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Hollywood's record haul: why 2012 was a great year for movies

Hollywood set a box-office record in 2012, raking in $10.8 billion. Franchises like James Bond and 'The Avengers' ruled a year that signaled some important trends in the industry.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / January 2, 2013

Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor (l.) and and Chris Evans portrays Captain America, in a scene from 'The Avengers.'

Zade Rosenthal/Disney/AP/File

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Several movie box-office records were made in 2012 – including the biggest box office ever ($10.8 billion). But analysts say what is more interesting is the nuance behind the headlines.

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For instance, the three highest grossers worldwide – “Avengers ($1.5  billion), “The Dark Knight Rises” ($1.08 billion), and “Skyfall” (over $1 billion and still counting) – were also critically acclaimed. And the number of tickets sold was up for the first time in three years (to 1.36 billion, about 6 percent more than 2011’s 1.28 billion). That came while fewer 3-D movies were shown, meaning that higher-costing 3-D tickets were not solely responsible for the records.

Beyond the numbers, 2012 also made history for being the year that all theaters shifted from showing 35 mm film to all-digital projection.

“This fact completely snuck under everyone’s radar because there were no announcements, no publicity, no nothing,” says Douglas Gomery, retired professor on the economics of film at the University of Maryland.

No more reels, no more sound-on-the-side, clicking projectors, he says, but rather only bread-box size cartridges that managers click in and out easily. That has upped profits by cutting back needed personnel, but it has also forced the closure of many small-town and seasonal theaters which couldn’t plunk down the $50,000 or so for a digital setup.

“The industry was very scared that audiences would react negatively but this proves they haven’t,” says Mr. Gomery.

Here are some more of the 2012 records:

  • Biggest opening weekend of all time in North America (“Avengers” at $207 million).
  • Biggest single day opening for a musical (“Les Miserables” at $18 million).
  • Biggest December opening ever (“The Hobbit” at $223 million worldwide).
  • Valentine's Day was the first time ever that four movies opened with more than $20 million outside the holiday season ("The Vow," "Safe House," "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," and "Star Wars: Episode 1" in 3-D).

Moreover, “The Hunger Games” $152 million in March was unprecedented, according to Paul Dergarabedian, a film industry analyst at Hollywood.com.

“Franchises rule, along with fantasy film. That’s the main message here – escapist, mainstream entertainment ruled the box office,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. 

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