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Summer Movie Wrap-Up: 2013's Winners And Losers

Did everybody have a good summer? Did you at least go outside once or twice, in between munching popcorn and blockbusters and scanning through the better-than-ever selection on VOD? Did you at least see one movie you liked… and avoid everything Ryan Reynolds put out there?

It's been an up and down summer movie season for sure, with some predictable things happening-- superheroes like Iron Man, Superman and Wolverine dominating-- and some totally unpredictable ones too-- who saw Despicable Me 2 being the year's second-biggest movie? We're not here to rehash all the headlines of the summer, since you can revisit the box office figures for Iron Man 3 or debate over Pacific Rim on your own time. But as summer finally slips away into fall we want to take a step back and really look at how it all shook out, and who we can fairly call the winners and losers of the summer season. Forget the obvious winners, like those aforementioned superheroes, or endlessly harping on The Lone Ranger. Let's figure out why these things happened, and maybe what we can learn from them for next time. After all, summer 2014 is only about 250 days away.

Winner: Horror

Horror movies have scared up some serious box office and critical praise this entire summer. The Ethan Hawke-fronted The Purge kicked off the season earning a whopping $34 million on opening weekend, pulling in more than eleven times its budget in just three days. Not to be outdone, James Wan dominated in July with The Conjuring. The deeply creepy haunted house tale took in an outstanding $41 million its opening weekend, has since gone on to earn more than $220 million worldwide, and won over critics with a striking 86% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Finally, an honorable mention goes out to horror director Adam Wingard, who released two scary flicks that may not have made strong box office stands but were widely praised by critics. The found footage anthology V/H/S/2 earned a 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, while his just unveiled slasher-comedy You’re Next netted 79%.

This is an intriguing trend. Horror is a genre that tends to get a fair amount of scorn from critics, but the filmmakers above are clearly winning this hard-to-please audience over. On top of that, the model of horror is very different from the tentpole releases that demand overwhelming audience drawing power to just break even. Far from the bloated budgets of $100-200 million, the most successful of these spooky pictures cost between $3 million and $20, meaning their producers take on less risk, and are winning greater rewards. Expect these successes to lead to a swell in horror coming to theaters soon.

Loser: A-list Stars

The summer of 2013 left more than its share of A-list talent battered in its wake. It also left more than its share of mediocre, awful and boring movies that didn’t offer anything beyond star power. Coincidence? No. Johnny Depp’s $200 million dollar adaptation of The Lone Ranger couldn’t even break $100 million in North America. It used old source material fans didn’t know and was savaged by critics. Matt Damon’s Elysium got halfway decent reviews, but it too picked the wrong subject matter. Its trailers struck too political of a tone, and it hasn’t even hit $70 million domestically. Will Smith’s After Earth and Vince Vaughn/ Owen Wilson’s The Internship fared even worse. With a few exceptions--most notably Brad Pitt somehow turning World War Z into a hit--it was a godawful summer for the A-list and unless, Hollywood executives take note, 2014 could be the same way.

Once upon a time, slapping Cary Grant's face on a poster may have put asses in the seats, but we don’t live in that world anymore. To do big business, a movie needs to offer either good reviews or look like a damn good time. The days of millions of people seeing a movie just to see a movie are over. An A-list star is enough to get people to watch the trailer, but the final product needs to offer good reviews, a damn good time or ideally both. None of these failures offered both, and we shouldn’t be shocked at their fates.

Winner: Brad Pitt

While fellow A-listers Johnny Depp and Will Smith watched their potential blockbusters plunge into the chasm of summer-movie obscurity, Brad Pitt triumphed where virtually EVERYONE expected him to fail. World War Z was pre-sold as a disaster. Pitt and director Marc Forster feuded on set. Co-writers were brought in to completely rework the film's ending, which led to costly reshoots. The budget ballooned, and critics sharpened their blades for the film’s inevitable release.

But Pitt saw that he had something special on his hands – a movie that actually improved thanks to the incessant tinkering. And he hit the grassroots publicity trail in a way precious few A-listers do anymore. Pitt attended multiple small, regional word-of-mouth screenings. He promoted the film beyond the lazy red-carpet appearance. And that word-of-mouth helped push Z into the black, against all odds. The zombie-apocalypse thriller is inches away from the $200-million mark domestically, and made more than $525M worldwide. Paramount’s even talking sequels, and that’s a HUGE win for what once was believed to be Pitt’s disaster.

Loser: Ryan Reynolds

Ryan Reynolds probably doesn’t feel like a loser when he wakes up in the morning. For starters, he’s probably waking up next to his spouse, the beautiful Blake Lively. Then he glances in the mirror and confirms that he still looks like Ryan Reynolds. How bad can life be? But professionally, Reynolds took a hit this summer by failing to open two movies in vastly different genres. Reynolds lent his voice to the lead character in the animated comedy Turbo, which opened to No. 3 over the July 17 weekend. To date, it has only earned $78M in a season where rival cartoons like Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 are breaking the banks with domestic grosses of $261< and $351M, respectively.

Oddly enough, Turbo would be considered a hit when compared to the actor’s live-action effort, R.I.P.D. … which was D.O.A. on the same weekend. Teaming with Jeff Bridges for a supernatural cop thriller proved deadly. Critics slayed R.I.P.D., while audiences largely ignored it. Reynolds hasn’t had a terrible year-- he also lent his voice to The Croods, which launched a new franchise in the spring. But summer was cruel, and the handsome actor won’t be able to rebound until his next picture -- Queen of the Night -- hits theaters in 2014.

Winner: R-rated Comedies

Thanks to releases like The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Ted in recent years, R-rated comedies have dug out a nice little home during the summer months, and 2013 continues that trend. Things kicked off in May with Todd Phillips’ The Hangover Part III – which underperformed domestically, but wound up with a worldwide total over $350 million – and the season only got better from there. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalyptic laugher This Is The End wound up making over $114 million globally on a tiny $32 million budget; Paul Feig’s The Heat was a $200 million-plus success at the box office; and Rawson Marshall Thurber’s We’re The Millers has already made over $115 million and is still going. Even Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (which just opened in the U.S. last weekend) has already made its small $20 million budget back and could keep going strong thanks to buzz and overwhelmingly positive reviews. It’s been a good year for funny movies with plenty of raunchiness, and hopefully it will remain a trend for many years to come.

Loser: Buddy Action Films

Action films will forever be a staple of the summer movie season and this summer wasn’t particularly kind to the films featuring two central stars teaming up to take down the bad guys. Some of this year’s biggest bombs, including Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (which wound up losing Disney $150 million), Roland Emmerich’s White House Down (which only made $134 million globally on a $150 million budget), and Robert Schwentke’s R.I.P.D. (which made only $61 million of its $130 million budget back), fit into this category, but even Baltasar Kormakur’s 2 Guns - which was made for only $61 million – found little success at the box office. Reviews likely didn’t help any of these movies, but it’s still hard to say what it was exactly that caused all of them to fail. How will this affect the future of the buddy action movie subgenre? Only time will tell.

Winner: Coming Of Age Stories

As a touchstone of every adolescence, summer is the perfect time for coming of age stories. And this summer was studded with spectacular ones from a bevy of fantastic up-and-coming filmmakers. June saw the release of first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s vibrant and brilliant The Kings of Summer, which earned buzz at its Sundance Film Festival debut that has led to a 76% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then July brought the ballsy and bittersweet dramedy The Way, Way Back, the directorial debut of The Descendants’ Oscar winning-scribes Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. Another Sundance selection, this one also netted an impressive box office, pulling $18 million domestic.

August brought a third Sundance-selected coming-of-age stunner with James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now. Despite its limited release, this charming teen romance has already made $1.9 million domestically, and boasts an incredible 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, largely thanks to the heartbreaking performances of its young leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Then, just this past weekend saw the release of a coming-of-age tale that is proving one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. Daniel Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 centers on a young woman who finally confronts her own inner demons while helping a girl at a foster care facility through hers. Fronted by the extraordinary Brie Larson, this indie drama has earned a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Basically, this summer we were spoiled for choice in this genre.

Loser: Sea World

You might not have noticed the news about Sea World as much as The Lone Ranger bombing, but the profitable theme park was a big target this summer thanks to a single documentary. Blackfish, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, exposes the poor treatment of orcas at parks like Sea World and how it can lead to the deaths of the people who work with the animals-- a lot of them. A single orca, named Tilikum, has been responsible for three deaths, and was sent from a Canadian park to Sea World even as park owners ignored his violent history.

The documentary made headlines, and inspired a change in, of all things, the upcoming Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory. Pixar revealed in August that it had changed the film's ending, which involves a marine park similar to Sea World. It's yet to be seen if Blackfish has the power to actually change practices at Sea World, but the family-friendly park has been subject to the worst kind of attention-- and that's exactly the result that Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary was hoping for. While Sea World is a loser, Blackfish is clearly a winner of the summer.

Winner: Ensembles

Put a ton of famous people together in one film and watch the cash roll in. That strategy doesn't work every time-- see this summer's own Red 2-- but it worked enough times to definitely qualify as a trend. Fast & Furious 6 brought in more big names than ever to the franchise that started with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and nobodies, and was rewarded with a gigantic $97 million opening. The Great Gatsby advertised its glitz but also its name-brand stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire, and became one of the summer's biggest surprise hits. This Is The End made a mint off the promise of seeing a bunch of famous comedians survive the apocalypse, Lee Daniels' The Butler is already a massive hit as it boasts a laundry list of big names on its poster, and even little Now You See Me quietly took its team of magicians to a $116 million domestic gross.

Especially in a summer when A-list stars have foundered, all these ensemble hits prove that it sometimes takes a lot of factors to make a hit-- and you don't even need big names to sell it, just people who work well together and look appealing on a poster. And as the cast of Fast & Furious 7 is only getting bigger and Now You See Me gearing up for a sequel, it's a trend that will continue into 2014 too.

Loser: Box Office Predictions

When The Heat-- an R-rated comedy led by women-- clobbered White House Down-- a PG-13 action extravaganza-- on their shared opening weekends, it was just one omen of a crazy, up-and-down box office that would define the entire summer. The Hangover Part II, a sequel that looked like a surefire hit, made far less than its predecessor. Despicable Me 2, a sequel to what was itself a surprise hit, was a mammoth, runaway success. A civil rights drama aimed at adults, Lee Daniels' The Butler opened in what's usually a sleepy August and beat superhero sequel Kick-Ass 2. Hell, even if it were just a summer that included The Conjuring-- a low-budget horror movie originally intended for a January release-- it would be a wild one for box office. That James Wan-directed chiller, made for $20 million, doubled its budget in opening weekend alone, and is currently the year's 12th-highest grossing film.

Anyone who professionally predicts box office results is probably shaking their head, but for the rest of us, this is thrilling. The less that Hollywood can predict a hit, the more likely we are to get weird and wonderful stuff that studios only hope might be a sure thing..