for those of us who make a living writing about movies, there’s just not enough time to check all of them out. The summer movie season used to be memorable for launching true event films like Jaws, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park – but recently Hollywood has moved away from that. Yes, a movie like The Avengers or The Dark Knight can captivate a wide audience and play throughout the summer, but far too many summer releases are getting lumped into the “generic blockbuster” category in an already overcrowded marketplace.
Audiences have shown that you don’t even need a superhero to have a successful tentpole. Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6, and World War Z all made a lot of money during their theatrical runs this summer – proving that viewers are still interested in sci-fi, action, and fantasy films. What many of this year’s blockbusters had in common was a positive critical reception, meaning moviegoers seemed to heed the advice of reviewers to determine which of the numerous blockbusters options were actually worth their time (and dollars). The ones that were poorly received failed to make an impact while those that won a solid response and positive word of mouth became profitable for the studios. Perhaps this will influence studio executives to be more cautious with their money and not only space these releases apart, but hesitate on giving some of them a green light.
Awards Contenders Perform Well
Last year was noteworthy because six out of the nine Best Picture nominees grossed over $100 million and a seventh (Zero Dark Thirty) was right there with $95.7 million. Usually, the Academy gets criticized for recognizing films most people didn’t see, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2012. As we geared up for 2013’s awards season, many wondered if this year’s players could continue the trend. While we may not see six $100 million nominees this year, the films being considered are posting solid numbers.
October saw the release of Gravity, which grossed an astonishing $254.5 million domestically and will finish the year as one of 2013’s top ten highest grossing films. Also coming out that month was Captain Phillips, which hung in there despite the presence of Gravity and made $104.2 million. Both films had star power and Gravity enjoyed the added bonus of being a “must see in the theater” experience. It’s little wonder why these movies performed as well as they did.
December brought about three more awards contenders – and while it’s too early to say if all of them will reach the $100 million milestone, they are all off to solid starts. David O. Russell continued his commercial hot streak with American Hustle. At the time of this writing, the caper has grossed over $60 million and will have a lot of staying power over the next month. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street started out lower than expected, but still posted a healthy opening total ($34.3 million since Christmas) and Saving Mr. Banks rebounded over the holiday weekend and has now made $37.8 million. If both of these films maintain strong legs, they could theoretically end up in the neighborhood of $100 million.
There are two more contenders that are getting a nationwide release on January 10 – Her and Inside Llewyn Davis. Both have been doing well in limited locations so far. The Coen brothers’ folk-music drama has grossed $4.6 million in 161 theaters while Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance has made $1.5 million at 47 theaters. With buzz slowly building for both, it’s conceivable that they have respectable domestic totals when they expand early in 2014.
Studios are probably thrilled with the turnout for these Oscar-contending films because typically, they cost considerably less than their blockbuster counterparts to produce. Captain Phillips had a budget of $55 million and American Hustle cost “only” $40 million to shoot. That seems like a hefty total, but compared with 47 Ronin’s $200 million price tag, it’s the preferred alternative. A lower production budget increases the chances a film turns a profit, and with moderately budgeted awards dramas getting audience appeal, big studios like Sony and Warner Bros. will continue to green light similar projects instead of committing hundreds of millions to a CGI-fest action movie.
Audiences seem to be making a statement with their wallets, rejecting the vapid and overproduced movies such as Lone Ranger and After Earth while embracing well-crafted films like Gravity and American Hustle. With many people on tight budgets, they have to be conscious on what they spend their hard-earned money on – and that extends to the multiplex. The last few years have shown that if your film is well-written, well-acted, and well-directed, audiences may very well buy a ticket for a rewarding movie experience.
What do you think the overall impact of 2013’s box office will be? What were some of the biggest trends you noticed? Let us know in the comments section below.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.