Summer Box Office to Set New Record

Three billion-dollar blockbusters helped the industry set a record and (almost) rebound from a bad start to 2011.

By the end of March, the domestic box office was in one of the worst tailspins in recent memory, with revenue down nearly 19 percent year over year. But thanks to a strong summer, 2011 revenue is running only 4 percent behind 2010. The summer itself is up 5 percent compared with last year, and the international box office is surging. Three summer tentpoles -- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- have jumped the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office, an unprecedented number for any one season or year.

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"We're on track to score the biggest summer of all time, and I think domestic revenue will reach $4.4 billion by the end of Labor Day," says Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. "Good movies rise to the occasion."

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Paramount and Warners are tops in terms of domestic market share year-to-date, with Paramount holding a narrow lead at $1.41 billion (Warners has taken in $1.3 billion); both studios have earned north of $2 billion in international grosses this year and could come close to a record summer. Universal, Sony and Disney are bunched together in the $800 million to $900 million range domestically, so the final lineup won't be known until Labor Day. Fox's domestic revenue is $703.5 million, but it could gain on rivals because of the strength of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Fox is No. 3 for the year internationally, with its pics earning $1.6 billion year-to-date).

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Each of the studios has had its share of hits and misses this summer: Warners had Green Lantern, while DreamWorks and Universal had Cowboys & Aliens. Paramount scored one of the big marketing wins of the summer with J.J. Abrams' Super 8, which exceeded expectations.

The banner headline of the summer was the strength of R-rated comedies such as The Hangover Part II and Bridesmaids, whose profit margins can be enormous; not only do they cost less than effects-driven event movies, but also they can play and play. Combined, the summer's comedies have grossed north of $1.3 billion globally, a previously unheard-of number.

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But there were tough lessons, too. With little warning, moviegoers in North America began rejecting 3D as a format this summer, and the only thing that saved Hollywood were booming emerging markets like Russia, China and Brazil, where 3D remains tremendously popular. Just as worrisome as the decline in 3D viewership at the domestic box office was the ongoing absence of young people from the multiplex. There was all-out carnage during the Aug. 19-21 weekend as Conan the Barbarian (Nu Image/Millennium/Lionsgate) and Fright Night (DreamWorks/Disney) stalled, largely because they skewed older.

"Cracking the nut of why young people are missing," says one studio executive, "is a big problem."