George Clooney in Gravity.
Tony Stark did more than save the world in Iron Man 3. He helped deliver a record northern summer in theatres and carry Hollywood to a new high for all of 2013.
With two days left, US and Canadian cinemas are certain to pass last year's record $10.8 billion in ticket sales by about 1 per cent, researcher Rentrak said. Studios spaced out their biggest films to avoid head-to-head competition, and produced more releases with domestic revenue of $200 million-plus, often with exhibitors charging extra for larger screens, plush seats and better sound.
''To get people to come out and spend the extra money, the movie has to be over the top,'' said Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst with Wedge Partners in Greenwood Village, Colorado. ''That's one reason studios have become so good, and so focused, at producing bigger blockbuster movies.''
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Walt Disney's Iron Man 3, topping the US box office with $409 million in sales, underscored Hollywood's success revisiting hits, leading the industry to a second-straight annual record after drops the previous two years. Eight of the top 10 films were sequels or revivals of action, fantasy, animation or sci-fi hits, according to Box Office Mojo. Two of those, The Hunger Games and The Hobbit, return with new episodes in 2014.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three new films from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, led US sales for a third-straight weekend, even with fresh competition from Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. The Hobbit has taken in $190.3 million in the US since its December 13 debut and $614.1 million worldwide for Time Warner's Warner Bros, the 2013 box-office leader, according to Box Office Mojo.
The year's winners were accompanied by a few duds. The Lone Ranger from Disney lost $160 million to $190 million, according to an August conference call transcript.
Top ticket sales: Robert Downey as Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3. Photo: Supplied
Sony's film studio stumbled in the summer box-office season that runs from May to early September. Big-budget tentpoles After Earth, with Will Smith, and White House Down, with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, failed to connect with audiences.
Studios avoided bloody box-office battles by putting some time between their biggest pictures, Pyykkonen said.
Iron Man 3, released on May 3, racked up 85 per cent of its total domestic sales in three weeks. The latest instalment in the story of billionaire inventor Tony Stark faced serious competition only by its third weekend, when Viacom's Paramount Pictures opened Star Trek into Darkness.
Leading the pack: Man of Steel. Photo: Supplied
With fewer releases bunched together, at least 12 films exceeded $200 million in US ticket sales this year, compared with 11 in 2012 and seven in 2011, according to Box Office Mojo. That helped the industry beat last year's total, even though only Iron Man 3 topped $400 domestically this year, compared with three in the previous 12 months. The less competitive calendar also allowed sleeper hits to emerge. Gravity, the 3D space adventure with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, opened in October and generated $254.6 million in domestic revenue for Warner Bros.
Gravity was the No. 2 film of the year for the studio, behind Man of Steel, and helped cement Warner Bros' industry-leading $1.81 billion in domestic sales as of December 26, according to Box Office Mojo.
''The product this year was appealing to a wide range of audiences, and there wasn't a concentration that we sometimes see where the movies cannibalise each other,'' said Bud Mayo, chairman and chief executive officer of Digital Cinema Destinations Corp, the Westfield, New Jersey-based operator of about 200 Digiplex screens.
Crowd pleaser: Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
That trend continues on January 17 when Paramount releases Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a reboot of author Tom Clancy's spy-thriller series, with Chris Pine from Star Trek taking the title role. Three weeks later, Sony and 21st Century Fox release The Monuments Men, with an all-star cast including Matt Damon and Clooney.
''Each of those could have been released in December, easily chipping away box-office sales,'' Mayo said. ''But that won't happen in January, where those movies will have their own platform.''
Sales were also boosted by a year-end sprint, with revenue rising 25 per cent over the five-week US holiday period from a year ago, according to Rentrak. Disney's Frozen dominated animation this holiday season, with $248.4 million domestically and $491.9 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
The domestic record comes even with attendance and average ticket prices little changed from 2012, according to analyst Pyykkonen. Multiplex operators are becoming more sophisticated, pricing peak showtimes on Friday and Saturday nights higher than weekdays, he said.
''That's beginning to skew the mix of when people go to the movies,'' Pyykkonen said. ''The theatres are full on Friday nights but over the course of a year people are starting to pick times when it's cheaper.''
At the Marcus Theatres multiplex in Addison, Illinois, about 40 kilometres west of Chicago, tickets for the Saturday, December 28 showing of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at 8pm cost $13.50 each. That includes a Dream Lounger seat in the company's UltraScreen DLX auditorium.
Prices for adult tickets at the location range from as little as $8 for a matinee to $14.50 for an advanced screening.
At a Cinemark in Fremont, California, a 9.45pm showing of Walter Mitty was $14.25, while at the Regal Cinemas in downtown Los Angeles, 3-D tickets for 47 Ronin were $18.75.
Some of the credit for 2013 sales goes to social media, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak, as Facebook and Twitter provided a virtual water cooler for fans to chat. Still, he said, the movies had to deliver.
''It ultimately comes down to the product, the movies themselves more than any other single factor,'' Dergarabedian said. ''The line-up still consisted of the usual mix, but there was something about the 2013 slate that created a something-for-everybody environment at the multiplex.''