3D animation buoys summer box office

'Toy Story 3,' 'Shrek' among top performers

Audiences are notoriously fickle, and B.O. has delivered a number of surprise hits and disappointments this year, from Sony’s do-over hit “Karate Kid” to the disappointing Tom Cruise starrer “Knight and Day,” from 20th Century Fox.

So the big surprise at the box office is not just how well-received the summer’s toons have been, but that they have been even bigger powerhouses than expected.

The summer’s B.O. prize goes to Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” which now ranks as the highest-grossing animated film worldwide, with $984.3 million. It’s the top domestic title released this year ($403.8 million), but its 2010 earnings trail the $466.1 million amassed by “Avatar” since Jan. 1.

But along with “Toy 3,” DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek Forever After,” its March release “How to Train Your Dragon” and Universal’s “Despicable Me” have dominated the box office, even more than in recent summers.

Usually, there are two animated biggies each summer: This year, there were four, and they seemed to feed off, rather than cannibalize, one another.

And while 3D seems to be losing some potency because of higher ticket prices, animated films have maintained their 3D shares better than live-action 3D films.

“Shrek” ranks fifth in summer standing, while “Despicable” follows a rank below. Meanwhile, “Dragon” rates as the year’s ninth highest-grossing pic to date.

Still, despite the “Toy” franchise’s global recognition, Disney distrib topper Chuck Viane said success for the Mouse House’s latest “Toy” installment was by no means a given.

“You have to work every bit as hard to make sure people are going to like the new one as much as they liked the original,” Viane said. “You have to have the premise of a very good story and very good creative.”

In anticipation of “Toy 3,” Disney last year released 3D versions of the first two “Toy” pics, which tallied $30.7 million domestically. “Toy 3,” the series’ first 3D offering during its original theatrical run, opened June 18 in the U.S., with 59% of its $110.3 million bow from 3D-equipped screens. To date, that share has dropped only slightly to 56%.

Universal’s “Despicable Me” launched July 9 in a crowded 3D frame, with “Toy 3” and Par’s “The Last Airbender” still occupying 3D screens. “Despicable,” however, gained slightly within the format, with 45% of the toon’s $231.1 million domestic take from 3D, compared with its 44% opening share.

Nikki Rocco, prexy of domestic distribution for U, described the 3D format as an enhancement, not a crutch to the toon’s overall performance. Still, she credited the pic’s original concept as the driving force behind the film’s success.

“Originality is something that people have been talking about in the industry, and audiences have clearly endorsed this film as a fresh offering,” Rocco noted.

While “Despicable” braved a crowded Stateside opening weekend, U decided to hold the toon in most overseas territories until October to benefit from half-term school holidays abroad. “Toy 3” and “Shrek Forever After,” along with Warner Bros.’ “Inception,” dominated the post-World Cup international front as they expanded to most major markets throughout July and August. “Toy 3” has totaled $580.6 million overseas.

Both “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon” were characterized as disappointing debuts domestically. “Shrek” took in $70.8 million during its opening weekend, topping only the first incarnation of “Shrek,” while “Dragon” bowed to $43.7 million — a low-end take given the pic’s 3D component.

DWA head of worldwide marketing Anne Globe said 3D contributed to the toons’ overall playability. “Shrek” topped the box office for three consecutive weeks, while “Dragon” surged in its fifth outing to win the weekend after debuting in the No. 1 spot.

“When you have a really compelling 3D idea, it’s a very exciting opportunity for audiences of all ages to come see the movie,” Globe said.

Both toons went on to play strongly for many weeks, showing that opening weekends can’t always predict the career of animated pics. The toons’ overseas grosses also made for profitable runs. “Shrek” has totaled $455 million internationally, while “Dragon” reached $272.7 million.

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