Summer 2011 -- expected to be the highest-grossing ever for movies -- will be remembered for a parade of soggy sequels interrupted by a string of sleeper successes, from Disney's "The Help" to Paramount's "Super 8" to Universal's explosive "Bridesmaids," second only to "Pretty Woman" as the highest-grossing female-targeted movie of all time. Even Woody Allen scored the biggest hit of his career with Sony Pictures Classics' "Midnight In Paris," a film that crossed the $50 million mark in mid-August and was rereleased in 600 theaters just before Labor Day for one last cinematic tour.
All the business brought some much-needed good news to Hollywood, which started the year with box-office receipts down 16.76% year-over-year and attendance down a worrisome 18% from January to April 24. But money-making franchise films coupled with profitable originals perked summer box office since May 1 up .69% (to $4.38 billion) vs. 2010, while attendance was down just 1.43% during the same time period, according to Hollywood.com.
Here, in our second annual Summer Movie Marketing Report Card, we grade the movie marketers that broke through, those that coasted on their coattails and those that tanked.
WARNER BROS.: GRADE: A-
It probably could've taken top honors based on "Harry Potter" alone, as the second half of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows" became the highest-grossing film in the "Potter" franchise, taking in $43.5 million just from midnight screenings on opening night. But the studio really found its strength in marketing ensemble comedies, using the alternate key art/trailer strategy for its films "The Hangover II," "Crazy Stupid Love" and "Horrible Bosses" to target different audiences on TV and through print, out-of -home and digital media. All three of those films brought in diverse audiences and outperformed expectations, with plans for "The Hangover III" already in the works. Only "Green Lantern" could be deemed a disappointment, as it's on track to barely recoup its $200 million production budget in worldwide grosses.
THE INDIES: A-
Sony Pictures Classics scored the marketing coup of the summer in the form of "Midnight In Paris," leveraging Woody Allen's best reviews in years to become the must-see among art houses, Europhiles and Midwesterners alike. Fox Searchlight's "Tree of Life" used virtually no traditional marketing and relied instead on NPR media buys and heavy word-of -mouth to make the Terrence Malick-Brad Pitt curio a quiet $12.7 million hit. And Focus Features even scored two modest hits with "Jane Eyre" ($11.2 million) and "Beginners" ($5.6 million) by finding literate, artsy audiences in all the right places.
Say what you will about year-old studio marketing chief M.T. Carney, but her first full summer with studio chairman Rich Ross was far from the outright disaster many predicted after last year's costly flops such as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Prince of Persia." The fourth "Pirates" film, while the lowest-grossing installment of the franchise domestically, still took in more than $1.04 billion internationally, proving it still has sea legs across the globe. Pixar's "Cars 2," which also underperformed against its predecessor, eked out a decent $187 million in the U.S. But the real surprise was "The Help," which relied heavily on screenings among the book's core fans in the South and used strong word-of -mouth to lure bicoastal audiences (and even men) into theaters. The $25 million film surpassed the $100 million mark after three weeks.
The studio batted five-for-five last summer, making medium-to-large sized hits out of "Salt," "Eat Pray Love," "The Other Guys," "Grown Ups" and "The Karate Kid." Entering another summer without a major tentpole film, the studio still eked out some surprises in the form of "The Smurfs" (who caught Ad Age 's blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance among the blue crew?), a critically reviled family flick that smartly counter-programmed against "Cowboys and Aliens" and whizzed past the $115 million mark domestically, and "Bad Teacher," a $20 million Cameron Diaz comedy that quintupled its production budget in box-office receipts. Only "Zookeeper" under-delivered, suggesting the surprise star status Kevin James earned with "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" may be fading.
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon," while still a $350 million-grossing behemoth, wasn't quite the über-monster it could've been thanks in part to confusing early ads marketing it as a moonwalking movie (and perhaps the absence of Megan Fox?). But strong showings for "Thor" ($181 million) and "Captain America" ($169 million), its final Marvel movies as a distributor, bode well for Disney's "The Avengers" next summer. The real standout was "Super 8," the viral marketing story of the year. Mysterious trailers and TV spots from J.J. Abrams and Paramount made an event out of what was ultimately a nostalgia-drenched "70s monster movie.
It bungled the marketing for macho movie "Conan The Barbarian," a blood-soaked $90 million action movie, alienating fans of the original and prospective new young fans with its hard-R redband trailers and failure to translate star Jason Momoa's ardent "Game of Thrones" following into ticket buyers. And "The Devil's Double," which earned early awards attention for star Dominic Cooper's impressive dual performances as Saddam Hussein's son and his body double, didn't sell enough tickets in limited release to warrant a wide rollout, which will make it hard to recoup even the $2 million to $3 million Lionsgate paid to acquire the nearly $20 million movie at Sundance.
UNIVERSAL: A (FOR 'FAST FIVE' AND 'BRIDESMAIDS'); C (EVERYTHING ELSE)
The studio was looking like the one to beat heading into the season with the one-two punch of late April's "Fast Five" (the biggest opening in Universal history, supported by a major tie-in from Dodge) and "Bridesmaids" (the comedy success story of the year, with over $168 million in grosses). Then came the "Cowboys & Aliens" genre mashup from "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau that confused (and unintentionally humored) audiences with its trailers, and "The Change Up," which couldn't translate the earlier success of summer stars Jason Bateman ("Horrible Bosses") and Ryan Reynolds ("Green Lantern") into a raunchy hit, even after a last-ditch attempt to sell tickets through Comcast sibling Daily Candy. After Lionsgate's similarly mixed results with Groupon and "The Lincoln Lawyer," the studio may have proved once and for all that discounted tickets still won't persuade audiences to see a bad movie.
DREAMWORKS ANIMATION: B-
It was back-to-back summer sequel disappointments for the animation studio, with "Shrek 4" reeling in less green than its predecessors last summer and "Kung Fu Panda 2" packing less of a punch this year. A smart digital-marketing strategy that included a virtual Facebook parade and an interactive YouTube clip featuring star Jack Black may have come at the expense of an under-used traditional media strategy, as young boys flocked to "Pirates," "Thor" and "Cars 2" instead. Still, credit the studio for the summer's healthiest marketing tie-in: Kung Fu Panda tofu from House Foods.
"X-Men: First Class" did OK for a prequel, but failed to match the tickets sold by the original trilogy or 2009 spinoff "Wolverine." Still, the mutant flick had a fun TV tie-in from Farmers Insurance, perhaps the most unlikely movie-marketing partner of the year. Fellow prequel "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," however, fared more impressively, logging an unexpected $133 million in its first two weeks and it's now on its way to reaching the $350 million mark worldwide. Meanwhile, "Mr. Popper's Penguins" proved there's still juice left in Jim Carrey's family comedy arsenal, taking in $66.5 million.