Formulas, franchises win at the box office in 2012

Daniel Craig in "Skyfall."
December 14, 2012

This weekend’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is really the last big gamble of 2012. Will audiences be ready to take yet another multi-film excursion to Middle Earth with a decidedly lighter tone? It was a year that took few risks and colored within the lines when it came to cinematic entertainment. Formula won out, as only three of the year’s highest-grossing films were not part of a franchise, and one of those three was based on an already best-selling series of books.

While there still may be a few late entries into the best/worst films of the year list, it’s not too early to assess the year from a more technical perspective and take a look at some of the winning (and losing) trends at the box office within the past year.


James Bond: While “Quantum of Solace” cast some doubt as to the longevity of the Bond franchise with Daniel Craig in the lead, the critically adored “Skyfall,” which was back on top of the box office in its third week of release, is poised to be the highest-grossing film in franchise history, sitting at $918 million worldwide and solidly reinvigorating the series for a new millennium.

Joss Whedon: The world this year was introduced to what fans of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” scribe have appreciated for years. In what could have marked a colossal sellout in his career, he instead filled “The Avengers” with his trademark razor wit and skillful action to make not only the biggest release of the year, but the third-highest-grossing film of all time. Couple this with the gleeful horror sendup “Cabin in the Woods” and the announcement of his award-winning web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (with Neil Patrick Harris) coming to television next year, and you can bet that Whedon’s no longer going to be your best-kept secret.

Channing Tatum: Once dismissed as a slab of beefcake who got lucky at the box office (“Step Up” and “G.I. Joe”), the former stripper bared more than his bod this year, with a winning performance in the sleeper “Magic Mike” and his comedic chops in the way-better-than-anyone-ever-expected “21 Jump Street.” Aside from his four films released in 2012 (the other two were “The Vow” and “Haywire”), he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” started his own production company and, perhaps most prestigiously, was crowned People magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year.

Seth MacFarlane: Though some (myself included) may knock his animated empire as being a series of copy-and-paste sitcom tropes littered with equal parts potty humor and pop-culture references, he nonetheless managed to create one of the largest-grossing films of the summer (and one of the only ones not based on a franchise of some sort) with “Ted.” While the humor rarely veered from a crotch-centric perspective, it still managed to have enough heart to connect with both guys and gals and also earned him a hosting gig of next year’s Oscar broadcast.

The real Abraham Lincoln: Thanks to Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, the 14th president of the United States was redeemed by his real-life heroics after audiences rejected him as a fictional vampire slayer earlier in the year.


Tim Burton: Speaking of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” one of the film’s producers, Burton, had yet another setback this summer when he reteamed with his muse Johnny Depp for their take on “Dark Shadows.” And while it was critically praised as a return to form, his animated “Frankweenie” failed to find life at the box office.

Adam Sandler: Sure, the animated “Hotel Transylvania” was a modest hit, but that only featured his voice. His so-called return to raunchy R-rated comedy with “That’s My Boy” was all but abandoned by audiences who are perhaps finally tiring of his man-child shtick.

Eddie Murphy: And speaking of “Saturday Night Live” alums with waning careers, Eddie Murphy continues his slide into “Shrek”-less oblivion with “A Thousand Words,” which was bested by vehicles “Metro,” “A Vampire in Brooklyn,” “I Spy” and “Best Defense.”

Non-Medea Tyler Perry: Producing two of his lowest-grossing films so far, Perry out of drag proved to be, well, a drag. Proving that no “Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds” goes unpunished, his dramatic turn in “Alex Cross” had him hit rock bottom with filmgoers.

The Bourne series: After three superlative outings with Matt Damon as the lead, the franchise attempted to keep things going strong with Jeremy Renner as its lead, but found itself still-Bourne.

3-D: Want an indicator of the fad’s diminishing popularity? Look no further than Pixar, which in 2010 released “Toy Story 3” in that format with 72 percent of its grosses coming from those silly glasses. A year later, “Cars 2” was released in both 3-D and 2-D and saw only 40 percent of its profit from 3. This year’s “Brave,” which was also released in both formats, only saw 32 percent from the extra dimension. Films re-released in 3-D also failed to get traction (“Titanic,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Phantom Menace”), and the list of those be released (and re-released) in 2013 is dwindling further still.