Box office dips in 2011: A year-end analysis

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Box office junkies, unite! It’s time to break down the year that was at the movies using the thing that we love most — the numbers!

Blockbuster franchise films reigned supreme at the North American box office in 2011. Of the ten highest grossing movies, the top seven — led by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 with $381 million — are sequels, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (No. 9, $176.7 million) is a prequel, and Thor (No. 8, $181 million) and Captain America: The First Avenger (No. 10, $176.7 million), while not sequels, are part of the larger Avengers franchise which Marvel will roll out next year.

All told, theatrical releases sold about $10.2 billion worth of tickets in 2011 (final numbers not yet available) at an average price of $7.96. (Ticket price via the National Association of Theatre Owners. Although, seriously, when was the last time anyone paid so little for a ticket?) That total marked a 3.5 percent drop from 2010, when the box office earned a yearly total of $10.6 billion, and attendance dipped by about 5 percent for the second year in a row. In fact, with 1.28 billion tickets sold, 2011 was the least-attended box office year since 1995.

What caused the dip? Well, that’s complicated. 2011 actually outgrossed 2010 during the spring and summer, but during the first quarter of the year, the same time that Avatar and Alice in Wonderland enjoyed remarkably lucrative box-office runs in 2010, revenues were down by 22 percent. And in the fourth quarter, 2011′s grosses were down by about 8 percent — but for more precarious reasons than stiff competition. There’s lot of info to break down, and in every month, there were highlights and lowlights at the box office. Let’s take a look at the past year, month-by-month, followed with a few industry trends that became apparent in 2011:

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Image Credit: Jaimie Trueblood

January
2011 began unremarkably, which was no surprise in the box-office dead zone of January. The month’s top release was Sony’s Seth Rogen vehicle The Green Hornet, which mustered up $98.8 million against its $120 million budget, a disappointing result compared to other superhero movies. January also brought us No Strings Attached, the first of 2011′s friends-with-benefits comedies. (The other was more literally titled Friends With Benefits.) Thanks to Natalie Portman’s white-hot status as an Oscar front-runner in Black Swan, Strings, which also starred Ashton Kutcher, managed to pull in $70.6 million. The rest of the month’s releases performed modestly. Despite ample buzz (and controversy), The Dilemma sputtered with only $48.8 million total, while Jason Statham continued his impressively long-running unimpressive box office streak, as The Mechanic only earned $29.1 million. Also, the Season of the Witch ($24.8 million) happened. Yeesh. Well-reviewed 2010 leftovers like True Grit ($171.1 million), Black Swan ($107 million), and The King’s Speech ($138.8 million) did much of the heavy lifting in the early part of the year.

Just-Go-With-It

Image Credit: Tracy Bennett

February
Adam Sandler logged his 12th $100+ million hit with Just Go With It, which attracted $103 million worth of viewers and became the biggest hit of February, while Disney’s 3-D animated Gnomeo and Juliet also proved successful, earning $100 million thanks to a dearth of family competition. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, a 3-D concert movie, pulled in a sturdy $73 million — a result closer to Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour ($65.3 million) than Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience ($19.1 million). Tweens — they can be so fickle! Liam Neeson’s vengeful Unknown managed $63 million, a far cry from the actor’s 2009 comeback Taken ($145 million), while Nicolas Cage’s attempt at vengeance, Drive Angry ($10.7 million), proved even less popular than his previous release, Season of the Witch. Disney misfired with YA adaptation I Am Number Four, which only attracted $55 million, and audiences largely ignored the Farrelly Brothers’ Hall Pass, which grossed $45.1 million, and Martin Lawrence’s latest fat-suit retread Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son ($37.9 million). Other sad results? The Roommate ($37.3 million), Sanctum ($23.2 million), and The Eagle ($19.5 million).

Rango

Image Credit: Paramount

March
The inventively animated Rango rangoed up $123.3 million to become March’s top performer. Unfortunately for Paramount, the ‘toon cost $135 million to produce. After Rango, a quartet of thrillers geared to males all turned in moderately respectable numbers. Battle: Los Angeles invaded wallets to the tune of $83.6 million, Bradley Cooper’s star-solidifying Limitless drew $79.2 million, Matt Damon’s long-on-the-shelf The Adjustment Bureau found $62.5 million, and Matthew McConaughey’s turn in The Lincoln Lawyer earned the film $58 million. Ah, March, a time when sensibly budgeted thrillers that aren’t part of blockbuster franchises have a shot! Wait a sec — speaking of franchises, sequel Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules earned a fine $52.7 million, but trailed its predecessor, which found $64 million. Over in misfire territory, Red Riding Hood, despite having Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke on board, got eaten by the box office wolf and grossed a majorly disappointing $37.6 million. Hey, at least it did better than Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, which cost more ($82 million vs. $42 million) and earned a worse $36.4 million. Beastly‘s ugly $27.9 million cume put it in the same YA-failure camp as Red Riding Hood and I Am Number Four, but The Hunger Games won’t likely encounter similar problems in 2012. March’s worst performer was ’80s comedy Take Me Home Tonight ($6.9 million), which was outshone by successful limited releases Jane Eyre ($11.2 million) and Win Win ($10.2 million).

Fast-Five

Image Credit: Jaimie Trueblood

April
The first real blockbuster of 2011 arrived on April 29 when Fast Five raced to an $86 million opening weekend on its way to $209.8 million. Looks like the “summer movie season,” which already begins early in May, will now include late April as well. The month’s two other success stories were both aimed at kids. Rio soared to $143.6 million total, while Hop hopped to $108.1 million, thanks to its proximity to Easter. Water for Elephants earned a modest $58.7 million, a bit underwhelming considering the popularity of the book. Insidious finished close behind with $54 million, but with a tiny $1.5 million budget, the horror flick was one of the most successful films of the year, and it outperformed Scream 4, which failed to revive the ghostface franchise with $38.2 million. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family made a Madea-esque $53.3 million, which was better than the medieval James Franco comedy Your Highness ($21.6 million). April had two outright bombs: Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, the first of many underperforming animated sequels, and Disney’s Prom — both films earned $10.1 million. Oh, and to be totally subjective for one second, the totally underrated Hanna made a just-okay $40.3 million. That is a total shame!

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Image Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

May
Thor kicked off the May box office with a $65.7 million opening on the way to a $181 million total — the best total of this year’s superhero movies — but it was The Hangover Part II that easily topped the month with a whopping $254 million. Audiences weren’t totally enamored with Part II, and the sequel fell short of the $277.3 million that the original Hangover earned in 2009. Another sequel that couldn’t match its predecessors was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which earned a franchise-low (but still huge) $241.1 million. Fortunately for Disney, Pirates played much better overseas and ultimately earned $1.04 billion worldwide. Bridesmaids didn’t need any franchise support to score $169.1 million. After opening with $26.2 million, the wedding comedy never saw a weekend drop above 30 percent for its first two months in release. Kung Fu Panda 2 wasn’t as fortunate. It’s $165.2 million was well below Kung Fu Panda‘s $215 million haul. The real surprise May release was Woody Allen’s delightful hit Midnight in Paris, which ambled its way to $56 million this year in a mostly limited release. Indeed, it’s a more accessible film than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which earned just $13.3 million.

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Image Credit: Robert Zuckerman

June
Halfway through the calendar year, summer was in full effect. Transformers: Dark of the Moon earned a tremendous $352.4 million, the second-highest gross of the year. The blockbuster scored $1.1 billion globally. Pixar’s first-ever critical misstep, Cars 2, drove all the way to a respectable $191.4 million, although that was the animation company’s second-lowest box office finish ever behind 1998′s A Bug’s Life ($162.8 million). Two superhero movies debuted during the month, yet neither earned back its production budget. X-Men: First Class found $146.4 million against a $162 million budget, while Green Lantern burned dimly with just $116.6 million against a $200 million budget. J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, which cost a more reasonable $50 million, finished between those two films with strong $127 million. Cameron Diaz comedy Bad Teacher continued the R-rated comedy hot streak begun by The Hangover Part II and Bridesmaids with $100.3 million, which was better than Jim Carrey’s family comedy Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which waddled to $68.2 million after a mediocre $18.2 million debut, and kiddie comedy Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, which attracted just $15 million worth of ticket buyers. In limited release, Entertainment Weekly office fave Beginners scored $5.8 million.

NEXT: The second half of 2011 at the box office

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