After Hollywood suffered a weak first quarter, a big rebound this summer turned things around. Now the all-important summer box office season is wrapping up more than 10 percent higher than last year, on track to beat the summer of 2011's record $4.4 billion in revenue.
This was largely thanks to a calendar packed with big-budget tentpoles. "We've had 15 films that have done over $100 million this summer, compared with about 13 films last year, so it was a deeper slate than last year," said Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners.
This summer's record comes despite some massive, high-profile bombs. Sony's $130 million budget "After Earth," grossed just about $60 million domestically, showing Will Smith's waning star power. And "The Lone Ranger," fell so far short of expectations that Disney announced it'll take a write-down of as much as $190 million on its attempt to re-introduce the retro title.
But even with that disappointment, Disney is still finishing the summer the big winner, thanks to "Iron Man 3" and "Monsters University," the first and fourth biggest films of the year, together grossing nearly $2 billion worldwide.
And these two hit sequels are illustrative of a larger trend: The top six films this summer were all sequels, franchises or reboots, proving to Hollywood that it makes sense to double down on big budget hits.
Disney was hardly the only studio to capitalize on the sequel frenzy. Comcast's Universal cashed in on two sequels: "Despicable Me 2" and "Fast and Furious 6," the second and fifth biggest films of the year. Viacom's Paramount benefited from the third film in the Star Trek franchise. "World War Z," which was not a sequel but is based on a book, performed better than expected. Warner Bros.' "Man of Steel," successfully brought that valuable Superman franchise back to life.
The studio at the bottom of the pile this summer: Sony. Both its "After Earth," and "White House Down" bombed. Not a single one of its films broke into the summer's Top 10.
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For all the studios, the international box office continues to grow in importance—those overseas returns, especially from countries like China are the key factors driving growth. And that growing focus on International ticket sales will continue to push the studios to make bigger budget films based on established brands. "International audiences still like the big budget event films," said MKM's Handler. "If you're not going to have a big success internationally, you need to keep the budget small."
Which companies are well-positioned to capitalize on overseas growth? Handler pointed to franchise-heavy studios like Disney, as well as the likes of Warner Bros. Of the theater chains, IMAX is poised to capture massive growth. And China is where the majority of that growth will come from—with reports that the nation will have a higher box office than the U.S. by 2020, thanks to the addition of a total of about 3,000 screens a year.
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Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBC Universal and CNBC.com.
—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin. Follow her on Twitter: @JBoorstin