Summer Box Office Wrap: Flops Aside, Season Set Records

"Iron Man 3"
"Iron Man 3"
 Marvel Entertainment

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Has there ever been such a schizophrenic summer at the U.S. box office?

Even though a handful of big-budget titles flamed out, ticket sales reached a record $4.75 billion -- a notable 7 percent increase compared with the previous record of $4.4 billion, set in 2011. And admissions reached about 560 million, the best in four summers.

What's behind this magic act? A healthy crop of midrange and smaller films played a key role in the boom, led by Summit's $75 million heist pic Now You See Me -- which has cleared nearly $310 million worldwide, more than Will Smith's ill-fated tentpole After Earth and Johnny Depp's big-budget Western The Lone Ranger.

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"There have been a series of singles and doubles and triples this summer," says Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster. "There haven't been a lot of grand-slam home runs, but it's added up."

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, agrees. "Four or five underperforming movies doesn't make for a bad summer when 15 or more movies performed well or overperformed," he says. "It was a very busy summer for exhibitors, and they are thrilled."

AMC Entertainment is feeling so bullish, it's pondering another run at an IPO. If theater owners have a complaint, it's that there were too many films on some weekends. Fithian continues to urge studios to transition to a year-round schedule, noting, "Things were so bad in January and February of this year that exhibitors might as well have closed their doors."

Among traditional tentpoles, Disney and Marvel Studios hit it out of the park with Iron Man 3. The Robert Downey Jr. superhero pic topped the worldwide summer chart with $1.2 billion. Man of Steel has turned in a solid $657.3 million to date for Warner Bros., successfully relaunching the Superman franchise, while Paramount's Brad Pitt zombie epic World War Z did far better than expected, grossing north of $530 million to date worldwide. And Star Trek Into Darkness, also from Paramount, took in $462.5 million, the best showing ever for a Star Trek pic.

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Hollywood titles continued to see much of their fortune come from overseas, particularly China and Southeast Asia. But executives shouldn't count on seeing all that cash: The studios get back only 25 percent of Chinese box-office receipts -- when they get paid at all.

The international market for 3D also continues to be strong, but the number of U.S. moviegoers opting to see a film in 3D has fallen to a precarious low, worrying exhibitors and studios alike. The percentage of 3D revenue for an average summer movie was 45 percent in 2011 -- this summer, it fell to 32 percent, a 29 percent drop. And it was down 20 percent from summer 2012, when the 3D revenue for the average title was 40 percent.

Here were some of the other big surprises of the summer season:

Universal's Rise

In a notable comeback, the studio is enjoying its best year on record at the worldwide box office thanks to a string of hits, and it rivals Warner Bros. in domestic market share. R.I.P.D. was DOA, but Illumination's Despicable Me 2 has crossed $800 million to become the year's No. 2 title globally, and Fast & Furious 6 is No. 3 with $786.7 million.

New Line's Nine Lives

After a troubled start to 2013 (Jack the Giant Slayer, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), Toby Emmerich's corner of Warner Bros. found its stride and can boast some of the summer's biggest success stories. The Conjuring will be a major profit generator, while R-rated comedy We're the Millers keeps on ticking, grossing north of $152 million to date, much of it so far from North America ($112.9 million).

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Actor's Jail

This summer has done away with the notion that some stars are invincible, no matter the film. Depp leads the pack, followed by Smith. Nor could Channing Tatum rescue White House Down, while Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges fumbled badly with R.I.P.D. It's an unusual set of circumstances when Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me) does more business than Depp and Smith.

Horror Is Back

Every development executive in town likely is rushing to see what horror films they have in the pipeline after the mind-bending success of Universal's The Purge, which cost a mere $3 million and has grossed more than $84 million worldwide, and New Line's The Conjuring, which cost $20 million to produce and has cleared $243.7 million worldwide (it's only $10 million behind Lone Ranger).

Animation Angst

Hollywood's gamble that the marketplace could expand to accommodate seven family titles failed (usually there are only two or three). Demolished by the might of Pixar's Monsters University and Despicable 2, Turbo and The Smurfs 2 were badly hurt.

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