Summer 2009 Box Office Wrap-Up

     September 7, 2009


With only hours to go before Hollywood’s golden season draws to a close, I thought it was a good time to do the post-mortem on the summer of 2009.  By now you may have heard that this summer was Hollywood’s most-profitable ever with grosses topping $4.3 billion. But has it felt like the biggest summer ever?  Not really.  Blockbusters like “Transformers 2″ and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” aside, 2009 was a season of expensive movies that didn’t live up to the hype and cheap movies that performed above all expectations.  Follow me now into the murky world of box office number crunching to see just how huge Hollywood’s hugest summer really was.

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen movie poster (2).jpgNumbers don’t lie, right?  But numbers can also be used to misrepresent and, in the case of the box-office receipts for the summer of 2009, that figure of $4.3 billion only represents half of the story.  The truth is that box-office attendance actually fell off by 2% between 2008 and 2009.  Higher prices for tickets on 3D films like Pixar’s “Up” and sold-out IMAX screenings of “Transformers 2″ made up some of the difference.

Another reason that the summer of 2009 may not have felt as huge as that of 2008 was the relative lull that fell over theatres after the release of “Harry Potter” in July.  The summer got off to big start with “Star Trek” in May and then “Transformers” in June, but then the blockbusters seemed to dry up.  People continued to go to the theatre, sure, but their money was spread out over a series of more modestly-budgeted films instead of being heaped upon one monster title like 2008’s “The Dark Knight”.  Basically it was a record-breaking summer that felt more like a really successful spring.

And now for the numbers themselves.  Let me begin by reminding you that, historically, for a film to be considered “profitable” it has to earn back slightly better than double its production budget… and if it can manage that feat in the US alone, all the better.  This is a crude system that does not take into account advertising costs, profit-sharing arrangements with directors and stars or cost-splitting distribution pacts but, hey!  It’s what we’ve got to work with.

emma_watson_and_daniel_radcliffe_harry_potter_and_the_half_blood_prince_movie_image_s.jpgThese days a film that can make back 300% of its budget is an indisputable hit… 200% only?  It depends on the film.  For example: in 2008 Warner Brothers considered “Get Smart” a disappointment because it cost $80 million to make and only earned back $130 mil. domestically.  “Get Smart” did make an additional $100 million overseas, which pushes its total closer to the 300% profit margin, but here’s the next thing you should know:

Foreign numbers are not always all that they seem.   They look big and impressive on the charts but, in our xenophobic society, American money counts for more.

Armed with this knowledge, here’s a look at the summer’s top ten films:

Title Domestic Foreign Budget
1 Transformers 2 $400.4 $428.6 $200
2 Harry Potter 6 $296.9 $601.7 $250
3 Up $290.6 $124.2 $175
4 The Hangover $271.8 $149.2 $35
5 Star Trek $257 $126.3 $150
6 Ice Age 3 $194 $613.7 $90
7 Wolverine $179.8 $183.5 $150
8 Night at the Museum 2 $176.7 $227.6 $150
9 The Proposal $160.9 $109.8 $40
10 GI Joe $139.4 $131.7 $175


The Hangover movie poster - the baby.jpgSo right away something should leap out at you – aside from the fact that “Harry Potter” movies are really expensive.  You should be noticing that the number one film – Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” – made the most money by far but that it also was the second most-expensive film of the season.

Now compare that to Warner Brothers’ “The Hangover”, which cost a reported $35 million and then made over seven times that figure domestically.  Both studios are happy, sure.  But it is outsized returns like that that made WB the most profitable studio again this summer with grosses topping $980 million and 23% of the overall market.

Number two was claimed by Paramount thanks mostly to “Transformers”.  The studio’s “GI Joe” also managed to slide past Sony’s “Angels & Demons” ($133.3 domestic/$351 foreign) to make the summer’s top ten but, despite doing better overseas than originally expected, “Joe” will have a hard time justifying itself as a hit based on its big price tag.

Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock in THE PROPOSAL (2).jpgDisney’s “The Proposal”, on the other hand is an undeniable winner.  The Sandra Bullock romantic comedy made back four times its budget here at home to become this summer’s “Mamma Mia!”-sized success story.  Along with Pixar’s “Up” the film also helped Disney into third place for the summer with a market share of 15%.

But no discussion of the summer box office would be complete without mentioning the studio that brought up the rear all season long. Universal had a truly dismal summer, a role that Fox was happy to relinquish after their equally-dismal 2008

Here’s a taste of Universal’s missteps:

“Land of the Lost” - $49.4 domestic/$13 foreign/ $100 million budget

“Public Enemies” - $97 mil. domestic/$91.9 foreign/$100 million budget

“Bruno” - $60 mil, domestic/$76 mil. foreign/$42 million budget (est.)

“Funny People” – $51 mil. domestic/$1.2 mil. foreign/$75 million budget


inglourious_basterds_first_movie_poster.jpgAnd then we have the much-discussed “Inglourious Basterds”.  Two weeks ago Quentin Tarantino’s film was heralded as a success for bringing in $38 million on its opening weekend.   The film cost about $72 million which, based on its estimated worldwide take of $157 million and counting, makes “Basterds” a hit.  So why is The Weinstein Company not out of financial trouble?  Part of the problem is that the studio has to split the foreign receipts on “Basterds” with Universal.  Another problem is that the studio put a lot of stock into the earning potential of its wholly-owned sequel to “Halloween”.  Check last week’s box office chart for reasons why this may have been a bad move.

In the end, the summer of 2009 could be remembered as the season that put The Weinstein Co. out of business.  And no matter how you feel about the brothers as people, the loss of TWC would be a sad blow to filmmakers and to the industry in general.

The summer of 2009 will be remembered for a lot of other reasons, of course.  The excitement of seeing “Star Trek” reborn, the infamy of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” getting leaked and the predominance of profitable, R-rated fare that flourished in the wake of “The Hangover”.  What is your best movie memory from the past summer?  Sound off below.

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