Best of the Best: Summer Boxoffice

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Studio distribution executives should be forgiven if they desperately need manicures. Nail-biting was far too common this summer, as a star-driven films with everyone from Will Ferrell to Denzel Washington to Jack Black failed to pack multiplexes. Instead, as summer 2009 winds down, many improbable boxoffice heroes have emerged, from a middle-aged prestige actress (Meryl Streep) to a trio of previously under-the-radar actors (the "Hangover" guys). Along with the usual lineup of proven franchises ("Transformers," "Harry Potter," "Ice Age"), this summer's Best of the Best reflects the new boxoffice reality: hits can come from anywhere, and nothing is a sure thing.
-- Matthew Belloni


Director: Michael Bay
If 2009 goes into the history books as the summer when critics stopped mattering, Bay's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" will be Exhibit A. The Rotten Tomato-meter might be a chilly 20% but as the $825 million-and-counting worldwide haul proves, Bay is as close to a boxoffice sure-thing as any director working today. With his next project not yet revealed and Paramount/DreamWorks clamoring for a third round of Autobots, Bay continues his lucrative side gig producing reliable horror remakes ("The Unborn," "Friday the 13th"). He might not have Christopher Nolan's artistic ambition, Steven Spielberg's industry clout or J.J. Abrams' geek cred, but dammit, his megaphone is far bigger than theirs.

Writers: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci
Got an old toy or TV show you need refurbished? Kurtzman and Orci can polish them into a shiny new film franchise. This summer the writer-producer pair had three blockbusters in theaters in two months ("Star Trek," "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "The Proposal," which they produced). Together the films grossed more than $1.4 billion worldwide. Now the new DreamWorks is counting on the duo to provide the backbone of the studio's summers for years to come, with the untitled View-Master project, "Atlantis Rising," "Deep Sea Cowboy" and "Cowboys and Aliens" resting in K/O's capable, tinkering hands.

Actors: The men of "The Hangover"

The Hangover
 
Ed Helms was seeing "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" with his sister when he realized "The Hangover" might be a little bigger than the average male-bonding comedy. "We got out at about 11:45 and there was a midnight screening of 'Hangover' at the Glendale multiplex," he recalls. "She said, 'Let's poke our heads in' and I said, 'No way, it's a midnight screening, it'll be empty.' We looked in and it was packed. I was completely stunned." So were boxoffice analysts, none of whom predicted that the $36 million comedy starring the relatively untested trio of Helms, Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis would gross more than $400 million worldwide. Helms credits director Todd Phillips' combination of outrageous comedy with an old-fashioned mystery and a dose of heart. "My parents are in their 70s and I get e-mails from their friends. They think it's a hoot."

Producer: David Heyman
It's easy to consider the global success of the "Harry Potter" films as something of a given. After all, the J.K. Rowling book series was phenomenally popular before the first film debuted in 2001. But credit must go to London-based Heyman for making the shrewd production choices that have come to define the most lucrative series in Warner Bros.' history. Things like changing directors, filling out the cast with a who's-who of British acting royalty, and allowing a darker tone as the characters have matured. The result: Potter and pals have grown smoothly into what might have been awkward teenage years, and the sixth film in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," has grossed more than $860 million worldwide.

Hot horror: "Drag Me to Hell"

Drag Me to Hell
 
It wasn't the greatest summer for Universal. But a sly bet on "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi's return to his horror roots paid off for the studio. "There was a great curiosity in seeing Sam return to the genre," Universal marketing and distribution president Adam Fogelson recalls. "So we took an early version to the South by Southwest Film Festival and got huge buzz out of there. We also worked all the genre Web sites. With every piece of marketing, we put the Sam pedigree front and center." Fanboy support for Raimi's first true horror thriller since the decades-old "Evil Dead" series rung up more than $78 million -- a pretty penny for a film costing just $30 million to produce.

Little indie that could: "The Hurt Locker"

The Hurt Locker
 
Iraq War drama. Boxoffice hit. Huh? "We never really focused on it as an Iraq War move," says Summit Entertainment marketing maven Nancy Kirkpatrick. "We focused on it as more of an adrenaline-junkie sort of thing and set it up as an action movie." That proved smart, helping the Kathryn Bigelow film -- acquired at the Toronto Film Festival for $1.5 million and platformed slowly during the summer -- gross more than $11 million and counting. "We knew this movie would be a slow build, and word-of-mouth would play a critical part," she says. "When you see that something is working beyond New York and L.A., that's very gratifying."

Executive: Ryan Kavanaugh
Most producer-financiers would be happy with one film per summer. Kavanaugh's Relativity Media helped fund half a dozen of this year's warm-weather releases: Universal's "Funny People," "Bruno," "Land of the Lost" and "Public Enemies"; Sony's "The Taking of Pelham 123" and "The Ugly Truth" (plus Relativity's Universal-distributed horror thriller "A Perfect Getaway"). None saw sizzling grosses but win or lose, Relativity has done its job once the film is in the can. "I'd like to think we're more than some people who just write a check for the studio," Kavanaugh says. "Every step of the way the studios do treat us like partners. But at the end of the day, it is the studio's marketing and distribution machine." In most cases, Relativity and its backers hold a 50% stake in films it finances. "Fifty% would be our norm, but we certainly take more and also take less," Kavanaugh adds.

Actress: Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia
 
"There's never quite been a career like this," "Julie & Julia" director Nora Ephron says of Streep, who, at 60, has become an unlikely boxoffice franchise all her own. It's not just that she powered a biopic about cooking to $50 million-and-counting in domestic coin. This is the third summer of the past four in which Streep has toplined a warm-weather hit (2006's "The Devil Wears Prada" and 2008's "Mamma Mia!" combined for about $1 billion in worldwide gross). All while keeping her street cred as the consummate actor's actor. Megan Fox certainly couldn't have starred in "Doubt."

Animation gurus (international): Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier
A shade shy of $200 million in domestic gross is nothing for "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" to be ashamed of. But when compared with the astounding $600 million the threequel has grossed internationally, it's a downright paltry sum. The secret to the film's global appeal? "I have all these theories but I don't really know," says Saldanha, the Brazil native who directed with co-director Thurmeier at Fox's Blue Sky Studios in Connecticut. Family-friendly themes and cute dinosaurs helped, but casting well-known voices in each territory was key. "Locally, people identify with the voices. It's a big factor."

Animation gurus (domestic): Pete Docter

Up
 
Remember when "Up" was going to be the film that stopped Pixar's golden boxoffice streak? Instead it has become the Disney division's second-highest-grossing movie domestically, with more than $288 million. Producer Jonas Rivera recalls Docter's initial pitch to John Lasseter and other members of the team. With only a few sketches, he began describing how the cantankerous Carl meets wife Ellie, their life together, how Ellie passed away and how Carl ends up alone in their house. " 'And that's where the movie begins,' Pete finished, and John went, 'What?! We haven't even heard (about) the house going up with balloons.' And that's when I knew that this was going to be cool."

Effects mavens: Dan Deleeuw and Ellen Somers
Deleeuw was in-house at VFX house Rhythm & Hues for 2006's "Night at the Museum," seamlessly integrating angry dinosaurs with Ben Stiller. "He so impressed me on the first movie that I made him a visual effects supervisor on the sequel," director Shawn Levy says. That meant Deleeuw (and VFX producer Somers) were charged with upping the ante on this summer's "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," which ended up grossing just shy of $400 million worldwide. Deleeuw began mapping out effects sequences even before the script was locked. "He made it his business to get inside my head," Levy jokes.

-- Profiles reported and written by Matthew Belloni, Taylor Callobre, Carl DiOrio, Jay Fernandez and Borys Kit.
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