Box office report 2012: Film industry climbs to record-breaking $10.8 billion

The economy may be teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff, but such dire financial woes were nowhere to be found at the box office in 2012. Over the past 365 days, Americans spent many of their hard-earned dollars at the movies — paying to see everything from Channing Tatum’s abs to a foul-mouthed talking teddy bear, and as a result, the box office had its best* year ever.

Movie theaters sold an estimated $10.84 billion worth of tickets domestically in 2012, beating the previous record of $10.59 billion set in 2009 (when Avatar led a late-December surge), and marking a new record in terms of revenue earned in a single calendar year. All told, the 2012 box office finished 6.6 percent ahead of 2011’s $10.17 billion take and 2.5 percent of 2010’s $10.57 billion cume. 3D and IMAX surcharges, which have now become a common part of the moviegoing experience, no doubt helped the box office reach such heights, though this year’s average ticket price (it stood at $7.94 through Q3, per the MPAA) just barely increased over 2011’s ($7.93).

So, it was those surcharges coupled with a boost in admissions that helped the industry achieve record-breaking grosses. An estimated 1.365 billion tickets were sold in North America this year. That’s 6.3 percent higher than 2011 (when 1.283 billion were sold) and 1.9 percent higher than 2010 (1.339 billion tickets sold), but 3.4 percent lower than 2009 (1.412 billion tickets sold) and a full 13.4 percent lower than 2002 (1.576 billion tickets sold), which was the most attended box office year of the past three decades. (BoxOfficeMojo has a handy chart that sums up much of this info.)

Of course, ticket admissions wouldn’t have increased unless there were new releases that moviegoers wanted to see — and this year had no shortage of blockbusters. The Avengers was the year’s biggest hit, grossing a thunderous $623.4 million — and over $1.5 billion worldwide — and The Dark Knight Rises finished in second place with $448.1 million. Those two films ruled the summer, but it was The Hunger Games that ruled the spring. Games exploded out of the gate in March with $408 million, thereby becoming the year’s third-biggest hit. Skyfall ($289.6 million) and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 ($286.1 million) rounded out 2012’s Top 5.

This year saw its fair share of flops, too. John Carter bombed with only $73.1 million against a $250 million budget, which forced Disney to publicly announce an expected $200 million loss. Battleship, another film starring Taylor Kitsch, sank as well, finding just $65.2 million against a $209 million budget. The $150 million production Dark Shadows drained a lackluster $79.7 million, and the $125 million Total Recall remake proved D.O.A. with a weak $58.9 million. Oh yeah, and The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure had the worst debut weekend of all time.

Still, for the 655(!) movies released in theaters this year, the impressive box office performances far outweighed the bad ones, and now the industry has its sights set on 2013, which — thanks to Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Hangover Part III, World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness, Despicable Me 2, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — could give 2012 a run for its money. Bring it on, Hollywood.

*As is always the case in box office writing, “best” is a relative term. For as long as the media has covered the box office, the film industry has (shrewdly) reported grosses instead of ticket sales — that way, Hollywood can keep claiming “record-breaking” years, even if ticket sales aren’t record-breaking. (I bet the music industry wishes it had set that precedent when it started reporting sales.) I understand the inherent flaws in this system, so I’ve done my best to include as many specifics about ticket sales and ticket price as possible.

For more box office musing, follow me on Twitter.

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