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."
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
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
"Iron Man 3,"from Disney's Marvel division, was the top-grossing film of the year, coming in ahead of Lionsgate's
"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,"
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
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 "
"The thing the summer showed us was that volume works," said Corcoran of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.
Although volume is good for theater owners, a traffic jam of titles can damage their distributors.
The summer's large number of animated movies — including
"There's only a certain amount of shelf space," said Richie Fay, Lionsgate's president of domestic distribution.
But for a year that did not include a film from the Harry Potter, Batman, James Bond or Spider-Man franchises, a small increase in revenue is a significant victory, said Greg Foster, chief executive of Imax Entertainment.
Foster said he's looking forward to 2014's slate, which will include a new
"It feels like the makings — if the movies work — of an exciting year," Foster said.