Summer box-office hits help Hollywood stop hemorrhaging

Thanks to the swan song of a boy wizard and encores by alien robots and pirates, Hollywood dug itself out of a big hole this summer. But it still has a ways to go to reach the surface.

With the year’s most popular moviegoing season coming to an end, total box-office receipts in the U.S. and Canada are on track to finish up 3.5% from last summer, according to Attendance — the number of tickets sold — will climb a little more than 1% for the season, the first rise since 2007.

That’s welcome news for the film industry after domestic box-office sales sunk 20% from January to April, compared with the same period a year earlier. Following a string of flops that included “Mars Needs Moms,” “Sucker Punch” and “Take Me Home Tonight,” studio executives said they were counting on the high-profile movies of summer to stop the hemorrhaging.


By and large, their hopes were realized as most of their big-budget offerings of the last few months —particularly the final “Harry Potter” film, the third “Transformers,” another “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel and the second “Hangover” comedy — struck gold.

“Everyone was struggling and wondering what was going to happen — at one point, ticket sales were down [nearly] 30%, which in our world is panic time,” said Nikki Rocco, domestic distribution president for Universal Pictures. “But fortunately, there were lots of great hits from most studios that were able to turn the business around.”

However, total box-office revenue is still down 4% for the year and attendance is off by 5%. Industry experts say it’s unlikely that the business will cross into positive territory by late December. That would continue a troubling long-term trend of fewer people going to the movies amid a growing array of entertainment choices and an economic downturn.

Despite critics’ lamentations about the continued lack of original content at the multiplex, audiences this summer were still most eager to see sequels, superhero films and adaptations. Six of the top 10 movies were sequels and three others were based on comic books.

The two most popular films by far were the eighth “Harry Potter,” which has conjured up more than $366 million domestically since its release in July, followed closely by “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which has taken in $348.5 million.

That said, the summer produced several costly flops, most notably “Green Lantern,” “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Conan the Barbarian.”

Summer 2011’s growth wasn’t driven solely by the top performing pictures. The top five summer films of 2010 generated $1.65 billion; this year’s top five have so far taken in just under $1.4 billion. Eight films have taken in, or soon will gross, between $150 million and $250 million this summer, compared with just three last summer.

One of the biggest surprises was how well R-rated comedies performed. Along with the “Hangover” sequel, a number of relatively low-budget raunchy comedies resonated with audiences, including “Horrible Bosses,” “Bad Teacher” and the sleeper hit “Bridesmaids,” which has brought in about $168 million.

“It’s good to have a good laugh in harder times,” said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution for Warner Bros., which released “Horrible Bosses.”

Not all films going for laughs did well, however. By August, there were no long lines for such bawdy films as “The Change-Up” and “30 Minutes or Less.” Both movies failed to attract large numbers of young men, typically the key demographic for lewd comedies.

“There was strong success with R-rated comedies early in the summer, but eventually it seemed that an exhaustion factor set in,” said Kevin Goetz, president of film research company Screen Engine.

A completely different group of moviegoers — older females — are propelling the summer’s other surprise hit, “The Help,” to unlikely box-office heights. The film, an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about civil rights in 1960s Mississippi, is expected to dominate ticket sales again this weekend and will soon surpass the $100-million mark.

A more adult audience also embraced Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” making it the director’s biggest hit ever — not adjusting for inflation — with $50.6 million in ticket sales so far.

Even as the nation’s box office struggled to reach even ground, international receipts continued to boom, driven by key developing markets such as Russia, China and Brazil. The top five movies, in particular, all grossed far more overseas than stateside.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" generated more than $900 million abroad, and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” took in $750 million.

Foreign moviegoers remained more enamored of 3-D than those in the U.S., most of whom opted against paying a premium to see images pop out of the screen on movies such as “Pirates,” “Green Lantern” and “Potter.”

One notable exception was “Transformers,” for which Paramount Pictures and director Michael Bay launched a full-scale publicity assault to tout the benefits of 3-D.

Meanwhile, the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season — the second-most lucrative time at the box office after summer — is poised to also exceed 2010’s performance.

Though last year saw a string of expensive disappointments, among them “Gulliver’s Travels” and “How Do You Know,” this November and December bring a number of highly anticipated sequels, including the fourth “Twilight” film and the third “Alvin and the Chipmunks” cartoon.

However, it may still be a longshot for Hollywood to turn 2011 into a growth year.

“Movie attendance is dropping not precipitously, but slightly year after year — and 2011 will likely continue that trend,” Goetz said. “Going to a movie in a theater is still a fun activity for many people, but exhibition as we know it is not a growth business.”