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2012 Summer Movie Wrap-up: The Avengers and the Art House Save an Otherwise Mediocre Summer Movie Season

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This is actually a pretty simple summer movie season to analyze and/or dissect.  In short, the expected mega-blockbusters were indeed mostly mega-blockbusters, the expected middle-of-the-road hits were just that, while the films pegged most likely to flop or at least financially disappoint did just that.   If you had polled pundits at the beginning of the summer over the top four films of summer 2012, you they probably would have told you some combination of The AvengersThe Dark Knight RisesThe Amazing Spider-Man, and Brave.  And three of those films did pretty much what should have been realistically expected of them.  The core artistic pattern of summer 2012 was pretty simple: Most of the mainstream entries, even the ones expected to soar, ended up being artistically disappointing while the indie scene was on fire all season long.  Speaking financially, audiences embraced most of the major art-house films while being just a little pickier when it came to mainstream fare.  But the biggest news of summer 2012 was the general success of old-school movies, as a number of original properties and/or star vehicles proved quite profitable.  I've written extensively elsewhere about the slow and steady return of the 'movie' so I won't dwell on that here (essay and essay).  But when Magic Mike is a smash hit while a Total Recall remake is a money loser, one hopes that the studios will take note and perhaps learn a lesson different from "Let's make a sequel to Magic Mike!".
The Avengers struck arguably harder than anyone could have predicted.  The surprise stems mostly from the fact that it turned out to be far better and far more entertaining than most could have hoped for.  It lacked a bit in the plot department, but made up for it with sparkling character interaction and big-scale action that was filled with crowd-pleasing 'wanna see that again!' moments.  More importantly, it connected to mainstream audiences on a rather shocking level. The idea that hardcore nerds sat in theaters this summer alongside stereotypical jocks and thrilled to the sight of Thor and Captain America working together to repel an alien invasion is still something that gives me pause.  But Joss Whedon's 'season finale' to the first arc of Marvel films proved to be an undeniable delight, and audiences responded accordingly ($617 million domestic, $1.4 billion worldwide thus far, following a stunning $207 million opening weekend).  The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, performed pretty much like it was supposed to.  Putting aside bad press from the Aurora theater shooting (essay) and its alleged effect on moviegoing (and the fact that it wasn't nearly as good as the first two Nolan films), Batman vs. Bane (starring someone most audiences couldn't name) was never going to match the excitement of Batman vs. The Joker (starring a recently deceased movie star).   Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is a massive smash hit by any and all reasonable standards. We're still talking about a film that crossed $420 million domestic and is heading towards $1 billion worldwide, so the fact that anyone is even questioning this film's triumph is merely because The Avengers struck first and unexpectedly hard.
Brave, with $230 million and heading towards $450-$500 million worldwide, is an unquestionable Pixar success story, especially when you factor in all of that Merida merchandise that flew off the shelves (my daughter didn't like the movie, but she still wanted a Merida archery set). It will likely end up on the bottom third among Pixar global grossers, and it will likely come in under the $565 million-grossing (and surprisingly winning) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted or the $800 million-and-counting Ice Age: Continental Drift, but the film will sell Merida junk to our impressionable daughters for generations to come.  Pixar crafted a traditional princess story and tricked everyone into thinking it was a pioneering feminist fable merely by giving her a bow-and-arrow. It was a nice way of getting around that whole 'no more fairy tale princess movies' edict and I have to admire their chutzpah. Speaking of summer animation, Madagascar 3, at $213 million and counting, has an outside shot of out-grossing Kung Fu Panda ($215 million) and How To Train Your Dragon ($217 million) to become Dreamworks Animations' biggest non-Shrek domestic grosser.  Ice Age 4 continued the franchise's pattern of insane international grosses (partially due to their use of foreign movie stars to voice the film in each respective foreign market).  The film dipped to a new franchise low domestically, with just $155 million, but the picture made $649 million (already topping Toy Story 3's $648 million foreign haul) overseas.  It was basically a three-film clash of the titans this summer, with only Focus Features' ParaNorman opening just two weeks ago and so far managing around $30 million in ten days.

The Amazing Spider-Man is a trickier situation.  With a global box office about to top $700 million, the $230 million production will make money.  But Sony spent the second-most amount of money of any Spider-Man film and ended up with a product that A) will be by-far the lowest-grossing Spidey flick ever ($260 million U.S. and well-below Spider-Man 2's $782 million worldwide total) B) failed to ignite much excitement in a new series of Spider-Man adventures.  Even if you weren't disappointed by the end result, are you even half as excited by the idea of new Spider-Man films set in this universe as you were at the respective climaxes of Batman Begins, Star Trek, or Casino Royale?  Universal's The Bourne Legacy has the same problem.  It will at best match the $121 million domestic gross and $214 million worldwide gross of The Bourne Identity while falling well short of the sequels, but more importantly it too failed to give audiences a reason to get excited about another entry in 2-3 years time.  Prometheus was a moderate hit, bringing in $300 million worldwide which makes Fox glad they only spent $130 million on the R-rated Alien prequel/spin-off.  Anyone thinking that an Alien prequel was going to be an out-of-this-world blockbuster was frankly delusional. As it is, the final product was too caught up in franchise building to give us a single film worth giving a damn about and the brand may suffer as a result (essay).  Next time, give us the actual climax in theaters, not on a Blu Ray deleted scenes reel (essay).

The surprisingly winning Men In Black 3 looks to be the least-profitable $600 million+ grossing film in history, thanks to a budget that allegedly reached as high as $325 million.  Still, with $621 million, Will Smith's return to the screen scored his third-biggest worldwide triumph ever, just $3 million behind his number two earner Hancock.  Domestically, it earned $179 million, which is at the high-end of his 'normal zone' when he isn't over-performing (his 2002-2006 six-film run earned between $133 million and $190 million a pop). Sony's Men In Black 3 was a prime example of the 'woulda been a smash if we hadn't spent so damn much' category.  Also in this slot is Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman, which will crawl to $400 million worldwide but cost $170 million to produce.  Kristen Stewart powered this one to a $56 million opening weekend, proving that she absolutely can open a mainstream film, and it will be interesting to see where this much-debated 'franchise' goes from here (I'm no fan of the picture, but at least it had a refreshingly closed-ended story). Also in the 'cost too much' category is Universal's Battleship, which qualifies as a massive bomb purely because of its budget.  The film made $300 million worldwide, meaning that a Battleship made for $125 million instead of $215 million would have been a solid hit. It's the same sad story with Tim Burton's Dark Shadows.  The Johnny Depp adaptation of the cult television soap opera made a perfectly solid $236 million worldwide, which would have made it another hit for the Depp/Burton combo had the film not cost an inexplicable $150 million to produce.  There was a real conversation this year about ever-escalating budgets for not-so surefire tentpoles, mostly fueled by this Spring's John Carter, but the lesson is as it always was: don't spend Return of the King money on Fellowship of the Ring (essay).

On the other side of that coin was the surprising success of a number of mid-to-low budget genre entries both aimed at adults and budgeted with a token amount of sanity.  Two big myths fell this summer.  A) Adults don't go to the movies.  B) There are no movies in theaters for older audiences. Warner Bros' marketing deserves some kind of medal for selling the heck out of the $7 million Magic Mike, making the $112 million-grossing Channing Tatum vehicle about male strippers into one of the most profitable films of the year.  Debuting the same weekend was the $50 million Ted, which surprised by both being the best mainstream wide-release film of the summer and by grossing $213 million domestic (the third biggest R-rated comedy of all time behind Beverly Hills Cop and the two Hangover films) and $352 million (and climbing) worldwide.  Both films prove that in an era where Hollywood is desperate for a new leading man who actually brings in crowds, Mark Wahlberg and Channing Tatum are genuine movie stars (Chris Hemsworth may be too, but he has yet to have a 'on his own' box office test).  Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection quietly became his second-biggest earner yet and The Campaign looks to end up with around $80 million domestic, which is actually a record for a political comedy.  Warner spent too much ($65 million) on the comedy, but it did have an R-rating, which also hampered the rare out-and-out Adam Sandler flop, That's My Boy ($37 million on a $70 million budget).  Hope Springs is a relative success at $45 million and Savages cost too much ($45 million) but still counts as a moral victory with $47 million for the hard-R Oliver Stone drug drama released in over the July 4th weekend.  

The other good news of summer 2012 was the relative success of the arthouse crowd, as minor hits From Rome With Love ($15 million), Beasts of the Southern Wild ($9 million), joined relative mega-hits like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($45 million) and The Moonrise Kingdom ($42 million, and again I was dead wrong when I criticized Focus's seemingly too-slow expansion back in June).  But the most interesting success story of the limited release crowd came from Bernie, as the Jack Black/Shirley MacClaine/Matthew McConaughey Texas comedy stayed in theaters for four long summer months (following a three-screen release on April 27th) and earned $9 million without expanding wider than 330 screens.  On one hand, one must applaud the success of the Millennium Entertainment which survived almost entirely thanks to word-of-mouth.  On the other hand, Bernie is a prototypical example (along with the delightful Safety Not Guaranteed which still earned $3.7 million in no more than 182 theaters) of the kind of 'art-house film' that darn-well would have been a major release just five or so years ago.  That it found its audience is fine, but the true cost of the blockbuster mania is that it forces everything but the tent-poles to fend for themselves on the art-house circuit.  The situation is of course exasperated by the emergence of 3D and IMAX as a major player, as now a film that might have taken up one or two screens at the multiplex now gets two-to-four screens thanks to the varying formats.  This summer was an excellent one for grownup cinema, both in quality and relative quantity.  But the battle is not yet won.



Overall, this was one of the more artistically disappointing summers in recent memory in terms of big-scale mainstream product.  The Avengers delivered in spades, Men In Black 3 was surprisingly moving and witty, and Ted was a stunningly smart social satire, but otherwise most of the big-scale stuff (The Dark Knight RisesThe Amazing Spider-Man, Brave, Prometheus, etc.) underwhelmed in a pretty big way.  On the plus side, the art-house rode to the rescue, with The Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild earning pretty much ironclad spots on the 'best films of 2012' list.  For much of summer 2012, it seemed like the season was going to be 'The Avengers was great, everything else stunk', as one high-profile entry after another (Dark Shadows, Rock of Ages, Ice Age: Continental Driftetc.) rather horribly dropped the ball artistically.  The periodic high-quality product mixed in the May-August mix didn't quite erase the stench of so much unexpectedly mediocre-to-terrible product, but again, the likes of Safety Not Guaranteed and the superb Take This Waltz helped lessen the blow and salvage the season as a whole.  As for 3D, it only was a factor in terms of making hit films into bigger hit films.  Otherwise the films that hit would have flopped in 2D flopped in 3D as well.

In closing, this summer feels like the last of a dying breed.  As studios, with an exception here or there, seemingly realize the error of spending untold hundreds-of-millions of dollars on the likes of Total Recall or Battleship, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the prototypical summer film.  Optimistically speaking, this could well be a summer of change, as the mid-budget genre fare gets somewhat equal footing with the tent-pole, and the tent-pole goes back to being what it once was, an occasional surefire smash that holds up the rest of the studio, rather than a roll of the dice that periodically wipes out everything that's been gained.  Maybe audiences not flocking on cue to the likes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ($37 million domestic with an uncertain overseas future) is as much of an indicator as audiences flocking (in relative terms) to the likes of The Moonrise Kingdom.  Or maybe it means nothing other than arbitrary scheduling choices yielding respective results for respective films.  But this does feel like the last mega-summer for awhile.  But all things considered, that may very well be a good thing.   What thoughts do you have on the summer that just ended?  Favorite films (Moonrise Kingdom), least favorite films (Battleship)?  Biggest disappointments (Brave, The Dark Knight Rises) or most unexpected delights (Ted, Men In Black 3)?  I'll *try* to have a 'moments that mattered'-ish piece by the end of the week, but in the meantime please share your 'moments' and let me know what you're looking forward to during the summer of 2013.

Scott Mendelson