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Box office 2008: What we learned

The past year in movies taught us that superheroes and cartoons rock, women like movies too, and everyone likes a dog

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Buoyed by a caped crusader, a lovesick robot, and Robert Pattinson’s hair, Hollywood rang up $9.6 billion at the box office in 2008, a scant 0.4 percent drop from its record-breaking 2007 returns. Besides the fact that not even Justin Timberlake in a Speedo could bring an audience to The Love Guru, what did we learn? After crunching some newly available numbers (all figures are through Jan. 4), we present five lessons from the year just past.

SUPERHEROES RULE
Those larger-than-life good guys remain the driving force at the box office. The one-two kapow! of The Dark Knight ($531 million) and Iron Man ($318.3 million) marks the first time two comic-book movies have come out on top (see chart). Hancock ($227.9 million) continued Will Smith’s reign, while The Incredible Hulk ($134.5 million) managed to eke out a slightly higher gross than 2003’s much-maligned Hulk. And Indiana Jones seems to have finally developed superpowers — with $317 million, his Crystal Skull proved resistant to nuclear blasts, critical pans, and outraged fanboys.

CARTOONS RULE TOO
CG-animated family films accounted for nearly half of the year’s top 10, from the sweetly epic WALL—E ($223.8 million) to the madcap silliness of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ($177 million). Despite the odd record-setting dud — like Delgo, which opened to a Lilliputian $511,920 in 2,160 theaters, the lowest wide release ever — the genre is fast becoming Hollywood’s surest bet.

WOMEN ACTUALLY GO TO THE MOVIES — AND THEY’RE PICKY LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!
Tween girls packed theaters for Twilight ($176.9 million and counting), High School Musical 3 ($90.2 million), and the Hannah Montana concert movie ($65.3 million). Their older sisters, aunts, moms, and grandmas, meanwhile, made a night out of Sex and the City ($152.6 million) and Mamma Mia! ($143.8 million). In short, it was a good year for femme-targeted films — the splashy, feel-good ones, anyway: Australia ($46.7 million), Nights in Rodanthe ($41.8 million), and The Secret Life of Bees ($37.5 million) didn’t get nearly as much love. As for The Women ($26.9 million)…well, did you read the reviews?

BIG STARS AND WINTER MOVIES DON’T MIX
Will Ferrell. Jessica Alba. George Clooney. One would think those names at the top of a movie-theater marquee would ensure decent grosses. But Semi-Pro ($33.5 million), The Eye ($31.4 million), and Leatherheads ($31.2 million) all fumbled, while the virtually star-free 10,000 BC ($94.8 million), 21 ($81.2 million), and Cloverfield ($80 million) cleaned up. The moral: If you’re trying to nab audiences during the months when they traditionally want to stay home, high-concept is king.

NO ONE CAN RESIST AN ADORABLE DOG — NOT EVEN A BIZARRE ONE
Although Disney’s Bolt ($109.9 million) opened below expectations, the animated pooch hung in there and ultimately banked four times his opening gross on strong word of mouth. Marley & Me easily took the Christmas holiday crown, fetching over $100 million in 10 days. And Beverly Hills Chihuahua dug up $93.8 million on the back of a did-I-really-just-see-that trailer and an evidently ravenous national appetite for tiny talking canines. Somewhere, a certain former Taco Bell spokesdog is crying into his chalupa.

GREAT IN ’08

The 10 highest-grossing films of the year (domestically) from The Dark Knight to Dr. Seuss

The Dark Knight
$531

Iron Man
$318.3

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
$317

Hancock
$227.9

WALL—E
$223.8

Kung Fu Panda
$215.4

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa*
$177

Twilight*
$176.9

Quantum of Solace*
$166.8

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!
$154.5

FIGURES IN MILLIONS; COURTESY OF BOXOFFICEMOJO.COM

*STILL IN WIDE RELEASE

COMEBACK OF THE WEEK
F. Scott Fitzgerald

His story is the basis for Benjamin Button, Baz Luhrmann may remake The Great Gatsby, and Keira Knightley is set to play doomed wife Zelda. Drink up, old sport — you’re hot again!