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Summer box office down 3% from last year’s mark, despite hits

In the end, not even “The Avengers” could save the summer box office.

Astronomical receipts for the early May smash starring some of Marvel’s biggest superheroes — which has become the third highest-grossing film of all time — weren’t enough to prevent the summer box office from closing down roughly 3% to $4.3 billion compared to the same period from May to Labor Day in 2011. Attendance, meanwhile, tumbled about 4% to 533 million, according to Hollywood.com, the lowest number in almost 20 years.

Not that there weren’t hits. In addition to “Avengers,” which has grossed $620 million domestically and is still earning, Christopher Nolan’s grim farewell to Gotham City, “The Dark Knight Rises,” has so far earned $433 million, while another costumed crime-fighter, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” has made $260 million. The surprise hit comedy “Ted,” starring Mark Wahlberg and a foul-mouthed CG-animated bear, brought in $216 million. (A total of 11 pictures grossed more than $100 million this summer, compared with 15 in summer 2011.)

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But if there’s a bigger picture for Hollywood coming out of the busiest moviegoing season, it’s surely a split screen — on one side are the intermittent hits, on the other a long string of film flops.

Big-budget spectacles such as “Battleship,” the Tom Cruise-led musical “Rock of Ages” and the oddball historical horror-action movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” joined the remake of the sci-fi thriller “Total Recall,” the sequel “The Expendables 2" and the reboot “The Bourne Legacy” in the heap of misfires.

And then there was “Oogieloves.” The toddler-aimed film from toy mogul Kenn Viselman earned a dubious distinction this Labor Day holiday weekend: Its three-day weekend gross of $445,089 marked the lowest opening ever for a movie in wide release.

By the end of Monday, “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” was expected to collect $601,545 — meaning its per-theater weekend average would be a whopping $278.

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Signs of a weaker summer were visible early on. Box-office totals for the four-day Memorial Day weekend were off 31% from the same period a year earlier. “Men in Black 3" drove the weekend with a respectable $70 million, but its box-office numbers couldn’t compete with the 2011 Memorial Day totals driven by “The Hangover 2" and “Kung Fu Panda 2.”

Box-office watchers offered varying explanations for the bottoming out of the box office. Some blamed the hugely popular Olympics telecast, which set viewing records.

Others cited the July 20 massacre during a “Dark Knight” screening near Denver. The shooting left 12 people dead and 58 wounded and, according to a survey by the consulting firm Screen Engine, left many Americans uneasy about going into the movie theater. Four weeks after the shooting, more than 17% said they were leery of attending a movie.

At least one movie executive, however, said the fault lies with the movies themselves.

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“You can’t get away from what happened in Denver,” said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution for Warner Bros. “But hanging your hat on the tragedy and saying, ‘That’s the problem with the end of the summer at the box office’ isn’t right. It comes down to the content. There were real disappointments this summer that just didn’t deliver.”

The Labor Day box office is typically the slowest period of the summer, and the holiday weekend also was down 3% from last year’s weekend totals, even though the new supernatural thriller “The Possession” scored the second-highest opening ever for the period.

For the holiday weekend, the horror flick produced by Sam Raimi took ownership of the No. 1 spot at the box office, doing stronger-than-expected business and bringing in a solid $21.3 million over the four-day period, according to an estimate from distributor Lionsgate.

“Lawless,” the violent crime drama featuring Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy, trailed with a so-so $13-million debut.

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On the opposite end of the financial spectrum, Walt Disney Studios expanded its “Avengers” and the animated film “Brave” to roughly 1,700 locations apiece. The Marvel Entertainment superhero movie took in an additional $2.4 million, officially raising the film’s worldwide tally to $1.5 billion.

Pixar Animation’s “Brave” collected $1.9 million over the long weekend, lifting its global total to around $470 million.

“2016: Obama’s America,” an independently released political documentary, also continued to do well. The conservative movie has now sold $20.3 million worth of tickets — more than Michael Moore’s 2009 film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” but far less than his 2004 hit “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which made nearly $120 million in the U.S.

“The Possession’s” Labor Day weekend performance put it second in history only to “Halloween,” which made $30.6 million during the holiday weekend in 2007. The film is the latest low-budget horror success from Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures, which also produced “The Grudge” and “Drag Me to Hell.”

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Based on a 2004 Los Angeles Times story about a supposedly haunted cabinet box found at a yard sale, “Possession” stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick and has been critically panned. However, those who saw it this weekend — a 59% female crowd — assigned it an average grade of B, according to market research firm CinemaScore.

Moviegoers gave “Lawless” — about three brothers running a moonshine business during the Depression — a B-plus. The movie appealed to an older crowd this weekend, as 67% of those who watched the film (based on Matt Bondurant’s popular novel “The Wettest County in the World”) were over 25.

Since its Wednesday opening the film has collected $15.1 million.

There will be no such totals for Viselman and his “Oogieloves.” The movie was financed by the businessman and a small group of private investors for $20 million, and marketing costs amounted to $40 million more.

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Viselman, who helped to bring “Teletubbies” to America, attributed the film’s embarrassing performance to poor awareness. He said Sunday that the money for the marketing campaign came through far later than expected.

However, he remained undeterred, explaining that a second film is already in production — though it may now go straight to home video — with an “Oogieloves” television program including the characters set to follow.

“For us to spend $40 million to introduce these characters to the world is fine,” he said. “I’m upset that some of the reviewers treated this movie for toddlers like ‘Gone With the Wind.’ The way they’re attacking this film, it’s like pushing a little old lady in the middle of the street. But this kind of stuff doesn’t stop me.”

Some distributors too were eager to move on, and were already looking ahead to celebrating later in 2012.

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“I think the summer issues were very much product driven, and what can you do?” asked Erik Lomis, president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment for the Weinstein Co."The tail end of the year is going to be superb.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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