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Deflating the summer’s big box-office numbers

Now you see it, now you don't. The movies are about the art of illusion, and never is that more apparent than in the spin around box-office numbers.

Was it a good or a great summer at the box office? Astounding, of course. Three movies – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – have each generated more than $1-billion at the box office worldwide. July was the highest-grossing month in Hollywood history.

Look more closely, though, and that triumph looks more like a big problem. Fewer people are going to the movies. Year-to-date attendance is down 5.7 per cent from 2010, and it's down 21 per cent this summer compared to last. As for July, it turns out that 42 per cent of those record box-office revenues went to just two movies, Harry Potter and Transformers. That didn't leave much for the remaining big-screen fare.

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And most of those movie revenues came from overseas, including newer markets in Russia and China. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, for example, hit No. 4 all time in grosses behind Avatar, Titanic and the final Lord of the Rings film, even though here at home, we're sick of it: Domestically, the latest Pirates sequel was the weakest earner of the four movies in the franchise so far.

But those big international box-office figures require a couple of qualifications: The figures benefit from the ticket mark-up for 3-D movies, and foreign currencies inflate the reported income after they are translated into weakened U.S. dollars.

Some studios think the best approach is to double down on blockbuster investments. Disney executive Andy Hendrickson, who spoke at the Siggraph computer animation conference in Vancouver earlier this week, said that tent poles, the expensive spectacle films with big stars and $100-million marketing campaigns, are what work best. He showed the conference attendees a chart of history's 12 top-grossing films domestically and noted every one is a spectacle film. Of his own studio's Alice in Wonderland, he said: "The story isn't very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn't hurt."

Even if you accept his opinion of Lewis Carroll's tale, Hendrickson's calculus doesn't include the number of tent poles that topple. Peter Bart, the former editor of Variety and a one-time studio executive, argued in a recent Variety column that this summer may have actually been a repudiation of the tent-pole strategy. Heavily hyped movies such as Cars 2, Cowboys & Aliens and Green Lantern all under-performed. Although expensive comic-book adaptations – Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class – did okay, none hit the $500-million heights that various Iron Man, Spider-Man or Batman movies easily achieved. In fact, mid-sized comedies (with budgets in the $30- to $80-million range) did very well: Bridesmaids earned $256-million worldwide, Bad Teacher took in $186-million, and The Hangover Part II has reaped $580-million, providing fatter percentage returns on their studios' investments.

The other problem with tent poles is that the sequel cupboard is beginning to look bare. J.K. Rowling says the Potter franchise will end with Deathly Hallows. Michael Bay and Shia Labeouf have both said they're done with Transformers, and The Twilight Saga series wraps next year. So the studios are busy drumming up anticipation for the 2012 releases of The Amazing Spider-Man (yet another "origins" story), Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Honest, it's pure movie magic: Most of the hotly anticipated movies of 2011 won't actually come to theatres until 2012.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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