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The Globe and Mail

At the movies, the summer of 2012 was one of bull’s-eyes and blunders

This is it, the last weekend of summer 2012 – at least, according to the website Box Office Mojo, which keeps track of movie grosses, and defines the summer season as running from the first Friday in May through Labour Day. Hollywood, like many seasonal businesses, tries to do the bulk of its transacting during the lazy, hazy days. If it doesn't have a good summer, chances are it'll have a bad year. So let's see who had a good time on their vacation, and who's ready for school to start.

Winner: Big-budget films
Loser: Big-budget films

As expected, the three highest-grossing movies were superhero flicks: Marvel's The Avengers ($618-million), The Dark Knight Rises ($423-million) and The Amazing Spider-Man ($258-million). Despite the terrible cloud cast by the massacre of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., reviews for these three were generally good, fans felt entertained, and popcorn was consumed as expected. But look a little more closely, and things aren't that simple.

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Because the trio burned through some of the biggest budgets and the priciest marketing campaigns of the summer, those multi-hundred-million dollar grosses were less like cause for Champagne, and more like minimum requirements. And because the movies also reaped the benefits of brand identity, which was cultivated not merely in their source comic books but also in many previous films with the same characters – including three Batmans, three Spider-Mans, two Iron Mans, two Hulks and a Thor – among even the hardiest fans, there are signs of fatigue. For example, the highest-grossing Spider-Man was the first, starring Tobey Maguire ($403-million), and each subsequent film made less than the previous one (Spider Man 2, $374-million; Spider-Man 3, $337-million). Suddenly, the current iteration's $258-million sounds less than amazing.

Other would-be blockbusters weren't. We sank their Battleship, we forgot about Total Recall, we were somewhat con on Prometheus. And even Will Smith couldn't neutralize the box-office clout of two cartoons and a talking teddy bear: Brave, Ted and Madagascar 3 outperformed Men in Black 3.

Winner: Abs
Loser: Other abs

Jeremy Renner had a good summer. Between The Avengers and his Bourne reboot, The Bourne Legacy, he cemented his status as a bona fide movie star. Mark Wahlberg's abs and Seth McFarlane's brain together made Ted a perfect draw for men and women, with a gross of $215-million. Matthew McConaughey also made a good career move, sliding away from his rom-com past into a more serious present with Killer Joe and Magic Mike.

That latter film is the biggest winner of summer 2012: Its handful of hunks led by Channing Tatum shook their stuff for a mere $7-million budget, but brought home $113-million in tips. Now that's a good investment. By contrast, Tom Cruise was equally shirtless, waxed and buff for his role in Rock of Ages, but that movie fell on (sorry, can't help myself) deaf ears. And despite the new Bourne's solid $87-million grosses, many critics who compared it to the first three instalments noted a lessening of the soul and a rising of the body count that may bode ill for the franchise.

Winner: Chicks with Arrows
Loser: Vampires

If, as has been widely reported, The Hunger Games already had girls signing up for archery lessons, the successes of Brave ($230-million) and Snow White and the Huntsman ($155-million) doubtlessly added more names to that roster.

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Action heroines in the forest (and heroes in the city, if you include Renner's Avengers character, Hawkeye) who know how to handle themselves handily bested bloodsuckers who prowl by night: This may be the summer we finally cooled on vampires, judging by the less-than- thrilling grosses of Dark Shadows and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Winner: Niche pictures
Loser: Comedies

Losers first here: Ted did his furry, foul-mouthed best, but summer 2012 lacked a galvanizing comedy à la Bridesmaids or The Hangover. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis had the right idea with The Campaign, but Americans were perhaps too riveted by the genuine political shenanigans of the current U.S. presidential race, which they can see for free every night on the news, to make the movie a huge hit. Nor could Adam Sandler (That's My Boy), Ben Stiller (The Watch) and Sacha Baron Cohen (The Dictator) whip up much enthusiasm for their summer fare.

Instead, audiences went exploring, and turned niche-oriented films made for less than $20-million apiece into tidy profits, as noted in a recent piece in The New York Times. Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection pulled in his loyal audience of African-Americans to the tune of $65-million. (I can't help wondering if he doesn't label everything he owns. Are there little cards in his bathroom that read "Tyler Perry's toothbrush" and "Tyler Perry's soap"?) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Hope Springs each wooed $46-million from adults. Moonrise Kingdom grossed $44-million from art-house-goers, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is going strong.

Two films in this niche category are especially noteworthy. The first, 2016: Obama's America, is a right-wing polemic made by Utah-based Rocky Mountain Pictures, which has been releasing faith-based and/or conservative-minded films for about seven years, including An Inconsistedtent Truth, a response to Al Gore's doc An Inconvenient Truth.

Obama's America premiered on one screen in mid-July and is now on over 1,000. It has pulled in $10-million so far, and thanks to organized presales to large groups, it even boasted the highest per-screen average among last weekend's releases. Studios take note: There's money to be made in finding underserved groups and giving them what they want.

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The other film of note is Bachelorette, a smart, raunchy comedy about a trio of underachieving women (Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher) who misbehave the night before a wedding. Writer/director Leslye Headland (who once toiled as Harvey Weinstein's assistant) wrote it as a play years before Bridesmaids. But once that film hit it big, Bachelorette's producers Adam McKay and Will Ferrell came up with a fresh plan for their baby: Release it through the Weinstein Company's new label, RADiUS, which is focused on alternative distribution methods.

The result: Bachelorette became the first film to reach No. 1 on the iTunes video-on-demand chart in advance of its theatrical release. It hits theatres Sept. 7 – too late to be officially counted a summer movie, but right on time as a harbinger of the future.

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