International growth provides bright spot

Despite terrific results for tentpoles, plus some specialty and mid-level films, domestic box office for 2011 is down 3% versus last year, while admissions are down 5%.

Bizzers are bummed, but there are factors offsetting the domestic downturn.

Robust growth of about 14% internationally is helping to ease distributors’ concerns about the domestic drop. Overseas B.O. outpaced 2010 by approximately $2 billion by the end of November, according to one studio’s estimates. (Final year-end figures won’t be available until January.)

Also, early 2010 tallies were inflated by the “Avatar” phenomenon, making the 2011 drop appear more drastic.

Still, execs have learned some valuable lessons that they hope to apply to 2012.

There were more films in 2011 to pass the $100 million mark, and it’s been the first year when three films — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” — crossed the billion-dollar mark in worldwide grosses.

“We started out the year in a big hole, and I think a lot of people thought we wouldn’t even come close,” said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Assn. of Theater Owners. “People clearly were interested in going to the movies.”

As with box office revenues, admissions were stunted by a leaden first quarter that fell behind 2010 by a steep 20%. “There were some bright spots this year — movies that were attracting audiences,” Corcoran said. “But when it comes down to it, the real difference was ‘Avatar.’ ”

Aside from the first quarter’s uphill battle, 2011 as a whole had plenty of highlights, and a few notable clunkers.

3D stalls, but ‘Lion’ roars

In 2011, Hollywood bowed 36 major studio pics in 3D, compared to last year’s 3D count of 22. And while the number of 3D releases exploded this year, the format’s individual B.O. share decreased significantly from 2010, when 3D accounted for 60% and 70% of a film’s opening. That percentage has settled on average in the mid-40% range this year.

“The industry’s love affair with 3D seems to have come to a controversial crossroads,” said one distrib exec.

That’s true domestically. Overseas, the format is gaining ground.

For franchise pics like “Harry Potter,” “Transformers” and “Pirates,” and even such family pics as “The Smurfs,” “Kung Fu Panda 2″ and “Cars 2,” 3D saw its most significant returns come from international wickets.

But this year’s most surprising 3D performer was Disney’s “The Lion King” retrofit, which filled Mouse House coffers with more than $150 million worldwide. Thanks to circuit-wide digital conversions, Disney was able to program a mix of 2D and 3D screenings for “Lion King” in a single day, catering to audience preferences.

“In previous days, if you were committed to 3D, you were committed to 3D,” said Summit prexy of distribution Richie Fay. “They were able to react to audience impulse if the need wasn’t there.”

The singular success of “Lion King” in 3D has accelerated similar 3D conversions, including the “Beauty and the Beast” and “Finding Nemo” set for 2012. (3D versions of “Monsters, Inc.” and “The Little Mermaid” are slated for 2013.)

But some of the year’s biggest disappointments were in 3D.

Warner Bros.’ big-budget superhero pic “Green Lantern” topped out at around $217 million worldwide (pic cost a reported $200 million). Though it was Disney’s ill-fated “Mars Needs Moms” that likely stands as 2011′s biggest miss; pic reportedly cost $150 million and did not even top the $40 million mark globally.

Shapely legs for femme pics

Unlike in past years, 2011 saw a broad selection of titles that appealed to femmes in a big way.

Two of the year’s biggest surprises were fueled by female filmgoers: DreamWorks’ “The Help” and Universal’s “Bridesmaids.” “Help, ” with $169.4 million domestically, barely edged out “Bridesmaids,” which cumed a resounding $169.1 million in the U.S.

Opening May 13, “Bridesmaids” was the first of eight R-rated summer comedies — the most since the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984.

“We always had hopes that ‘Bridesmaids’ would cross over,” said Nikki Rocco, prexy of domestic distribution at Universal. “But you have to have the goods to pull it off.”

Meanwhile, Stateside crowdpleaser “The Help,” distribbed by Disney, also managed to broaden its appeal.

Other female-driven standouts include Sony’s first-quarter pic “Just Go With It” and Paramount’s third “Paranormal Activity” installment, both of which cumed around $103 million domestically. And, of course, there’s Summit’s penultimate “Twilight” offering, “Breaking Dawn — Part 1,” which stands as 2011′s third-highest domestic grosser with $271.2 million.

“When you look at how the money was distributed, we didn’t have as many gigantic movies compared to last year,” Corcoran said. “Things were spread out more evenly. I think that’s a result of audience interest, but it also shows that you can’t always count on grand slams.”

So far, there are 29 films to have crossed $100 million domestically, including the latest to hit that benchmark, Warner’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” (Par’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” currently at $86 million, should do so before the new year.)

2010 had four fewer $100 million-Stateside players, though last year saw five pics gross more than $300 million domestically vs. just two (“Harry Potter” and “Transformers”) in 2011.

2011′s specialty A-game

In a year chock-full of 3D tentpoles and billion-dollar franchises, the specialty box office hit its groove early on, largely helped by the Weinstein Co.’s 2010 holdover “The King’s Speech,” which grossed alone a remarkable $121 million of its total $138 million this year.

Of this year’s releases, Sony Pictures Classics’ “Midnight in Paris” is the clear specialty winner.

“Midnight” launched the week before Memorial Day, amid a rush of major studio titles. The pic scored the year’s highest opening per-screen average, at just shy of $100,000, and managed to build momentum throughout the summer, ending up with a Stateside cume of $56 million.

Fox Searchlight also had a solid year with summer release “The Tree of Life” ($13.3 million) and holiday title “The Descendants,” which has tallied more than $33 million so far, making it one of the company’s fastest-growing pics.

“Descendants” joins the usual glut of year-end specialty offerings, which includes promising players like Weinstein’s “The Artist” and “My Week With Marilyn” and Focus’ “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

While overall fourth-quarter box office started out sluggish, bizzers can let out a sigh of relief, as B.O. has seen a last-minute uptick.

Will it last? Might do.

And without an “Avatar” to skew comparisons, at least 2012 domestic box office will face a more even playing field.

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