Drain the pool, buy a new Trapper Keeper and some No. 2 pencils at Target, put away your dress whites, and file out of the movie theaters in an orderly manner, because summer comes to a crashing end this weekend. Labor Day arrives on Monday, officially bookending what Memorial Day kicked into gear some 16 weeks ago: blockbuster movie-watching season.
So what were the biggest winners and most pathetic losers in this year’s summer movie smackdown? The final tally isn’t in yet—although, with three minor nationwide releases (Gamer, All About Steve and Extract), the typically weak Labor Day holiday isn’t likely to add more than about $100 million to the overall numbers. That doesn’t matter anyway, because 2009 has already broken records for the highest grossing summer movie season ever! Through last Sunday, Aug. 31, summer b.o. revenues were sitting at $4.17 billion, compared to $4.16 billion for summer 2007, the previous record holder.
Despite the fact that the summer box office doesn’t officially start ticking until Memorial Day, Hollywood studios have done their best to roll back the start date earlier and earlier each year. Everybody wants to be the first blockbuster out of the gate. This year’s box office battle royale started a full three weeks early, while most target consumers were still in school. Despite poor reviews and heavy fan backlash, X-Men offshoot X-Men Origins: Wolverine managed to carve out $179 million for himself before J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot warped in a week later, earning $256.7 million. The DaVinci Code sequel Angels & Demons arrived the week before Memorial Day and earned $133.4 million—measurable, but far less than the original’s $217.5 million domestic take.
The official Memorial Day weekend saw a showdown between powerhouse sequels Terminator Salvation and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Ultimately, Night squeaked out a win with $176.5 total box office for its run. The fourth Terminator outing made $125.2 million—not nearly enough to cover its reported $200 million budget, although overseas grosses ultimately covered that sum (and then some).
The hands-down, No. 1 box-office winner this summer was, of course Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which grabbed a whopping $399.4 million by the time the dust settled and the metallic testicles stopped clanking. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince made a wise move shifting to the summer season, earning $294.3 million—the second biggest gross of any film in the series. Disney/Pixar’s UP did magnificently (particularly for a non-franchise film) with a $289.6 million third-place win.
The summer’s biggest surprise had to be fourth-place finisher The Hangover, a humble $35 million comedy that grossed $270.2 million (making it the most successful R-rated comedy in history). Expect a sequel in summer 2011. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs satisfied family audiences to the tune of $193.3 million, while The Proposal became the biggest hit of Sandra Bullock’s career with $160.2 million. (That number also made it the highest grossing summer romantic comedy of all time).
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, meanwhile, was not the massive bomb some were expecting. It’s got $132.2 million going into this last holiday weekend. The number would be semi-impressive if not for the $175 million it took to make the film—nonetheless, it’s expected to overtake Angels & Demons to secure the last slot in this summer’s top 10 grossers.
On the under-$100 million scale, Julie & Julia is cooking up $70 million and climbing on a meager $40 million budget. The South African sci-fi film District 9 has earned $90.4 million so far—amazing given the film’s lack of stars and bargain basement price tag (less than $30 million). Going into Labor Day, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II rewrite Inglourious Basterds has taken $73 million and is on track to supplant Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s most successful film.
Big names did not guarantee big money this summer. Imagine That star Eddie Murphy is no longer earning his multimillion dollar paycheck. The family fantasy cost well over $55 million to make and pulled in a pitiful $16 million. Jack Black and Michael Cera earned $43.3 million with Year One, but the historical comedy took $60 million to produce. Johnny Depp scored a rare swing and a miss with Public Enemies. At $97 million, the film barely broke even, although overseas grosses will likely compensate for it. Bruno earned Sacha Baron Cohen $60 million—a steep drop-off from the $128.5 million Borat snagged three years ago. Funny People, Adam Sandler’s long-awaited team-up with Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), generated a disappointing $51.3 million—nowhere near the film’s $75 million price tag. Writer/actress Nia Vardalos tried for a double career revival this summer with My Life in Ruins ($8.6 mil) and I Hate Valentine’s Day (which barely cracked $1 million). Those numbers are a far cry from her earlier career when a $5 million film called My Big Fat Greek Wedding hauled in an astonishing $241.4 million in the U.S. alone. But the summer’s biggest loser was Will Ferrell, who earned an epic fail for the $100 million Land of the Lost remake—which limped away with just $49.4 million. At those prices, he might as well be working for Chrysler.