LOS ANGELES — This is one summer Hollywood would like to remake.
Ticket sales at North American cinemas declined an estimated 3 percent, to $4.28 billion, for the period from the first full weekend in May to Labor Day, compared with the period a year earlier. The last time studios experienced a decline for the summer was seven years ago, according to Hollywood.com, which compiles box office data.
But even higher ticket prices could not offset empty seats. Attendance for the period, when studios record about 40 percent of their annual ticket revenue, was the lowest since at least 1993, when independent records started to be kept. About 533 million people went to the movies, a 4 percent drop compared with last summer.
These dour statistics, offset somewhat by international sales, come despite a season that included two huge hits: “The Avengers" took in about $620 million in North America for Disney (more than $1.5 billion worldwide); and “The Dark Knight Rises" sold more than $431 million in tickets for Warner Brothers (closing in on $1 billion globally).
Studio executives point to the mass shooting in July at a Colorado theater as one reason for the unexpectedly chilly summer. In the weeks after the killings, which took place at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises," up to 25 percent of moviegoers were reluctant to visit multiplexes, according to the research firm NRG.
Higher than normal interest in the Olympics also kept people at home, with one out of every 10 moviegoers replacing at least one trip to the movies with televised sports, according to the research firm Ipsos MediaCT. Consumers also continued to push back against higher ticket prices; although Imax had a solid season, theaters sold an estimated 15 percent fewer premium-priced 3-D tickets this summer compared with the period a year earlier.
A season of extremes
Do not let the movies themselves off the hook, analysts say. At a time when social media are making it harder for studio marketers to put lipstick on pigs, films like “Battleship," “Total Recall," “Rock of Ages" and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" missed the creative mark, failing to charm either critics or audiences.
“Some of it was conceptual ideas that didn’t connect and some of it was just bad product," said Vincent Bruzzese, president of Ipsos MediaCT’s Worldwide Motion Picture Group.
Still, the summer of 2012 may be most remarkable for its extremes. After shooting out of a cannon with “The Avengers," which broke an industry record in May for the biggest opening weekend ever, the movie business closed its warm-weather season with catastrophic results for “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure."
Over the weekend, “Oogieloves," which cost about $55 million to make and market and was released on 2,160 screens, took in about $448,000; that result ranks “Oogieloves," independently made by the “Teletubbies" impresario Kenn Viselman, as one of the biggest flops of all time. (“The Possession," distributed by Lionsgate, was the No. 1 movie for the weekend, taking in $17.7 million, according to Hollywood.com; the horror movie cost about $15 million to make.)
The swing between huge hits and huge misses was felt at most of Hollywood’s big studios — the consequence, analysts say, of cutting back on midbudget movies in favor of franchise pictures that cost roughly $200 million to make and $150 million more to market. “For better or worse, that’s the game these days," said Nikki Rocco, president of Universal Pictures Distribution.
Plenty of flops
Universal, now owned by Comcast, had the summer’s biggest flop, “Battleship," which performed so poorly compared with its swollen budget that it led the studio to post an $83 million second-quarter loss. But Universal also had the biggest surprise success in Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted," a relatively inexpensive comedy that to date has taken in about $216 million domestically and $384 million in total.
Sony Pictures Entertainment successfully released “The Amazing Spider-Man," which took in about $260 million in North America and $735 million worldwide. But two duds — the comedy “That’s My Boy" and “Total Recall" — ate into profits from “Spider-Man."
“The Dark Knight Rises" was a colossus for Warner, but the studio also had significant disappointments with “Dark Shadows" and “Rock of Ages." And 20th Century Fox had a big hit in “Ice Age: Continental Drift," which took in about $156 million in North America and $828 million total, and a box office letdown in “The Watch," which has taken in only $42.8 million worldwide.
This whipsawing came with exceptions. Disney ended the summer rolling in “Avengers" money, with “Brave" chipping in a substantial $469 million in global ticket sales and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green" exhibiting surprising holding power.
From a business standpoint, perhaps the biggest measure of success for any studio involves laying track for future summers.
To what degree were movie companies able to start a new series or revive an old one? Disney succeeded with “The Avengers," already scheduling a sequel for May 2015, while Fox is working on a follow-up to “Prometheus," which took in a respectable $351.2 million worldwide. And Sony has “The Amazing Spider-Man 2" slated for May 2014.
But the franchise-building winner would appear to be Universal, which is hopeful for sequels to “Ted" and “Snow White and the Huntsman," which, backed by a strong marketing campaign, took in $394 million worldwide.