Huge summer for Hollywood, but with few blockbusters

Cast of Hollywood film 'The Wolverine'
Karwai Tang | WireImage | Getty Images
Cast of Hollywood film 'The Wolverine'

Here in Hollywood, the land of false-front movie sets and business-has-never-been-better studio spin doctors, summer ticket sales are being summed up with a single word: blockbuster.

Ticket revenue in North America for the period between the first weekend in May and Labor Day totaled $4.71 billion, a 10.2 percent increase over the same period last year, according to analyst projections. Attendance rose 6.6 percent, to about 573 million. Higher ticket prices contributed to the rest of the growth.

But behind that rosy picture lurk some darker realities.

Ticket sales rose in part because Hollywood crammed an unusually large number of big-budget movies into the summer, a period that typically accounts for 40 percent of box office revenue. Studios released 23 films that cost $75 million and up (sometimes way up), 53 percent more than in the same period last year.

(Read more: Hollywood's summer rebound, revenue up 10 percent)

The audience fragmented as a result, leaving films like "The Wolverine" and "The Hangover Part III" wobbling when they should have been slam dunks.

"Turbo" the animated snail was squished, taking in $80 million at North American theaters — one of the smallest totals in DreamWorks Animation history. (Only the unfortunately titled "Flushed Away" from 2006 did worse.)

"We're very pleased with the overall strength of the summer," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, "but there was almost too much product. Some of these individual movies would have made more money if studios had spread them out a little more."

Mr. Fithian noted that the $4.71 billion in total summer ticket sales represents a new high-water mark for the industry, not accounting for inflation, and the growth comes after several years of largely flat sales or declines.

It is not surprising that more films sold more overall tickets, but the total does demonstrate a resilience for cinema as competition for consumer attention continues to spike.

(Read more: Blockbuster busts: Big summer flicks in peril)

"To keep the exhibition business alive, we have to give people a darn good reason to put down all their electronics and get in their cars and get into theaters, and this summer we did it," said Nikki Rocco, president of distribution at Universal Pictures, which printed money with "Despicable Me 2" and "Fast & Furious 6," both of which took in roughly $800 million worldwide.

Still, appearances can be deceiving. "Pacific Rim," for instance, has taken in more than $400 million worldwide — no small feat. The picture's price tag, however, made it an everyone-or-nothing enterprise. Legendary Entertainment and Warner Brothers spent about $330 million to make and market the film, which could end its run in the red since theater owners take roughly 50 percent of ticket revenue.

With the notable exception of Paramount, which released just two films, "Star Trek Into Darkness" and the surprisingly successful "World War Z," every studio suffered at least one major dud. In many cases, big hits were offset by big flops.

Disney, for instance, had the summer's No. 1 movie in "Iron Man 3," which took in $408.6 million in North America, for a global total of $1.2 billion. Disney's Pixar also scored with "Monsters University," a prequel that generated more than $700 million in global ticket sales.

(Read more: Foreign moviegoers are superheroes to Hollywood)

But Disney also had the summer's No. 1 box office bomb: "The Lone Ranger," which cost at least $375 million to make and market, and has taken in about $232 million worldwide. After theater owners take their cut, Disney is looking at a write-down of $160 million to $190 million on the film.

Higher-priced 3-D tickets took another tumble, at least in the United States and Canada, as more consumers decided the visual gimmick was not worth paying a $2 to $5 premium per ticket. Family films fared the worst — those glasses don't fit little faces very well — with "Turbo" setting a new industry low for the format, according to analysts: 3-D screenings accounted for only 25 percent of its opening-weekend results. (Last summer's low was 35 percent.)

Over the weekend, the 3-D concert documentary "One Direction: This Is Us" took in $17 million at domestic theaters, enough for first place, according to, which compiles box office data. Sony, which has had a particularly rough summer, spent $10 million to make the film. A Sony spokesman on Saturday wrote in an e-mail, "We are off to a fantastic start!"

"Instructions Not Included," a Spanish-language comedy from Pantelion and Lionsgate, came out of nowhere over the weekend to take in $7.5 million at only 347 locations, an indication of the growing power of Hispanic moviegoers. "Getaway," the only other new release of note, drove into a ditch, taking in just $4.5 million. The thriller, which was released by Warner, cost about $18 million to make and stars Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez. It was the worst-reviewed wide-release film of the summer, according to the review-aggregation site

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As usual, Hollywood paraded out a cavalcade of stars over the warm-weather months; as usual, only a very few emerged with their star power undiminished.

Brad Pitt pulled off "World War Z," which took in more than $527 million worldwide and proved that studios can surmount negative advance chatter if they work hard enough. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy had the No. 1 comedy with "The Heat," which took in $210 million worldwide for 20th Century Fox — not quite "Bridesmaids" money, but not chump change, either.

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At the same time, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Ryan Reynolds, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Jamie Foxx, Channing Tatum and Matt Damon, among others, failed to turn out ticket buyers, at least to the degree that studios needed. In particular, a box office era ended when Mr. Smith's "After Earth," which cost Sony $135 million to produce and roughly $100 million to market worldwide, opened to $27.5 million in ticket sales, by far the worst summer showing of the once-infallible actor's career. Its global sales were $244 million.

Movie companies continued to make most of their profits with sequels; eight of this summer's top 12 films came from continuing franchises. And at least one major new series was born in "Man of Steel." Warner has already announced casting for a sequel to that movie, which returned Superman to theaters and took in more than $290 million in North America, for a global total of about $650 million.

But audiences also revolted against more of the same, especially if quality came up short. "The Smurfs 2," "Kick-Ass 2," "Red 2," "The Hangover Part III" and "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" all struggled and all received largely negative reviews.

In many ways, the summer belonged to smaller original movies, at least when it came to turning out larger-than-expected audiences.

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Lionsgate's "Now You See Me," an old-fashioned midrange thriller, took in almost $300 million worldwide; it cost about $75 million to make. "This Is the End," an R-rated apocalypse comedy from Sony, cost an estimated $32 million to produce and took in $114 million. With a budget of just $3 million, "The Purge," a thriller starring Mr. Hawke, sold about $85 million in tickets for Universal.

And "The Conjuring," a horror movie that cost New Line Cinema about $20 million to make, is closing in on ticket sales of $240 million worldwide.

"Films from other genres did exceptionally well this summer, proving that counter-programming can work," wrote Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen and Company, in a research note released on Thursday.

Still, Mr. Creutz did not seem to hold out much hope that Hollywood paid attention. "Looking ahead to next summer," he wrote, "it already appears as if we are likely to have another sizable batch of money-losing blockbusters."