If the year's first four months defied all expectations for what Hollywood could do in a recession, this summer delivered some sobering reality.
Through the end of April, domestic box-office receipts leaped 17% while admissions surged nearly 16% from the previous year, according to Hollywood.com. But as the weather turned hot, business cooled: From May 1 through Aug. 31, attendance was down 2.4% from 2008 and 6% from 2007. Summer box-office revenues rose 1.3%, not even enough to account for ticket price inflation, let alone the premiums charged in a growing number of 3-D theaters.
In the midst of the economic crisis, the best that studios could argue is that almost flat is the new up.
"To be marginally down on attendance and up on box-office at a time when so many other industries are struggling is a great comment on our business," said Adam Fogelson, president of marketing and distribution at Universal Pictures.
If there was one lesson the studios learned -- often the hard way -- it was that audiences were in the mood to be amazed and to laugh. Big-budget spectacles like "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and gut-busting comedies like "The Hangover" ruled the season.
"It's definitely true in a time of recession that people are looking for an escape, to be distracted, to be entertained and to laugh," said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures.
On the flip side, adult dramas ("The Taking of Pelham 123" and "Public Enemies") and neither-fish-nor-fowl comedies ("Funny People" and "Land of the Lost") labored to cover their production costs.
"Adult dramas are more vulnerable than ever before in this business," said Fogelson, whose studio was stung by several flops in the genre, including this spring's "State of Play" and "Duplicity."
The other victim of the summer was A-list stars, who studios used to think could "open" a movie on their names alone. Eddie Murphy in a family comedy used to seem like box-office gold, but "Imagine That" tanked. Jack Black wasn't enough to light a fire under "Year One" -- and neither was Adam Sandler in "Funny People" nor Will Ferrell in "Land of the Lost," one of the season's biggest failures.
"This was not a star-driven summer," said Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group. As a result, all studios are now rethinking their commitment to $20-million actor paydays.
More than ever, box-office performance was inextricably linked to word of mouth. Good reviews still help -- as evidenced by "Star Trek" and "Up" -- but Twitter-era audience buzz spreads faster.
After a strong opening day, "Bruno" collapsed because of sour public reaction. "The Hangover," meanwhile, moved from a buzz-propelled $45-million opening weekend to gross more than $270 million through Aug. 31.
"Audiences have become far more sophisticated in knowing what they want to see," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony Pictures. "In today's world, you'd best have the goods."
Here's a report card on how each of the major studios fared this summer. The ranking is based on several factors, including evaluating a film slate's box-office returns against production costs, the execution of marketing campaigns, and each studio's ability to turn potential lemons into lemonade. All box-office grosses are through Aug. 31 and are domestic unless otherwise noted.
No. 1: Warner Bros.
"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" was the studio's highest-grossing release this summer, with ticket sales of $294 million, the second best in the history of the boy wizard franchise.
But the sixth "Potter" installment, with a budget of $250 million, was far less profitable than "The Hangover," a $35-million comedy that grossed more than $270 million. The bachelor-party movie proved not only that the usually conservative studio was willing to embrace a raunchy, R-rated production, but that Warner Bros. could successfully market a movie that didn't feature Batman, Superman or Harry Potter.
Tellingly, the studio didn't have an utter fiasco, as it did last year with "Speed Racer." The lowest-grossing release, Robert Rodriguez's "Shorts," took in just $13.2 million, but the production was backed by two other financiers.
"Terminator Salvation" grossed substantially less than the previous two killing machine sequels, but Warner Bros. had a steady stream of niche-marketed, $40-million-plus grossing singles: "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," "My Sister's Keeper," "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "Orphan."
No. 2: Paramount
Last summer's No. 1 studio released "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" -- the season's biggest hit by far. With domestic ticket sales of more than $399 million and even more overseas, the robot movie far outperformed the first "Transformers" despite some of the worst reviews of any 2009 release.