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Box office 2012: Five hard lessons

The Associated Press, Wednesday, January 2, 2013, 7:57am (PST)

There will be plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking as the film business reflects on the 2012 box office. In North America, attendance was up 6 percent compared with 2011 and ticket sales hit an all-time high of $10.8 billion -- surpassing the $10.6 billion earned in 2009, thanks to such monster hits as "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Skyfall" -- but there also were big losers like "John Carter" and "Battleship," and the bombs were bigger than ever before. "Some of the stories were pretty pathetic," remarks one studio honcho. Adds Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman, "Yet when the product improved, the audience jumped right back in." How to sustain that attention is the concern. Here are five crucial lessons Hollywood takes away from 2012:

1. Don't Overstuff the Christmas Stocking

No fewer than nine nationwide releases hit the multiplex between Dec. 14 and Dec. 25, an unprecedented number (usually there are five or six new titles). It's true that the lucrative year-end holidays can handle more product than any other time of year, but studio executives quickly realized 2012's slate was too much. After "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" -- which debuted Dec. 14 -- Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" were the big winners, taking in $67.5 million and $64 million, respectively, through Dec. 30; flops included the Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen starrer "The Guilt Trip" ($21.1 million) and the James Cameron-produced "Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away" ($7.4 million). The holidays saw a glut of comedies -- "Guilt," "Parental Guidance" and "This Is 40" -- with none doing the type of business "Marley & Me" enjoyed during Christmas in 2008.

2. Star Power Isn't What It Used to Be

The year saw some of the world's biggest stars stumble, some more badly than others. Tom Cruise's Christmas film "Jack Reacher" -- the first title in a hoped-for franchise -- did solid but unspectacular business, earning $44.7 million through Dec. 30. And box-office pundits were stumped when Johnny Depp's summer tentpole "Dark Shadows," directed by his pal Tim Burton, tanked. Depp is the closest thing to a sure box-office bet when playing a quirky character, but not this time. "Shadows," which cost a pricey $150 million to make plus a major marketing spend, took in only $79.7 million domestically and $159.4 million internationally for a total of $239.1 million. Adam Sandler, another box-office stalwart, suffered a major setback this summer with "That's My Boy." The comedy earned a scant $36.9 million domestically and $20.8 internationally for a total of $57.7 million. And Matt Damon's Christmas entry "Promised Land" is off to a sluggish start at the specialty box office. Will Smith was the only major established star to have a film on the top 10 chart -- Sony's "Men in Black 3," with $624 million globally. Instead, the upper reaches of the list belonged to a new generation of stars led by Jennifer Lawrence, whose "The Hunger Games" grossed $687 million worldwide.

3. International Matters More Than Ever

Hollywood movies continued to make a greater share of their money at the foreign box office. "Ice Age: Continental Drift" saw nearly 82 percent of its $875 million take come from overseas ($714 million). China, as predicted, became a megaplayer: The 3-D rerelease of "Titanic" grossed $150 million in the country, where Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" took in nearly $91 million. Not long ago, a film couldn't hope to become a worldwide hit without a sizable North American box-office presence, but that's no longer true. French comedy "The Intouchables" took in $420.8 million worldwide, of which only $10.1 million came from the U.S. Intouchables even managed to outperform several Hollywood tentpoles, including "Snow White and the Huntsman" ($396.4 million).

4. Boomers & Hispanics: The New Sweet Spot

With the runaway success of adult dramas including Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Ben Affleck's "Argo" and the aging baby boomer population in North America (and abroad), Hollywood studios will have to take another look at what types of films they routinely make. "Lincoln" has far outpaced expectations in its theatrical run, grossing $132 million in North America through Dec. 30. Argo has taken in $108.5 million domestically and $56 million overseas for a total of $164.5 million. Even the wild success of "Skyfall" -- the top-grossing Bond film of all time, with more than $1 billion in global ticket sales -- can be attributed in large part to older moviegoers. Hispanics also are becoming a coveted demo. Representing only 17 percent of the U.S. population, they now make up more than 25 percent of the moviegoing population, boosting such movies as Latino star-heavy "Ice Age" and the cop drama "End of Watch."

5. Rely on the Past at Your Peril

At the same time, there were troubling misses as studios tried to attract younger moviegoers with properties with which they were unfamiliar, such as Battleship, based on the Hasbro board game, and Dark Shadows, based on the 1960s daytime soap opera. But Sony was able to make 21 Jump Street -- based on the 1980s television drama series -- into a film franchise by turning it into a comedy that didn't depend on affection for the old show and casting rising stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 11, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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