Box Office: 2014 to End Down Sharply Despite Holiday Highs

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Garfield on Wall - H 2014
Sony Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Garfield on Wall - H 2014

Not even a very merry Christmas could close the gap

With only a few days left before 2014 comes to a close, Hollywood has resigned itself to the fact that North American box-office revenue will be down by roughly 5 percent over 2013, marking the biggest year-over-year decline in nine years.

If there's any good news, it's that the film business has used the fall and winter to reverse some of the damage suffered this summer, when revenue tumbled 15 percent over 2013 and hit an eight-year low.

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The culprit? A number of summer tentpoles underperformed compared to previous installments, including Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2) and Paramount's Transformers: Age of Extinction (June 27). And while November's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, from Lionsgate, is only the second release of 2014 to cross $300 million after Disney and Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1),  it still won't match its predecessors, both of which earned north of $400 million domestically. (So far, Guardians is the top earner of 2014 domestically at $332 million, although Mockingjay isn't far behind, grossing north of $306 million to date.)

On Sunday, 2014 North American revenue hit an estimated $10.2 billion. That number is expected to finish at $10.4 billion by Dec. 31, compared to a record $10.9 billion in 2013. It also won't match the $10.8 billion earned in 2012, but it has already bested 2011's $10.17 billion. The first time that revenue hit $10 billion in North America was in 2009, when it clocked in at $10.6 billion. Nine years ago, in 2005, revenue topped out at $8.8 billion, a 5.8 percent decline over the previous year.

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From the major Hollywood studios to Wall Street, everyone concedes the 2014 line-up didn't entirely deliver. The unprecedented cyberattack of Sony over the controversial Christmas comedy The Interview also rattled nerves.

"We are a content-driven business, and we had our ups and downs this year," Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman said. Fellman's studio in particular had a tough 2014, but ends on a high note with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Dec. 17).

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The international box office is as vibrant as ever, and helped to ease the angst. Case in point: Age of Extinction may have lagged in the U.S., but it cleared $1.08 billion globally, including a record-breaking $300 million-plus in China. Final international numbers for 2014 aren't yet available.

Fellman and others are convinced 2015 will be a boom year, thanks to tentpoles including Furious 7 (April 3), Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1), Jurassic World (June 12), Minions (July 10), the final Hunger Games film (Nov. 20) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dec. 18), just to name a few promising entries and not to mention Fifty Shades of Grey (Feb. 13).

Hollywood also takes solace in a strong start of the year, thanks to Warners' February animated film The LEGO Movie ($257.8 million) and Disney and Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($259.8 million), opening in April. The fall was also bright, thanks to the lingering strength of Guardians of the Galaxy, October's Gone Girl ($166 million) and Interstellar ($177.3 million), released in early November.

"One of the most encouraging things about this year was a growing sense that if you make a great movie, you can open it anytime of the year," said Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis.

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However, Hollywood still largely relies on summer and the year-end holidays to bring out the big guns, and things once again grew rocky over Thanksgiving with the poor performances of Horrible Bosses 2 and Penguins of Madagascar.

Ridley Scott's big-budget biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings has likewise disappointed, grossing just $52.5 million since its Dec. 12 release in North America.

The Christmas holidays saw an uptick with Peter Jackson's final Hobbit film, which has earned $168.5 million in its first 12 days, as well as the impressive debuts of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken and Rob Marshall's Disney musical Into the Woods, which opened to $47.3 million and $46.1 million after debuting Dec. 25, respectively (the weekend of Dec. 26-28 was up by as much as 7 percent over last year).

"After an especially soft summer," said Fellman, "to come in as close as we are to last year shows you that people still want to go the movies."