feature summer winners iron man 3

This year saw editorials and prominent directors alike decrying the death of cinema as we know it, but none of that stopped ticket-buyers from dropping over $7 billion (domestic) to take in Hollywood’s wares. That’s on target with last year’s numbers, and since 2012 was a near record year, this summer has probably been a fairly solid success too, right?

As always, it depends on who you ask.

Critically speaking, while just about every movie has its defenders, a large number of this summer’s blockbusters were heavy on flash and style while growing even lazier than usual when it comes to the substance. Job one of summertime cinema is obviously to create a fun and thrilling piece of escapism, but it seems like studios have began putting in even less effort than usual when it comes to script, characters and even a modicum of brains. That’s a problem, but the box office receipts offer compelling evidence to the contrary (which is probably a bigger problem).

It’s a bit easier to judge films on a commercial scale, or at least it should be, but thanks to Hollywood’s creative accounting it’s almost never clear cut as to whether or not a certain film is considered a financial success. (Just ask Forrest Gump author Winston Groom.) The formula varies depending on who’s doing the math, but for our purposes a general (and as close to believable as it gets) rule of thumb seems to be that a film needs to gross 1.5 to 2 times its budget just to break even after production, marketing and distribution costs. So a movie budgeted at $100m needs to gross $150-200m before the first dollar of profit will be counted. Math is fun.

The Winners

Below are the ten highest (worldwide) grossing releases of summer 2013 covering the first Friday in May through the second Friday in August. Sure, the summer movie season actually runs through Labor Day three weeks away, but none of August’s releases are going to break into this club by shifting the numbers in any relevant way. (Sorry, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.)

  1. Iron Man 3 – $1.212 billion worldwide – ($408m domestic) – ($200m budget)
  2. Fast & Furious 6 – $783m – ($238m dom) – ($160m bud)
  3. Despicable Me 2 – $749m – ($339m dom) – ($76m bud)
  4. Man of Steel – $648m – ($289m dom) – ($225m bud)
  5. Monsters University – $637m – ($260m dom) – (n/a but estimated at $185m budget)
  6. World War Z – $503m – ($198m dom) – ($190m bud)
  7. Star Trek Into Darkness – $452m – ($227m dom) – ($190m bud)
  8. The Hangover Part III – $351m – ($112m dom) – ($103m bud)
  9. Pacific Rim – $344m – ($97m dom) – ($190m bud)
  10. The Great Gatsby – $331 million – ($145m dom) – ($105m bud)

Seriously, did anyone expect to see The Great Gatsby on this list?

[UPDATED] – As stated the list above is a ranking of the top ten highest grossing summer releases, but the winners list looks a little different with the 1.5x multiplier applied to the budget to determine how much was needed to break even. Here is the summer’s top ten ranking with that metric applied.

  1. Iron Man 3 – $912m profit
  2. Despicable Me 2 – $637m
  3. Fast & Furious 6 – $543m
  4. Monster’s University – $360m
  5. Man of Steel – $312m
  6. World War Z – $218m
  7. The Hangover 3 – $196m
  8. The Great Gatsby – $174m
  9. Star Trek Into Darkness – $167m
  10. Now You See Me – $143m

Again, these are estimates based on the 1.5x multiplier. Each film is going to be different when it comes to actual marketing and distribution costs. [End UPDATE]

Inclusion in a top ten is a surefire sign that you belong in the winner column (unless it’s the FBI’s Ten most Wanted list obviously), but while some of the films above had their place at the table locked in well before the summer even began others deserve shout outs for the achievement.

Universal’s Despicable Me sequel for example didn’t just squeak past the Pixar juggernaut’s Monsters Inc. sequel, it sped past by earning over $110m more from audiences who apparently preferred anthropomorphic Twinkies to a gonad-shaped Billy Crystal. The fact that it did it on less than half of Monsters University‘s budget makes it that much more impressive. Don’t cry for the Mouse House though, as in addition to Pixar Disney also owns the Marvel brand, so the #1 spot still belongs to them.

As is far too common these days the number of original properties in the top ten is minimal. With “original” meaning anything that isn’t a remake, sequel or reboot only World War Z and Pacific Rim deserve kudos for crawling their way into the big leagues. Two original properties is a sad number, but it’s made even sadder by the fact that last summer had four in the top ten. Marc Forster’s film featured an all too public battle from pre-production all the way through post, but while its high budget precludes a big profit its half billion dollar gross is impressive all the same. By contrast, Guillermo del Toro’s monster vs mech flick had been slathered with geek praise since day one, but when it opened it looked like only the fan faithful were lining up to see it.

So how did WWZ and Pacific Rim manage to crack the top ten when they and a few others above are widely, albeit anecdotally, considered to be minor failures this summer? Mixed critical reception didn’t help the perception, but the biggest culprit seems to be their low domestic returns in light of their high budgets. The local box office numbers are all most people see, but in recent years the studios have more and more begun to look overseas — even to the point of relying on foreign audiences to make their film a hit. Pacific Rim was dead in the water domestically (not even cracking $100m) but thanks to overseas receipts (including a relatively ginormous haul from China) there’s now semi-serious talk of a sequel. Similarly, WWZ barely made its budget back domestically but worldwide it’s crossed the half billion mark. It joins the limited ranks of six films to gross over half a billion dollars worldwide this summer which is impressive until you realize that last summer featured eight.

There are wide release winners and losers (obviously) outside of the top ten, too.

This summer saw two monster hits that didn’t crack the top but are still among the biggest successes of the season. Using the 1.5x budget formula mentioned above, both The Purge and The Conjuring earned higher profit percentages than any other summer wide releases. The former earned $82m on a $3m budget, and James Wan’s ghost story cost $20m but took in $169m. The fact that one of the two is actually pretty great makes this even better. Horror being the most profitable genre isn’t news, but the recent trend of producing inexpensive but well-crafted tales of terror (Insidious, Sinister, Paranormal Activity) has resulted in a new appreciation for letting artists create quality chills without a studio peering over their shoulder.

Some other big summer winners (grossing over 3x their budgets) include The Croods, The Heat, Now You See Me and This Is the End. Dreamworks’ kids film is no surprise as it was the best caveman film since Ringo Starr’s Caveman, and the two comedies succeeded on star power and laughs to the point of earning quadruple their budgets. But Louis Leterrier’s magical heist film managed a real trick in pocketing over $250m. There’s no denying it’s flashy and fun, but the damn thing doesn’t play by a single rule! Instead of walking out impressed by how the magic squad accomplished their tricks and thefts audiences are left thinking they saw more than they did. So maybe it’s a misdirection heist film instead?

Both Epic and The Wolverine can also breathe easy as they earned more than double their budget from theaters meaning home video, VOD and cable will see them happily in the black (and green). This is especially gratifying for Hugh Jackman’s film as his last adamantium outing was fairly reviled (even if it did earn $373m worldwide).

The Losers

But we can’t have winners without having some losers too, so here are the five biggest of the summer (using the 1.5x multiplier). They include a mix of the obvious, the unexpected and the awesome.

  1. R.I.P.D. – $56m worldwide – ($32m domestic) – ($130m budget) – $139m loss
  2. The Lone Ranger – $196m – ($87m dom) – ($215m bud) – $126.5m
  3. White House Down – $126m ($72m dom) ($150m bud) – $99m
  4. Turbo – $136m ($75m dom) ($135m bud) – $66.5m
  5. RED 2 – $94m – ($50m dom) – ($84m bud) – $32m

First off, if you’re wondering where M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth is you might be surprised to know it earned $245m worldwide so far. A relatively average budget of $130m means it’s in the nether region just outside dud range, and while it dampened Will Smith’s star power it didn’t really hurt the director like his past few films have.

The five above didn’t fare as well though, and all of them are looking at some serious losses. Fox had a rare animated misfire with Turbo while the RED sequel failed to justify its expense, and the obvious lesson here is that audiences aren’t interested in what they know in reality to be slow-moving heroes.

The presence of Roland Emmerich’s White House Down here just boggles the mind. First and foremost it’s a damn entertaining movie. Not a serious bone in its body, but damn entertaining all the same. The strangest part of its tanking is in a head to head comparison with the identically themed Olympus Has Fallen from earlier in the year. Emmerich’s film had bigger stars in Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, a summer release date and the benefit of a PG-13 rating, yet Antoine Fuqua’s grislier action flick earned over $30m more worldwide on half the budget. This is almost as surprising as The Great Gatsby earning a spot on the top ten grossing films of the summer.

Because seriously?

Which leaves the summer’s, and probably the year’s, two most embarrassing and costly disasters.

A new Gore Verbinki and Johnny Depp collaboration must have seemed like a surefire hit to the studio behind the duo’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but it just wasn’t to be. Why? Because the press just wouldn’t stop talking about the various trials and tribulations of production including the cost overruns and major script changes. So yes, we killed it. Curiously, the mountains of bad press heaved upon WWZ‘s didn’t seem to hamper it. Funny how that works.

The makers of R.I.P.D. however have no one to blame but themselves for the year’s biggest stinker, because pretty much no one was talking about their film at all. It looked like a bad idea to anyone with eyes and not just because it was little more than a supernatural riff on Men In Black. But a $56m worldwide gross? It has to sting a little that last summer’s bomb du jour, John Carter, made more than that in the US alone.

So was it a successful summer? Regardless of the piles of money and mindless action, it was worth it if you had fun at the movies.

But did you?


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