"12 Years a Slave"

The antebellum drama “12 Years a Slave,” with Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Paul Giamatti, right, was part of a slate of 2013 films that critics regard as one of the best in a decade. (Jaap Buitendijk / Fox Searchlight / August 10, 2012)

Some critics are calling 2013 the best movie year in a decade. And although critical darlings don't always produce profits, it will also be the highest-grossing year on record — barely.

After a shaky spring and a summer of high-profile hits and misses, the box office is projected to reach $10.9 billion this year, up slightly from last year's record of $10.8 billion.

That's partly the result of a fourth-quarter surge of awards contenders that are also popular with moviegoers, among them the space saga "Gravity," the antebellum drama "12 Years a Slave" and the disco-era romp "American Hustle."

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Those highly original adult movies cap a year that otherwise depended largely on sequels and computer-animated family films.

"We rise and fall based on the strength of the movies in the marketplace," said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "After setting a record, it's nice to be able to set another one, even by a little bit."

The estimated number of tickets sold this year will be about even with last year's 1.36 billion, well below the record 1.57 billion in 2002, a year that included the blockbuster "Spider-Man" and hit sequels to the "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and "Star Wars" franchises.

Ticket-price inflation and pricier 3-D and Imax movies helped lift revenue to an all-time high even as attendance has failed to match its peak.

This summer had its share of sequels too, such as Walt Disney Co.'s "Iron Man 3" and Universal Pictures' "Despicable Me 2." But those hits were joined at the multiplex by such high-profile flops as Disney's Western reboot "The Lone Ranger" and Universal's zombie cop drama "R.I.P.D."

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"Iron Man 3,"from Disney's Marvel division, was the top-grossing film of the year, coming in ahead of Lionsgate's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," "Despicable Me 2" and Warner Bros.' "Man of Steel."

"Going down the list of studios, they all had great movies that kept people coming back to the theaters all year long," said Nikki Rocco, president of distribution at Universal, whose "Despicable Me 2" and "Fast & Furious 6" had domestic grosses of $368 million and $239 million, respectively.

Ending the year with a crowded film marketplace, the five-day weekend that started Christmas Day added an estimated $342 million to the box office total, led by "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." Other hits included "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" and the animated "Frozen."

Analysts and executives at movie studios and theater chains say it's not just the big-budget extravaganzas that are driving revenue.

Lionsgate's thriller "Now You See Me," for example, opened with $29 million and grossed $178 million in North America and $352 million worldwide.

The year was also notable for movies that appealed to ethnic audiences, among them "12 Years a Slave," "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "The Best Man Holiday."

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And even the flops that hurt studios' bottom lines still helped theater owners. Universal's big-budget period drama "47 Ronin" struggled to overcome its production costs but still brought people to the multiplex on its opening weekend.

"Just having lots of movies to choose from helped drive success for our industry," said Ken Thewes, chief marketing officer and senior vice president at Regal Entertainment Group, which operates about 580 theaters.

Attendance for the first three months of 2013 was down a worrying 12% from the previous year. But a record-setting summer put the industry back on track, with hits including "Star Trek Into Darkness," "The Great Gatsby," "World War Z," "The Heat" and "The Conjuring."