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Eight Lessons From Summer Movies

  • Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi star in Pacific Rim, a film that had much more financial success overseas than in the United States.  Warner Bros. Pictures

    Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi star in Pacific Rim, a film that had much more financial success overseas than in the United States. Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Eggplant “Meatballs” in tomato sauce.	<br/>Photo by Marge Ely

    Eggplant “Meatballs” in tomato sauce.
    Photo by Marge Ely

  • Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi star in Pacific Rim, a film that had much more financial success overseas than in the United States.  Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Eggplant “Meatballs” in tomato sauce.	<br/>Photo by Marge Ely

The summer of 2013 might be remembered best as the Season of the Collapsing Tentpoles. As mega-budget spectacles such as White House Down, The Lone Ranger and After Earth fell apart at the box office, little engines that could — one with a name that was literally Mud — proved they could not only survive the competition, but thrive.

As we learned last summer, which featured such debacles as John Carter and Battleship, quality still counts. Studios, which generally avoid movies that are novel or risky or not based on a comic book because they’re “execution dependent,” may slowly be realizing that everything’s execution dependent, no matter the star, source material or special-effects budget.

That goes for enduringly reliable family films as well — in the pile-up of animated kids’ movies this summer, the triumphs happened also to be the best: Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University. Those victories, plus a few out-of-left-field hits and misses, made the past few months particularly instructive for anyone willing to pay attention. Before we all go back to school, here are a few lessons learned that Hollywood may want to study up on when it plans our next summer vacation.

Even the biggest
stars burn out

Two of the biggest stars on the planet — Will Smith and Johnny Depp — got rude awakenings this summer, when their movies flopped. The Lone Ranger proved that a dusty period Western based on a 1930s radio serial — surprise! — won’t connect with young audiences or international viewers, regardless of explosions, spectacular stunts and the magical Mr. Depp. After Earth has done better overseas, but probably not well enough to turn a genuine profit.

It’s not just about U.S.

Even if non-U.S. box-office receipts can’t save a debacle like After Earth, they have tipped the scales in favor of Pacific Rim, especially in China: Guillermo del Toro’s science fiction fantasy underperformed when it opened domestically but has more than made up for that in other markets, largely because of del Toro’s instinctively global point of view and knack for cosmopolitan casting.

Women aren’t the enemy, Hollywood

One of the biggest surprise hits of the summer was The Heat, the only big-popcorn movie to feature a female lead (two in fact: Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy). And another dark horse can attribute its success to women: Brad Pitt’s zombie chase-movie World War Z went from disasterpiece to Brad’s highest-grossing film, thanks to the women who made up a whopping 50 percent of its audience.

Black films don’t
overperform.
They perform, period

With successes like Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, this was a great summer for African-American stories on screen. And they became hits, not just because they were good, but because they were made for modest budgets and marketed with savvy and sensitivity. Like the Tyler Perry oeuvre, rom-coms like Jumping the Broom and Think Like a Man and 42 before them, this summer’s crop of films by and about African-Americans connected with just the right audiences — whether that meant the Weinstein Company reaching out to black churches to promote The Butler or Codeblack Entertainment, which produced Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, researching Hart’s ticket sales and Twitter and Facebook followings. The result? Let Me Explain was one of the sleeper hits of the summer, grossing just over $32 million (which, coincidentally, is also the gross from ticket sales from Hart’s last tour).

A rising tide can’t lift all boats if the harbor
is too crowded

The summer movie season broke box-office records this summer, earning north of $4 billion. But John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, suggests that studios left money on the table by crowding their movies into an already busy three-month period. “Some of those movies would have done a lot better somewhere else. A family title moved from summer to February could have increased its gross, even some of the popcorn action movies released somewhere else could have increased their gross,” Fithian says. “There are 12 months on the calendar. We continually urge distributors to spread their movies out.” (Hear that, White House Down? Or Croods? Or Turbo?)

Ditch the Cape

“You don’t need superheroes to succeed,” says Boxoffice.com’s Phil Contrino. “If you look at the one studio that had one of the best summers it would be Universal — minus R.I.P.D — and they had Fast and Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2, neither a superhero franchise. This idea that you have to take a superhero and make eight movies out of that character is not the only way to go.” That goes for franchises in general: While series installments like Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and The Smurfs 2 arrived in theaters already gasping for air, original horror films like The Conjuring and The Purge — as well as the literary adaptations The Great Gatsby and World War Z — defied Hollywood’s tired reboot-sequel-franchise paradigm. (Of course, World War Z has reportedly already launched another franchise, and the world goes ‘round and ‘round.)

And let serious dramas save the day

One of the most profitable movies of the summer was Mud, an atmospheric bayou thriller starring Matthew McConaughey in the title role; after opening in theaters in April, it played all summer long, still attracting audiences even when it was available on DVD. Similar successes include The Place Beyond the Pines, the mid-life romance Before Midnight, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, the coming-of-age comedy The Way, Way Back and the emotionally gripping urban drama Fruitvale Station. All of these winners prove that “the audience is really craving classic filmmaking,” says Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, Mud’s distributor. “ Mud had Matthew McConaughey, it had some ambition, it had some scope, it was accessible for the whole country, it was not culturally exclusive. But most important, it was a movie for grown-ups, the kind that’s not getting made anymore outside movies engineered for Oscars.”

We may be getting over 3-D here but it isn’t
over over there

After a mad rush to convert movies and theaters to 3-D in the wake of blockbusters like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, the 3-D market has matured in the United States. Less than a third of box-office revenues for two of the summer’s biggest hits — Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University — came from 3-D premiums. Says NATO’s Fithian, the success of 3-D “breaks down geographically as well as ⅛by⅜ genre. 3-D did pretty well internationally this summer, but not so hot domestically.” Genre-wise, he says, “Family titles, particularly involving young children, aren’t working on 3-D as well as we thought.” Meanwhile, an adaptation of a Jazz Age novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald does gangbusters. Says Fithian, “3-D’s not going away in the United States, but we have to be more selective in the movies where we expect it to work.”