Hollywood's 'disappointing' summer sets box office record

Summer 2013 didn't generate too much buzz at the box office, but it did generate a record amount of money. Call it Hollywood's summer of not-quite-blockbusters.

Daniel Mcfadden/Universal Pictures/AP
This film image released by Universal Pictures shows Ethan Hawke in a scene from 'The Purge,' one of the summer's unexpected box office hits.

The story of the 2013 summer film season, which officially ended on Labor Day, would seem to be a tale of disappointments.

First, there were the potential blockbusters that flopped, from "The Lone Ranger" to "After Earth." And second, many of the successes were sequels ("Iron Man 3"), prequels ("Monsters University"), or reboots to old franchises ("Man of Steel"), meaning the summer lacked a big infusion of excitement or innovation.

Yet with the figures now in, 2013 will go down as the biggest summer in American movie history, taking in $4.76 billion and topping 2011's record of $4.4 billion. Even taking into account the fact that movie tickets cost more because of inflation and 3D, 2013 did well, with more tickets sold than in any summer since 2007.

How did that happen?

The simple answer is that Hollywood had more mid-range hits than normal this summer, more than making up for the lack of mega-blockbusters.

There were some surprise hits, like "The Conjuring" and "The Purge." And there were a string of movies that did very well, even though they didn't quite hit blockbuster range, such as "Despicable Me 2," "Star Trek: Into Darkness," and "Fast and Furious 6."

For Hollywood, summer 2013 was a confusing concoction – a record season that felt underwhelming.

"I'm not sure there are any grand lessons to be learned from this except that you have to throw a lot of stuff on the wall of mass culture to see what sticks," says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "Yes, there were no mega-blockbusters, and yes, the movies way down the list at 4, 5, 6 and lower made up for the gap … but to translate that into a workable formula is impossible. That’s why they call it show business and not mathematics."

Part of the reason for the sense of letdown comes from the fact that Hollywood released 18 films that cost more than $100 million this summer, up from 13 last year. Yet only 11 will hit the $100 million mark in domestic sales. Some of those that flopped – including "Pacific Rim" and "Elysium" – were original films based on novel concepts, leading some to worry that their failure might act as a further chill on Hollywood risk-taking on big-budget films.

“The lack of strong financial returns for unique and original pieces such as 'Elysium' and 'Pacific Rim' will be viewed by many as a sign that studios should stay away from bold and original content in favor of backing projects that carry a higher guarantee of success at the box office,” says Hezekiah Lewis, assistant professor of film studies at Villanova University.

But other factors could also be coming into play. The "Lone Ranger" and "Pacific Rim" were 149 and 131 minutes long, respectively. By contrast, “The Purge” was 84 minutes, allowing it to play more times a day.

"No one talks much about this, but a theater can schedule twice as many showings and make more money with a shorter film," says Wheeler Winston Dixon, editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "I would say a lot of the films that didn’t do well this year were overlong in many ways that they could be called runaway products."

Professor Dixon says the summer has created buzz around films like "The Purge," which are shorter and were made on a shoestring budget. “Sharknado,” about a freak hurricane which swamps Los Angeles and whips sharks onto the population, was made for $1 million, and “The Purge” – about a 12-hour period in which all crime is legalized – has unleashed new ways of thinking, he says.

For example, when the cast of “The Purge” had to reshoot a fight sequence, actor Ethan Hawke and others came up with the idea of focusing more on character than action. Says Dixon: “The less money you have, the more creative you have to be, whereas if you have a huge budget, you can just keep throwing money at every problem.”

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