'Inception,' 'Deathly Hallows' fueled studio's success

Tentpoles including “Inception” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1″ helped Warner Bros. win bragging rights for the third straight year at the domestic box office, with the studio’s 2010 U.S. totals at $1.88 billion. In second place, Paramount tallied $1.74 billion thanks to “Iron Man 2″ and a trio of DreamWorks 3D toons.

With final figures in hand, the 2010 domestic box office ended down 1.4% from 2009, totaling $10.46 billion vs. a record-setting $10.61 billion in 2009. Totals were reported through Sunday.

Domestic tallies for the remaining majors saw third-place studio 20th Century Fox earn $1.66 billion, in line with 2009, while Disney scored its second-best year ever with $1.49 billion. Sony finished the year with $1.27 billion, followed by Universal’s $886 million.

While Stateside grosses hardly tell the whole story — international biz for the studios rose a healthy 20% over 2009 — 2010 managed to hold its own domestically, even with major both distribution and exhibition. Most final international figures will be released today.

Majors released fewer films (110 vs. the previous year’s 121), while higher ticket prices posed difficulties for moviegoers in an already strained economy. The indie sector continued to struggle with only a handful of true specialty hits.

While 3D pics and their higher ticket prices helped prop up the overall box office, Warners and Paramount’s biggest live-action hits were in 2D, after the studio decided not to release “Harry Potter” in 3D.

But the format proved profitable for toons, as Paramount’s releases of DreamWorks Animation “Shrek Forever After,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Megamind” bolstered the studio’s share.

Warners faced resistance to its 3D conversion of “Clash of the Titans,” while the studio’s year-end 3D family pic “Yogi Bear” underperformed.

Meanwhile, Fox’s 2010 tally was buoyed by massive “Avatar” grosses, as none of the studio’s 2010 releases were able to crack $100 million. Fox’s “Date Night” stands as its top 2010 pic, with $98.7 million.

Long-players helped sustain the year’s box office — “Date Night” never reached the No. 1 position, but stayed in the top 10 for eight weeks after its April 9 bow.

Lionsgate had its best year ever, with leggy “The Expendables” becoming the mini-major’s second highest-grossing pic, grossing $103 million (behind “Fahrenheit 9/11″ with $119 million). Meanwhile, Summit’s “Red” became a prime choice for adults, while the studio capitalized on bankable “Twilight” offering, “Eclipse,” which grossed a boffo $300 million.

Repeat biz was another driver as moviegoers returned to multiplexes for multiple viewings of both adult pics and animated fare. Warners’ “Inception,” with its complex storyline, grossed $293 million domestically, benefiting strongly from repeat biz. So did toons “Toy Story 3″ and “Despicable Me,” both of which became two of the top 2010 titles, with $415 million and $251 million, respectively.

U’s “Despicable Me” was one of the summer’s breakouts, while still having to compete for family auds with Disney/Pixar’s “Toy 3″ and “Shrek Forever After,” which ended up with $238 million in domestic grosses.

The 3D format saw its biggest discrepancies with family-oriented pics, since some bizzers questioned whether parents were willing to pay increased prices for the whole family. Fanboy films like “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and “Tron: Legacy” earned more with 3D, while format’s potency waned with family pics. Holiday 3D titles like “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and “Yogi Bear” both earned 3D shares hovering in the 50% range.

Sony showed gusto this summer with a string of 2D hits, including “The Other Guys,” “Grown Ups,” “Easy A,” and “The Karate Kid,” the studio’s top 2010 grosser, with $176 million. Sony ended the year, however, on a sour note with James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know.”

Though no 2010 titles are showing “Avatar”-level staying power, a clutch of 3D toons and fanboy tentpoles look to make 2011 equally active.

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