The last day of summer hits Sept. 21. But for most folks, the season has a Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day symmetry to it: 15 glorious weekends to luxuriate in swimming pools, ice cream trucks and air-conditioned movie theaters. For the box office, however, summer petered out weeks ago, coming to a dead stop the weekend after The Bourne Legacy got released and limping forward for another three weeks on cheap-ass horror movies (The Apparition, The Possession). So, now that it’s all over, who triumphed and what got marked as a tragedy in the dog days of 2012?
Superheroes—The top three moneymakers had their origins in comic books. Marvel’s The Avengers was the biggest winner of the season. The superhero ensemble absolutely pummeled its competition, pulling in the biggest amount of cash this summer—more than $617 million ($1.5 billion worldwide). And that was before the film’s re-release over Labor Day weekend. It did wonders for Marvel Studios’ bottom line and more than justified Disney’s $4 billion takeover of Marvel. (Add in action figure and pajama sales, and Disney has probably already made its money back.) DC didn’t do too shabby either with a $425 million take from The Dark Knight Rises (although, with the failure of recent Superman and Green Lantern films, Batman seems to be the only franchise the comic-maker can get off the ground). Marvel, on the other hand, did fine with the No. 3 moneymaker, The Amazing Spider-Man. The “is it too soon?” reboot didn’t net as much as the previous Sam Raimi-helmed films, but it snatched up $258 domestically, ensuring a web-swinging future for the franchise.
Seth MacFarlane—The raunchy animation king (“Family Guy,” “American Dad,” “The Cleveland Show”) scored the biggest opening ever for an original (non-sequel, that is) R-rated comedy. Ted, his live-action, talking teddy bear film, was hardly original. (Think “Family Guy” with a talking bear instead of a talking dog, “American Dad” with a talking bear instead of a talking space alien, “The Cleveland Show” with a talking bear instead of a ... oh, wait. That show has a talking bear.) Nonetheless, it sucked in the fans. Some $370 million in tickets were sold. That’s incredible for a film with virtually no overseas appeal. In other words: Expect a sequel.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—While the kids were eating up stuff like The Avengers and Brave over in the megaplex, senior-ticket-buyers were quietly turning director John Madden’s enchanting retirees-go-to-India dramedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel into a massive hit. It pulled in $45 million—which isn’t exactly superhero-sized money, but it’s a hell of a return on the film’s less than $10 million budget. We probably won’t see a sequel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: The Second Story?), but it might signal a trend of adult-oriented entertainment hitting theaters over summer.
Dinesh D’Souza—2016: Obama’s America snuck into theaters the weekend before Labor Day with no advance word and no advertising. Shockingly, it beat out big-ticket films like Premium Rush and Hit & Run to steal a jaw-dropping $13 million at the box office. In the bigger picture, that’s chump change. But for D’Souza, who directed, produced and starred in the film (based on his book The Roots of Obama’s Rage), it was a major coup. The film advances—with little evidence, skill, style or believability—D’Souza’s theory that President Barrack Obama is a Manchurian Candidate-style zombie puppet clone of the America-hating father he never really met. Paranoid conservatives, hopped up on RNC convention fumes, turned up in droves. The film does no favors for anyone, other than D’Souza—but this guy is laughing all the way to the bank (probably one that Obama bailed out).
Toddlers—It arrived on the Wednesday before Labor Day. Kenn Viselman, the “marketing genius” (honestly, that’s what he calls himself) behind “The Teletubbies” and “Thomas the Tank Engine” (really, all he did was import them to America), said it would change the face of children’s entertainment. In fact, The Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure secured a spot as the worst wide release in movie history (a whopping $46 per theater on its opening day). According to legend, Viselman had numerous fights with Teletubbies creator Anne Wood. He wanted to make a Teletubbies film. She said it wasn’t possible: Kids under 5 shouldn’t go to movie theaters to watch feature films. She was right. Undaunted, Viselman got serendipitous inspiration from a screening of Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (and the alarm bells keep ringing). Viselman marveled at how black audience members would “shout out advice” at the movie screen. (Hey, I’m just relating to you what the guy said.) Viselman decided that was the key to making a movie for the under-5 set: Pretend they’re African-Americans and giving them lots of excuses to yell at the screen. Of course, Viselman’s idea for a “revolutionary, interactive moviegoing experience” has been employed for years by the producers of “Blue’s Clues,” “Dora the Explorer” and countless other children’s TV shows. The result: Viselman’s $10 million budget was flushed down the toilet (which, when you think about it, is another great interactive experience for kids).
Tom Cruise—Lots of people thought Tom Cruise’s gonzo turn as an ’80s hair-metal music star in Rock of Ages would be huge. Unfortunately, the ridiculous jukebox musical had no legs off the Broadway stage, pulling in a pathetic $14 million. (It cost $54 million to make.) The bomb put a major kink in Cruise’s comeback plans. Then, of course, his wife Katie Holmes filed for divorce. Let’s just say it was a bad summer to be Tom Cruise.
Battleship—Despite the fact that most sane-thinking people thought a movie based on a board game was a bad idea, Universal Pictures dumped $209 million into this sci-fi stinker. By summer’s end, the film had barely scraped together $65 million at the box office. And you thought Wall Street was good at losing money! The film also did no favors to the career of star Taylor Kitsch, whose previous film John Carter had the distinction of being the biggest bomb of 2012—at least until Battleship came along. The only good thing to come of this economic and artistic fiasco is the fact that we might not have to endure the horror of Monopoly, Risk and Candy Land movies (all of which were actually in preproduction). Guess we’ll have to move on to soft-drink-based movies.
Total Recall—Much as we’d like to call all reboots losers, we can’t really. Nonetheless, the $51 million take from director Len Wiseman’s $125 million remake certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of pillaging Arnold Schwarzenegger’s oeuvre. The original flick was beautifully over-the-top. The remake tries to be more realistic. Although, how a tunnel through the center of the Earth is “more realistic” than a trip to Mars is something Mr. Wiseman would have to explain.