Female fare, 3-D made box office gains

If last year’s box office was something of a snore — could there have been any more sequels? — the 2008 box office has been anything but a bore.

There have been surprises all along the way as Hollywood gambled on a number of original properties. Many of the bets paid off, minus a handful of messy, costly losses.

Despite the dismal state of the economy, domestic B.O. revenues are running even with last year’s record-breaking pace . Apparently the truism about the movie biz being recession-proof is holding, at least for now.

The box office has defied expectations in several ways this year:

  • Women and girls flex box office muscle. Usually, male-driven fare and family titles dominate the top 20 box office chart. This year, three female-driven pics made the list: Warner Bros./New Line’s “Sex and the City,” Summit Entertainment’s “Twilight” and Universal’s “Mamma Mia!”

    The long-held theory that only fanboys and men can deliver an event movie, or big openings, has been shattered. “Twilight” ($141.2 million through Dec. 10) has already passed up male-driven titles including “The Incredible Hulk” ($134.8 million) and “Wanted” ($134.5 million).

    Studios are expected to order more female-driven fare — in fact, Summit already has. “Twilight” had barely opened when Summit announced sequel “New Moon” is planned for November.

    “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” and “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour,” both from Disney, also have been global phenoms, thanks to girls. Like “Sex and the City,” they managed the difficult feat of making the leap from TV to the bigscreen.

  • “Knight” makes might. The biggest phenomenon of all was Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel “The Dark Knight.” Heading into summer, Warner Bros. prexy of production Dan Fellman predicted “Dark Knight” would be the biggest-grossing film of the year. While every studio exec likes to talk big, he turned out to be right.

    “Dark Knight” has grossed $530.6 million domestically and $466 million abroad for a worldwide total of $997 million, making it the biggest film of all time after “Titanic.” It far surpassed Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” which grossed $205.3 million domestically and $166.5 million abroad.

    Box observers say “Dark Knight’s” tremendous success was due to Nolan’s “Batman Begins” fan base and the buzz over the late Heath Ledger’s performance.

    The other superhero surprise of 2008 was Marvel/Paramount’s Robert Downey Jr. starrer “Iron Man,” which quickly turned into a sleeper hit. A sequel is already in the works.

  • Toons make for a great escape. Animated films always tend to dominate the upper reaches of the box office, but this year has been especially vibrant, perhaps because people want to be entertained in tough times.

    Paramount-DreamWorks “Panda” and “Madagascar: Return 2 Africa” are both on the top 10 list of the year’s biggest grossers, as are Disney’s “Wall-E” and 20th Century Fox’s “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who.”

    n There’s no stopping Will Smith — as of yet, anyway. Despite lousy reviews, his Sony summer tentpole “Hancock” grossed $228 million domestically and $396.4 internationally. (It’s No. 4 for the year at the domestic B.O.)

    Smith’s upcoming Christmas drama “Seven Pounds,” also from Sony, could be a big test for Smith, since the storyline is anything but light entertainment.

    “Hancock” was among a handful of titles doing better than expected, which include Disney’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” Fox’s “Jumper” and Sony’s “Pineapple Express.”

    Box office clunkers of 2008 include Warner’s “Speed Racer,” Fox’s “Meet Dave,” Par’s “The Love Guru,” Warner’s “Body of Lies,” Lionsgate’s “The Punisher,” Disney’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” Fox-Walden’s “City of Ember” and Warner’s “Over Her Dead Body.”

    n There’s still risk in reboots. Studios sought to revive old franchises, with varying results. Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” did more than fine, grossing $786.2 million worldwide. The film cumed $317 million domestically, making it the third-best grossing film of 2008 after “Dark Knight” and “Iron Man.”

    The news wasn’t as good for “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and “The Incredible Hulk,” both from Universal. “Mummy’s” grossed $102.3 million domestically, but its overall performance was boosted by a foreign haul of $290.5 million. That worldwide box office still fell short of the two previous “Mummy” pics. “The Mummy” grossed $415 million worldwide, including a domestic take of $155.3 million. “The Mummy Returns” cumed $202 domestically in 2001 for a worldwide haul of $433 million.

    “Hulk” grossed $134.8 million in North America, and $127.9 million abroad — virtually on par with U’s 2003 incarnation “The Hulk,” which cumed $132.2 million domestically and $113.2 million abroad.

    It helps to have a high concept. What didn’t work was a remake of Picturehouse’s “The Women,” which quickly faded away.

  • There’s plenty of glee for 3-D. The financial benefits of being able to charge several dollars more for a 3-D ticket became abundantly clear this year, first with “Hannah Montana” and then with Warner Bros./New Line’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

    “Hannah Montana,” playing on only 683 screens for several weeks, cumed $65.3 million. Adventure-romance “Fool’s Gold” grossed slightly more, or $70.2 million, from 3,125 screens.

  • There’s still room for fresh franchises. Hollywood got a dose of new material with “Iron Man,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Sex and the City,” “Twilight” and perhaps Warner’s “Get Smart.” Last year, there was only one new franchise possibility, “Transformers.”

    Uncork the champagne.

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