Domestically, 2012 will be remembered in Hollywood as a year that showed the resiliency of the biz, as box office hit a record $10.8 billion, with a 6% rise in admissions (the largest in more than a decade, to 1.36 billion), even as the number of hit 3D releases — a format that had boosted growth in recent years — fell.
Studios also saw a bigger payday from overseas B.O., with a record number of films doing the lion’s share of their business at international wickets. In fact, foreign box office, which is tracking ahead of the $22.4 billion record set in 2011, also figures to set a new mark.
Film targeted to older auds made their mark, with pics like Fox Searchlight’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” bringing in $46 million.
And the year also left behind the seeds of future success, like Lionsgate’s B.O. giant “The Hunger Games,” which helped 2012 get off to a fast start that will be difficult to match this year. Hollywood wasted no time getting into a record-setting groove, beginning as early as the first weekend in January, when microbudget thriller “The Devil Inside” scored the biggest debut for that frame ($34 million). And the hits kept on coming: The March 23 opening of “Hunger Games” reached $152 million domestically — at the time, the third-highest — and wound up cuming more than $686 million worldwide.
In April, Disney and Marvel’s “The Avengers” opened to a record $200 million domestically on its way to becoming the world’s third-highest grossing film. Warner Bros.’ summer pic “The Dark Knight Rises” and Sony’s holiday film “Skyfall” grossed better than $2 billion worldwide.
Domestically, 2012 had four fewer $100 million-plus earners than the previous year (26), but there were more hits among nonstudio films, including Relativity Media’s “Act of Valor,” which earned north of $70 million, CBS Films’ “The Woman in Black” — with $54 million, a company best — and the Weinstein Co.’s top yearly earner, “Django Unchained,” at $78 million through Jan. 1.
One thing that may benefit 2013 — in terms of year-over-year box office, at least — is the lack of major 3D performers last year. “The Avengers” was the only top-five film Stateside to have been released in 3D, though all the top pics were released in Imax either domestically or abroad.
While the domestic plateau of the 3D format was a serious concern for bizzers in 2012, the decline in higher-priced 3D tickets sold meant an increase in admissions compared with 2011, which saw 18% of its $10.2 billion yearly domestic total come from 3D.
Not surprisingly, the decline in 3D was most noticeable among family fare. Disney’s “Brave,” for instance, scored the lowest opening 3D percentage (34%) for a 3D animated film. Most subsequent toons (including Sony’s “Hotel Transylvania” and Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph”) failed to do much better. Fox’s “Life of Pi” was an exception, earning roughly 70% of its $87 million Stateside cume from 3D. That’s mainly because Fox spent considerable marketing muscle highlighting helmer Ang Lee’s extensive efforts to shoot the oceanic pic in the stereo format.
Still, 2012 experienced a boom in premium moviegoing, including high frame rates, which Warners and Peter Jackson used for the first time on “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which has cumed more than $700 million worldwide, and counting. The pic, which also screened in 2D, boasted the most theatrical versions of any pic: six, including combinations of Imax and 3D versions with the different frame rates. And while the jury is still out on the fledgling format, other filmmakers, such as James Cameron, have vowed to use 48fps on future projects.
Even though domestic box office reached an all-time high, once again proving its worldwide dominance, the importance of overseas markets grew ever more important for some pics in 2012 — Fox’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift” being the most obvious example. The toon franchise’s fourth installment, which became the highest-grossing animated film of all time internationally, earned more than 80% of its $875 million worldwide tally overseas.
“Continental Drift” wasn’t the only 2012 film to earn north of 70% of its global tally overseas. There were 18 such films, in fact, the most in industry history, including (improbably) Universal’s Stateside-centric laffer “American Reunion,” at 76%, and Sony’s “Men in Black 3” (71%).
This year’s slate similarly has a handful of titles that could lean on international plexes.
Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” should do significantly better than its predecessor overseas, thanks to stars Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis. The original “G.I. Joe” earned just north of 50% of its total internationally in 2009.
Meanwhile, “Hobbit” and “Hunger Games” should help offset such retiring tentpoles as Warner Bros.’ “Dark Knight” trilogy. Still, with Lionsgate moving the final three installments of “Hunger Games” to Thanksgiving weekend over the next three years, including the next installment, “Catching Fire,” first-quarter box office this year will have to rely on other tentpoles (mostly in March) to goose grosses, including Warner Bros.’ “Jack the Giant Slayer,” Disney’s “Oz: The Great and Powerful” and the aforementioned “G.I. Joe” sequel (which was supposed to have opened last summer, but moved to accommodate a 3D conversion).
Still, more than just first-quarter pics will have to prove themselves with audiences for this year to compete with last.
Other promising 2013 titles — both domestically and abroad — include summer films “Star Trek Into Darkness(Paramount), “Man of Steel” and “The Hangover Part III” (Warners), “Iron Man 3” (Disney) and “White House Down” (Sony), as well as Fox’s slew of DreamWorks Animation pics and Universal’s Christmas entry “47 Ronin.”
Ultimately, the good news is the industry can bask in the glow of this year’s success; the bad news: it’s a tough act to follow.