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.

Zade Rosenthal/Disney/AP/File
Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor (l.) and and Chris Evans portrays Captain America, in a scene from 'The Avengers.'

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.

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. 

He says people want to see what they’ve seen before, with a new twist, “The Hobbit, for example got generally lackluster reviews compared to 'Lord of the Rings,' but did very well in ticket sales,” he says. “And Skyfall … has crossed over into the billion dollar range, proof that people want the safe, the familiar and the known.”

Gomery says another trend that might be getting less notice is the staying power of older-than-50 audiences.

“There is sufficient evidence that baby boomers, who have been counted out as movie theater goers – who allegedly shifted to TV, and DVDs – are still going to the movies,” says Gomery. Exhibit A: Skyfall.

“This generation grew up on Bond and have made the latest iteration a giant hit that no one expected.”

Other analysts express surprise that movies have done so well despite the makeover of the entertainment world, producing options from smartphones to tablets – devices that can stream movies – or competition from stay-at-home options, such as Netflix.

That suggests movies have made it past another large hurdle that pundits and economists thought might spell the demise of moviegoing – following predictions in the early 1980s that video would kill them off, and in the early 1990s that DVDs would do so. “Whatever you think of the quality of movies, they seem to be here to stay,” says Gomery.

“Hollywood has much to celebrate for standing up against all these other options,” says Mr. Dergarabedian. “When you hear buzz that a Bond film should win an Oscar, it’s clear that filmmakers have really grown in their ability to deliver content.”

A further observation this year, say analysts, is that audiences are gravitating away from big-name celebrities to movies with appealing concepts. “Ted” for instance, incorporated a walking/talking Teddy bear with a saucy attitude. At the same time, Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, and Brad Pitt all had significant flops.

“Star power has diminished steadily for the past several years to where it is no longer a given that a big name will give you big success,” says Dergarabedian.

Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture Arizona State University, warns against drawing too many conclusions from one year of box office figures. But he notes the critical consensus that 2012 was a very good year for movies.

“That bears very little relationship to the box-office records," he says. "Hollywood is more pluralistic than many grant, and a good year is comprised both of blockbusters and many successful, less costly films that do not do nearly as well at the box office but contribute greatly to film culture.”

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