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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Avengers, Skyfall & China's rise: a 2012 review

9:25 PM
Avengers, Skyfall & China's rise: a 2012 review

It was a year of final franchise instalments and fresh-faced startups, with Bond's return giving a boost to British film. But were reports of a global power shift premature?

The winner

The Avengers was 2012's headline story. Its tag team of Marvel personnel stole an early lead with its April/May release and finished with room to spare on $1.51bn worldwide: the third highest grossing film of all time. Joss Whedon's preppy wit was lighter on its feet than Christopher Nolan's Kevlar-and-zeitgeist-burdened Dark Knight trilogy closer, which also joined the $1bn club. The first release for Marvel under Disney ownership, The Avengers is an ominous sign of the franchise tonnage the House of Mouse will wield for years, possibly decades, to come, with Pixar already under its belt, and Lucasfilm acquired for $4bn plus small change this year.

The franchise revolving door

The movie-brand landscape undoubtedly had a transitional year. With Harry Potter, Twilight and Batman all coming to a close (or at least taking a breather), and others making play of their own senescence (Skyfall, Men in Black 3), this year was notable for the number of fresh-faced startups: The Hunger Games, the new Spider-Man and Bourne, Snow White, Prometheus, The Hobbit and Jack Reacher.

Perhaps the unfamiliarity factor â€" which always works against films outside the US â€" is what explains relatively subdued overseas grosses for the Hollywood studios this year (though final figures aren't yet available). No one passed the $3bn mark (a record achievement for Paramount in 2011), and in fact only one studio â€" Sony â€" managed over $2bn from international territories (though The Hobbit, just heading out on its journey, might have some bearing on that for Warner). Sony looks like it will wind up clear winner among the majors this year, with three films in the global top 10 â€" MIB3 ($624m), The Amazing Spider-Man ($752.2m) and Skyfall ($923.8m) â€" and total grosses over $3.5bn, close to $600m ahead of its nearest competitor.

Special mention should go to mini-major Lionsgate, which with The Hunger Games, the final Twilight and The Expendables 2 all performing well in 2012, is looking less "mini" with every passing year.

Bring the grit

Not only was Skyfall â€" despite its mixed message about our world status â€" a shot in the arm for Britain in its Olympic year, it was, along with The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games, part of a trend of big-hitters with as much of an interest in character as in visual spectacle, and downbeat shading in the range from realistic to dystopic. Not everyone was a fan the New Serious, as the Guardian dubbed it earlier this year, but perhaps it's the natural antithesis to the glut of CGI animation fantasias that have dominated the global charts since the turn of the millennium, and are still skipping merrily along: Ice Age 4, Madagascar 3, Brave and The Lorax all feature in this year's top 20.

An expected journey

It became impossible to ignore Hollywood's changing priorities this year, with more and more blockbusters opening first on foreign soil and aiming to set up camp thereabouts â€" led by The Avengers, which opened in over 50 territories before the US release. Only two of this year's top 20 (Hunger Games, The Lorax â€" both strongly American-rooted) took more domestically than abroad. Ice Age 4, Wrath of the Titans and Skyfall all followed in the wake of Tintin at the end of 2011, and did more than 70% of business overseas. As well as deep-rooted franchises and animation, fantasy and sci-fi tend to do well globally, allowing the studios to slow-alchemise widely derided "bombs", such as Battleship and John Carter, into borderline successes: the year's 19th and 23rd biggest hits.

The rest of the world

Released at the tail end of 2011 in France, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano's banlieue-to-ballroom comedy of manners The Intouchables was the one true non-English language breakout of the year. Under the auspices of the Weinsteins, it did a decent $10m in the US, putting it 25th on their highest-grossing foreign language film chart, but a storming take in Germany ($79m), plus strong showings in Spain, Italy, Japan, South Korea and beyond, took it to $419m worldwide: 148th on the all-time box-office chart, the highest for a film not in English, if you discount The Passion of the Christ. Audiences obviously didn't feel it that it dealt in the "Uncle Tom racism" it was accused of by some US critics; the comedy might have been broad at times, but taking a social situation universal across the developed world â€" integration of immigrants â€" definitely qualifies as an I-can't-believe-nobody-thought-of-this-before stroke of inspiration.

The Artist made the best of its five-Oscar haul to tapdance its way to $133.4m across the world. English-language but not Hollywood-originated, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel â€" tapping into post-Slumdog interest in India and the grey dollar that has become a force with in developed-world markets â€" and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists were $100m+ Brit hits. But the global box office proved not to be a case of shooting clunge in a barrel for The Inbetweeners Movie, despite its mighty British take in 2011: it scraped an indifferent $17m outside of the country.

Most of 2012's big non-English-language hits were similar, locals-only affairs: lifeguard drama Umizaru 4 and Roman fish-out-of-water comedy Thermae Romae in Japan; heist caper The Thieves and period drama Masquerade in South Korea; Turkey's would-be Kingdom of Heaven bastion-stormer Fetih 1543. Of that crop, the slick and worldly South Korean films have the biggest potential to travel in 2013.

The $8bn-dollar question

In a recent report, Ernst & Young pinpointed the date of the apocalypse: that Chinese box office would pass US box office by 2020. Last year's US figure was $10.2bn; China's $2.02bn, so it's currently got an $8bn+ disparity to make up. That means, provided the US market remains stable, China will need consistent 50% growth rates for the next seven years â€" which sounds like quite a feat to me (it managed about 35% last year), even with the current programme of cinema construction. What seems more plausible is that China overtook Japan as the biggest cinema market outside the US this year. It was only $240m behind in 2011 â€" and was outperforming its neighbour in the first months of 2012; by mid-November, the Chinese annual total was already at $2.13bn, up on the same time last year.

The bigger question is whether the growing influence of Chinese filmgoers is going to help their commercial film-makers to rally globally. Not even the sight of Christian Bale covered head-to-toe in flour could save Zhang Yimou's Flowers of War, earmarked as a crossover; it did resoundingly dismal business around the world, yet another example of the stodgy textbook period drama the country seems unable to wean itself off. Compare that to $55.8m and $36.5m worldwide figures for Bollywood's top two offerings, Rowdy Rathore and Ek Tha Tiger â€" solidly reliable business from an industry getting far less attention at the moment.

• What global cinematic stories would you like to see covered in the column next year? Let us know in the comments below.

World cinemaFilm industryPhil Hoad © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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