The Summer Movie Report Card
LOS ANGELES - Of all the people to come to Hollywood's rescue, who would have thought it would be the grown-ups?
But with a flurry of violent, R-rated movies closing out August, the summer movie season racked up another record. With one week to go in the industry's most important (and youth-oriented) season, ticket sales hit $4.26 billion, edging last year's record, $4.2 billion.
Of course, when adjusting for higher ticket prices, that means attendance actually was down this year by 2%, according to Media By Numbers.
But considering how weak the second half of summer was in general, "you'd have to be pretty pleased with the season," says Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com. "We came out smoking, then stumbled. But people responded in a big way to movies that you wouldn't normally expect."
Namely, those with a penchant for beatings and dismemberments. %Inglourious Basterds, The Final Destination and Halloween II combined to push summer '09 over the top, literally.
The season had its share of clunkers, too. "The Land of the Lost" was never found by audiences. "Funny People" left few people laughing.
"We were definitely a little top-heavy; the best movies like 'Star Trek' came out pretty early," says film critic Scott Mantz of TV's "E!" ''But I'd have to say we did pretty well."
Here's a look at how the stars and films fared on USA TODAY's annual exam.
Think your mint-condition, still-in-box Darth Vader action figure is worth something? Try these toys on for size. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen morphed into the biggest movie of the year, crossing the $400 million mark this week and dwarfing the original's haul of $319 million. The much-maligned G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, meanwhile, wrapped its kung-fu grip around $132 million and counting.
"There was a lot of criticism of these movies, especially G.I. Joe," Dergarabedian says. "Critics aren't big fans of them, but they deliver what they promise: action. A movie based on a toy should be fun, and these were."
There appears to be no stopping the animated express, particularly now that studios are bankrolling 3-D cartoons.
Pixar/Disney scored another hit with Up, which has risen to $290 million, while Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs has done $193 million, the franchise's second-highest gross. The only blemish this summer was the $45 million Aliens in the Attic, which stalled at $23 million.
"There isn't a world we can't create" on-screen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks, said this summer. "With the 3-D technology growing the way it is, it will be the greatest change to the movies since sound."
Summer remains a season for kids on summer break, but older women have been flocking to theaters in droves since last year's Sex and the City racked up $153 million.
Sandra Bullock flexed her muscles with The Proposal, which said yes to $160 million. The $38 million The Ugly Truth, with Katherine Heigl, also scored a hit with $86 million. Bromance has been working as well: The Hangover collected $270 million, the biggest R-rated comedy of all time.
Jennifer Garner's Ghosts of Girlfriends Past was a minor stumble, earning $55 million, "but the movies that are doing solid business are the ones that are a fun escape," says Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com. "And when they're done right, these fit the bill."
The summer offered us textbook examples of how to adapt a campy television show for the big screen - and how not to.
J.J. Abrams got the summer kick-started with Star Trek, which wowed critics and beamed up $257 million, making it the fifth-biggest film of the year so far. "That may be the best television adaptation ever done," Mantz says. "It wasn't a great adaptation. It was a great movie, period."
But before you could say "live long and prosper," Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost came and stunk up the joint to the tune of $49 million. "That was a bad concept from the start," says Reelz network box office analyst Steve Mason. "They were trying to parody something that was already cheesy, and it fell flat."
Sure, carp all you want that Hollywood has lost its originality. But an inspection of the top movies of the year finds that three of the top five are sequels or franchise installments.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince conjured up $294 million. Even the critically pulverized X-Men Origins: Wolverine sliced up $180 million, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian did $176 million. "People still like what's familiar," Pandya says. "We complain about sequels, but audiences connect with the characters. We feel like we know them."
Remember when hunks ran Hollywood? Look at the top five movies of the year (Transformers, Harry Potter, Up, The Hangover and Star Trek), and you'll find an ensemble cast with no A-listers.
Tom Hanks led Angels&Demons to $133 million. Johnny Depp's portrayal of John Dillinger in Public Enemies rang up $97 million. Even Denzel Washington and John Travolta couldn't propel The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 past $66 million. "They aren't bad numbers, but not what you expect with that kind of talent," Mason says. "The day of just putting a big star on screen and having a hit is over."
Where was our Little Miss Sunshine? Our My Big Fat Greek Wedding?
Despite some critical raves, small-budget movies were an undiscovered treat this season (unless you count District 9's $90 million, but that had the power of producer Peter Jackson behind it).
Many critics consider the war drama The Hurt Locker the best film of the year so far, but it has made just $11 million. The romantic comedies (500) Days of Summer ($25 million) and Away We Go ($10 million ) have their fans, but not enough to make them hits.
"It's getting tougher out there to get noticed," says Sheila DeLoach of Fox Searchlight, which released Summer. "Hopefully, you're remembered at the end of the year (at Oscar time), which helps business."
(NOT SO) FUNNY MEN
Some of the industry's biggest jokesters weren't laughing this summer as adult stand-up comedians fell flat.
Even with Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow's $75 million Funny People took in a paltry $51 million.
Jack Black's prehistoric comedy Year One fared worse with $43 million.
Funny People "wasn't sure what it wanted to be," Mason says. "People were expecting one thing from Sandler and Apatow and got something else."
There's a reason Hollywood cranks out dozens of horror films every year: They're cheap, profitable and critic-proof.
They aren't, however, teen-proof, and audiences did the scaring this summer by largely rejecting fright flicks such as Orphan ($41 million), Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell ($42 million ) and Halloween II (a middling $16 million debut).
The standout: The Final Destination, which opened to $27 million, despite being the fourth installment of the franchise, with the help of 3-D technology.
"It's going to change the movies," says Jeff Goldstein of Warner Bros., which released Destination. "But you still have to tell a story people want to hear."