After a healthy first quarter from January to March this year that saw movie ticket sales up almost 50 percent over the same period in 2011, entertainment analysts and studio heads were understandably optimistic about the state of the film industry — especially coming into a summer crowded, as usual, with potential blockbusters.
It seems like that optimism, though, might have been a little premature.
Other than “The Avengers,” the second quarter of 2012 has, in many ways, been a disaster for studios, and one that even Earth’s mightiest heroes couldn’t salvage. Depending on how the rest of the summer goes, this year could actually end up being a bigger overall failure for the movie industry than the record-setting lows witnessed in 2011.
The quarter got off to a weak start when 2012’s April releases were met with an unusual lack of audience interest. According to Box Office Mojo, the month’s cumulative gross dropped a staggering 46 percent from last year. In spite of the low audience turnout that plagued 2011, the month of April that year nevertheless saw a trio of films that eventually cracked the $100 million mark (“Fast Five,” “Rio” and “Hop”). Among those, “Fast Five” made upwards of $200 million.
By way of contrast, however, the highest-grossing April release in 2012 was Tim Story’s niche comedy “Think Like a Man,” which earned just more than $90 million.
Absent was anything on the scale of “Fast Five,” but the disheartening numbers didn’t necessarily have to do with either a lack of quality or variety. April was peppered with movies that could have been breakout hits — that is, if people had actually gone to see them.
Aardman Animations’ wonderfully anachronistic “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” for example, fizzled out a little shy of $30 million in spite of its all-too-rare combination of a family-friendly rating (PG) and positive critical reception (86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Instead, audiences looking for entertainment suitable for all ages opted for the slapstick shenanigans of “The Three Stooges,” ignoring the critical drubbing it received.
Any momentum lost during April, though, didn’t seem to affect the release of “The Avengers,” which kicked off the summer movie season as perfectly as any film in recent memory, thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon’s remarkable balance of character and action.
The ambitious superhero team-up has so far dominated the summer box office — and rightfully so. In the absence of anything better, audiences have seemed content to just revisit the Marvel movie universe over and over and over again. Other major releases like the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration “Dark Shadows” and “Battleship,” Universal’s answer to the bombastic “Transformers” franchise, failed to find sizable audiences in spite of big-name stars and snazzy special effects. The latter film, in particular, sank like a rock in the U.S., pulling in a paltry $63 million.
For a little while, things actually looked so bleak for any would-be blockbusters without a green rage monster in them that Paramount made the questionable decision to bump one of the summer’s biggest releases, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” back from June of this year to March of 2013. The reason cited by Paramount was a desire to convert the film into 3-D.
It hasn’t all been bad news for non-superhero movies, though. “Men in Black 3” managed a respectable haul for a 15-year-old franchise whose production was marred by heavily publicized script problems. Critics and audiences were also pleasantly surprised by the quality of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which offered a darker take on the Grimm fairy tale with huge CGI monsters and a love triangle to boot. Even if Kristen Stewart’s British accent wasn’t enough to pull in the same crowds as the “Twilight” movies, Universal has already greenlit a sequel.
Of the 165 movies that came out during the second quarter, though — many in limited release — only one R-rated film, Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” made it into the top 10, proving once again that family-friendly films are often more lucrative than their age-restricted counterparts.
If you need proof, just look at “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” At a domestic take of $180 million so far and another $244 million from overseas markets, the third entry in Dreamworks’ successful franchise is one of the few movies that seems to have entirely escaped the post-“Avengers” box office lull. It doesn’t hurt that the film is often laugh-out-loud funny.
Similarly, only a few weeks into its theatrical run and Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece, “Brave,” has already earned more than $130 million in the U.S. alone. That’s no coincidence, though: Like the studio’s previous feature films, “Brave” is an exercise in narrative economy and poignant storytelling that stands head and shoulders above the majority of films released this year.
Clearly, there is room for successful movies besides “The Avengers.”
What 2012’s second quarter proves most of all, though, is that audiences aren’t always as tolerant of mediocre filmmaking as studios would like to believe. Johnny Depp in corpse paint and a quirky hairdo, for example, isn’t enough by itself to convince moviegoers to part with their hard-earned cash, especially when some of the year’s most highly anticipated features are still just around the corner.
Of course, the 2012 summer movie season could still rebound from a second-quarter disaster, but it will probably take more than just another superhero or two to save it.
It will take good movies.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.