For Hollywood, 2013 was the year of the franchise

The box office appears headed for the highest-grossing year on record – $10.9 billion, even though fewer tickets were sold. Among the big draws: 'Despicable Me 2,' 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire,' and 'Furious 6.'

AP Photo/Disney, Marvel Studios
This image shows Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in a scene from "Iron Man 3." Hollywood is expected to have a banner year as box office totals are projected to peak at just under $11 billion, bringing in more multiplex revenue in 2013 than ever before.

There are three trends reflected in movie box-office receipts for 2013, industry analysts say: franchises, franchises, and franchises.

After a rocky start in the first three months, the box office appears headed for the highest-grossing year on record – $10.9 billion, which would be up just slightly from last year’s $10.8 billion. However, the number of tickets sold both this year and last – about 1.36 billion – is well below the record 1.57 billion in 2002. More expensive IMAX and 3-D movies helped make up the difference.

“The lesson from this year is that franchises rule,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Among the best-grossing: “Iron Man 3,” “Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Man of Steel,” “Monsters University,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and “Furious 6,” which received even more attention after the tragic death of star Paul Walker.

Also doing well in the crowded slate of 669 films released this year (up from last year’s 665): "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

“Franchises and sequels are the major trend because movies cost so much to make now, and studios want a presold commodity,” Mr. Dixon says. “People want what they’ve seen before, but only slightly different, not majorly different.”

A cautionary tale of the “not majorly different” logic is “The Lone Ranger.” It went against type by turning the story into a comedy and using a major star (Johnny Depp) to turn a sidekick into the main character. The movie is now among all-time major flops.

Dixon and others also note the popularity of horror films. “The Conjuring” made it into the top 20, and “The Purge,” which was made for only $3 million, has taken in close to $100 million.

“Producers are noting that horror does well and doesn’t need expensive stars because fright is the centerpiece attraction,” Dixon says.

But others say that the year-end ritual of summing up the box office is merely a Rorschach test that says more about the analysts than about the industry.

“The public uses the box office as a proxy for good criticism, when I think the real question should be, Did you like the movies you saw this year or not?” says Christopher Lanier, founder of Motion Picture Intelligencer, which has been analyzing the box office for 20 years. “If so, it was a good year, if no, then it wasn’t.”

In the golden era of Hollywood – the 1920s and ’30s – the major studios could constantly produce profitable movies, Lanier says. For example, from its founding in 1924 to 1926, MGM produced 200 straight profitable movies.

But times have changed radically. “Now they and everyone else are hit-and-miss, which tells us all they are just guessing,” Mr. Lanier says.

What is a sign of health, counters Hezekiah Lewis, professor of film studies at Villanova University near Philadelphia, is 2013’s high number of smaller, character-driven movies with a diverse roster of directors. These include “12 Years a Slave” – whose director, Steve McQueen, could be the first black to win an Oscar in that category – and “Gravity,” which was directed by Mexican Alfonso Cuarón Orozco.

“Even ‘Nebraska’ was a nice gem that was slowly paced and let us really look at the heartland of America in a time of economic downturn,” Professor Lewis says. “I think the critical and box-office success of a lot of these films bodes for a time coming soon of more alternatives to the blockbuster mentality driven by special effects and explosives.”

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