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'Madgascar 3' box office: Are we living in the era of the 1%?

June 18, 2012 |  6:30 am

In the spring of the not-so-long-ago year of 2005, the weekend box-office winners offered a healthy variety of cinematic choices.

There was a U.N.-set thriller ("The Interpreter"), a "Star Wars" prequel, ("Revenge of the Sith"), an interracial comedy ("Guess Who") a comic-book-derived style piece ("Sin City") an epic adventure ("Sahara"), a slasher flick ("The Amityville Horror") and an adaptation of a beloved book ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), to name just a few.

In the 12 weekends of that year's spring, there were 11 different weekend winners. (Only one movie, "Sith," was a repeat champion.) They were hardly all good films, let alone great ones. But most were pretty different from one another.

Cut to 2012, and the story is vastly different. The spring season that comes to an end this week yielded a lot less diversity in its weekend winners, not least because there were a lot fewer weekend winners to begin with. Just six, to be precise, with many of the weekends occupied by repeat champions ("The Avengers," "The Hunger Games," "Think Like A Man" and, after this weekend, "Madagascar 3").

That may seem like simply one more data point for box-office enthusiasts to noodle over. But the data also offer evidence of a growing trend: the uber-hit, that is, the movies that go beyond modest success to dominate the multiplex, often leaving other contenders far behind.

There have always been such films, of course. But their ranks are growing, while many of the other big bets are indeed lagging.

Or, to put it a different way, when it comes to box office, it's increasingly a world of the 1% and the 99%.

Take a look at the last few months. On the one hand, this has already been an achievement-filled year at the box office. In March, "The Hunger Games" had the biggest spring opening-weekend ever. In May, "The Avengers" turned in the biggest opening weekend, period, becoming the first movie ever to cross the $200- million threshold in its first three days. Expect sums almost if not in fact equally as strong when "The Dark Knight Rises" hits theaters next month.

Yet the number of big-bet disappointments is also rising. Tick off the recent ones: "Battleship." "Dark Shadows." "John Carter." "Rock of Ages." Films with big budgets and expectations -- career-defining ones, for some of the executives associated with them -- that can barely eke out $75 million or $80 million domestically. Heavily marketed new films that get whipped by movies that were released a week or two earlier.

Consider this metric about the number of uber-hits. The first half of each of the last three years has brought a total of five releases that scored a hat trick (that is, won the box-office crown at least three weekends running)--"The Avengers," "The Hunger Games, "Alice in Wonderland," "Avatar" and "Shrek Forever After." It's a huge shift from the three years prior, when exactly one movie achieved this hallmark of uber-hitdom ("Disturbia," and that was hardly an uber-hit).

So you're not imagining things. The rich are getting richer. And because they're crowding out the other comers, the overall number of A-level successes is getting smaller. Hit movies once had a big weekend then cleared out to make room for the next one. Now, increasingly, a select few establish a beachhead and don't move anywhere.

Why a given movie catches on while another falters is fodder for another post. But the overall pattern suggests that we're enteringa new chapter in the complicated history of box office.

When studios and their corporate owners in the early 2000s began realizing the huge returns they could bring in from big-budget movies, it prompted a realignment in their thinking. Instead of a wide range of mid-budget stabs, they would try the tent-pole approach -- that is, produce a smaller number of movies but spend a lot more making them.

Some pundits and filmgoers cried foul: These tent poles, often coming in very particular subgenres like the superhero and action-disaster flick, would get all the studio attention while everything else would be left fighting for scraps, they said. But the studio executives said these all-audience extravaganzas were necessary to inoculate them against risk, especially as production and marketing costs (not to mention Wall Street pressure) were rising.

Now we're seeing a further evolution -- or, more accurately, a subdivision, a kind of box-office mitosis in which even among the already-select group of tent poles, only a handful actually work. When they do, they work big, winning the box-office crown week in and week out. The others? They can't even finish in second place on their opening weekends, as "Rock of Ages" and "That's My Boy" failed to do Sunday.

What long-term effect all this will have on studio strategy remains to be seen. Does it mean companies will make even fewer big-budget movies? Keep the number of big-budget movies constant while pouring more investment into low-risk microbudget films like "Paranormal Activity"?

For more iconoclastic types, it could even lead to a return to a mid-range model in which a larger number of movies are made overall but at more rational budgets. (If only.) Whatever the outcome, it's a very different world than it was even a few years ago.

Which brings us back to 2005. Among the motley crew of spring winners that year was the first installment of an animated talking-animal franchise called "Madgascar." In June of that year, "Madagascar"  won the weekend box-office crown -- and that's it. On its second weekend, it was pushed out by a a high-concept movie featuring two of the world's biggest stars ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith").

This June we have the latest installment of "Madgascar." It too won the weekend box-office crown on its opening weekend. But it didn't budge the following week when faced with competition from a high-concept movie featuring some of the world's biggest stars ("Rock of Ages"), or another star-driven comedy ("That's My Boy"). As with the real world, it's getting harder to join the 1%.


Box Office: "Avengers" crosses $1b worldwide

Rock of Ages: "80's-inspired musical is off-key

"Madagascar 3" outshines "Rock of Ages," "That's My Boy"

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: A scene from "Madagascar 3." Credit: DreamWorks Animation

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