Eight lessons from summer movies
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.
1. 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.
2. IT’s not just about U.S.
Even if non-U.S. box-office receipts can’t save a debacle such as “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.
3.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.
4.Black films don’t ‘overperform.’ They perform, period.
With successes such as “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 also because they were made for modest budgets and marketed with savvy and sensitivity. Like the Tyler Perry oeuvre, rom-coms such as “Jumping the Broom” and “Think Like a Man” and “42” before them, this summer’s films by and about African Americans connected with just the right audiences — whether that meant the Weinstein Co. 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 a little more than $32 million (which, coincidentally, is also the gross from ticket sales from Hart’s last tour).
5.A rising tide can’t lift all boats if the harbor is too crowded
The 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”?)