The popular box office narrative this summer was that Hollywood couldn’t get itself out of bomb season. Expensive flops like The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., After Earth, and White House Down attracted huge amounts schadenfreude — in an insightful New York Times piece published this week, Catherine Rampell wondered whether “the summer-blockbuster strategy itself may have tanked” — but the cloudy box office reports have been misleading. Summer 2013 was actually an incredibly strong season at the movies. In fact, it smashed records.
From the first weekend in May until Labor Day, domestic box office receipts reached $4.76 billion according to BoxOfficeMojo. That’s up 11 percent over 2012’s summer total, and up 8 percent over 2011. For those of you yelling, “But what about inflation?!” the season still proved strong. An estimated 583 million tickets were sold — the largest total since 2007.
As expected, sequels and franchise films proved the most appealing. Iron Man 3 earned $408.9 million domestically, more than any other film this summer. Despicable Me 2 ($355.9 million) Monsters University ($264.4 million), and Fast & Furious 6 ($238.7 million) also pulled in huge grosses. Warner Bros. successfully rebooted the Superman franchise with Man of Steel, which took in $290.8 million despite a tepid reception, and Paramount managed to launch a World War Z franchise after of a year of negative press. The Brad Pitt zombie film grossed $200.8 million.
Mid-budget original films had a strong season as well. The Heat, The Conjuring, We’re The Millers, and Now You See Me (which admittedly stretches the definition of “mid-budget) all scored with moviegoers and broke the $100 million mark. Impressively, Ethan Hawke’s thriller The Purge managed a $64.5 million finish against a budget of just $3 million. (If only Getaway could have been so lucky.)
Given all that success, it seems odd that this summer would be considered such a bust by the media. That classification isn’t being peddled just because people love a negative box office headline. (Though, my “Box office disaster” piece on Harrison Ford’s Paranoia was EW.com’s most popular box office story this summer, you cynics!) The bombs this summer were costlier than ever before, and they therefore grabbed a disproportionate amount of attention. Studios forked over hundreds of millions of dollars for fare like The Lone Ranger ($215 million), Pacific Rim ($190 million), White House Down ($150 million), Turbo ($135 million), After Earth ($130 million), and R.I.P.D. ($130 million), none of which even came close to earning back its budget domestically. The fact that five of those pictures (all but After Earth) opened between June 28 and July 19 didn’t help matters at all.
A record 18 movies cost over $100 million this summer, though only 11 made it past the $100 mark. Studio insiders continue to use the booming international box office as a justification for their ballooning budgets, but as BoxOfficeMojo editor Ray Subers points out, that reasoning is starting to wear thin. “Last Summer, the Top 10 earned $4.85 billion overseas,” he says. “In comparison, the Top 10 has only grossed $3.98 billion so far, and probably won’t wind up much higher than $4.2 billion when all is said and done.”
But let’s not dwell too much on the negative. Overall, the industry had a great summer, and the good results far outweighed the bad. Hollywood is now looking ahead to what it hopes will be a lucrative fall. The calendar has a handful of slam-dunk releases scheduled (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Thor: The Dark World, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), and there are more than a few Oscar contenders with considerable commercial appeal (American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street, Monuments Men). Plus, you never know what films might over-perform. Right now I’m betting on Gravity and Black Nativity. How about you?