By Grady Smith
December 30, 2011 at 06:02 PM EST
Joe Lederer

Box office junkies, unite! It’s time to break down the year that was at the movies using the thing that we love most — the numbers!

Blockbuster franchise films reigned supreme at the North American box office in 2011. Of the ten highest grossing movies, the top seven — led by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 with $381 million — are sequels, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (No. 9, $176.7 million) is a prequel, and Thor (No. 8, $181 million) and Captain America: The First Avenger (No. 10, $176.7 million), while not sequels, are part of the larger Avengers franchise which Marvel will roll out next year.

All told, theatrical releases sold about $10.2 billion worth of tickets in 2011 (final numbers not yet available) at an average price of $7.96. (Ticket price via the National Association of Theatre Owners. Although, seriously, when was the last time anyone paid so little for a ticket?) That total marked a 3.5 percent drop from 2010, when the box office earned a yearly total of $10.6 billion, and attendance dipped by about 5 percent for the second year in a row. In fact, with 1.28 billion tickets sold, 2011 was the least-attended box office year since 1995.

What caused the dip? Well, that’s complicated. 2011 actually outgrossed 2010 during the spring and summer, but during the first quarter of the year, the same time that Avatar and Alice in Wonderland enjoyed remarkably lucrative box-office runs in 2010, revenues were down by 22 percent. And in the fourth quarter, 2011’s grosses were down by about 8 percent — but for more precarious reasons than stiff competition. There’s lot of info to break down, and in every month, there were highlights and lowlights at the box office. Let’s take a look at the past year, month-by-month, followed with a few industry trends that became apparent in 2011:

GUY-NAMIC DUO Jay Chou and Seth Rogen jump into action in The Green Hornet
Jaimie Trueblood

January

2011 began unremarkably, which was no surprise in the box-office dead zone of January. The month’s top release was Sony’s Seth Rogen vehicle The Green Hornet, which mustered up $98.8 million against its $120 million budget, a disappointing result compared to other superhero movies. January also brought us No Strings Attached, the first of 2011’s friends-with-benefits comedies. (The other was more literally titled Friends With Benefits.) Thanks to Natalie Portman’s white-hot status as an Oscar front-runner in Black Swan, Strings, which also starred Ashton Kutcher, managed to pull in $70.6 million. The rest of the month’s releases performed modestly. Despite ample buzz (and controversy), The Dilemma sputtered with only $48.8 million total, while Jason Statham continued his impressively long-running unimpressive box office streak, as The Mechanic only earned $29.1 million. Also, the Season of the Witch ($24.8 million) happened. Yeesh. Well-reviewed 2010 leftovers like True Grit ($171.1 million), Black Swan ($107 million), and The King’s Speech ($138.8 million) did much of the heavy lifting in the early part of the year.

ENJOYING SUNSHINE Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler hug it out in Just Go With It
Tracy Bennett

February

Adam Sandler logged his 12th $100+ million hit with Just Go With It, which attracted $103 million worth of viewers and became the biggest hit of February, while Disney’s 3-D animated Gnomeo and Juliet also proved successful, earning $100 million thanks to a dearth of family competition. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, a 3-D concert movie, pulled in a sturdy $73 million — a result closer to Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour ($65.3 million) than Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience ($19.1 million). Tweens — they can be so fickle! Liam Neeson’s vengeful Unknown managed $63 million, a far cry from the actor’s 2009 comeback Taken ($145 million), while Nicolas Cage’s attempt at vengeance, Drive Angry ($10.7 million), proved even less popular than his previous release, Season of the Witch. Disney misfired with YA adaptation I Am Number Four, which only attracted $55 million, and audiences largely ignored the Farrelly Brothers’ Hall Pass, which grossed $45.1 million, and Martin Lawrence’s latest fat-suit retread Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son ($37.9 million). Other sad results? The Roommate ($37.3 million), Sanctum ($23.2 million), and The Eagle ($19.5 million).

SWASHBUCKLING HERO Rango featuring the voice of Johnny Depp
Paramount

March

The inventively animated Rango rangoed up $123.3 million to become March’s top performer. Unfortunately for Paramount, the ‘toon cost $135 million to produce. After Rango, a quartet of thrillers geared to males all turned in moderately respectable numbers. Battle: Los Angeles invaded wallets to the tune of $83.6 million, Bradley Cooper’s star-solidifying Limitless drew $79.2 million, Matt Damon’s long-on-the-shelf The Adjustment Bureau found $62.5 million, and Matthew McConaughey’s turn in The Lincoln Lawyer earned the film $58 million. Ah, March, a time when sensibly budgeted thrillers that aren’t part of blockbuster franchises have a shot! Wait a sec — speaking of franchises, sequel Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules earned a fine $52.7 million, but trailed its predecessor, which found $64 million. Over in misfire territory, Red Riding Hood, despite having Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke on board, got eaten by the box office wolf and grossed a majorly disappointing $37.6 million. Hey, at least it did better than Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, which cost more ($82 million vs. $42 million) and earned a worse $36.4 million. Beastly‘s ugly $27.9 million cume put it in the same YA-failure camp as Red Riding Hood and I Am Number Four, but The Hunger Games won’t likely encounter similar problems in 2012. March’s worst performer was ’80s comedy Take Me Home Tonight ($6.9 million), which was outshone by successful limited releases Jane Eyre ($11.2 million) and Win Win ($10.2 million).

Jaimie Trueblood

April

The first real blockbuster of 2011 arrived on April 29 when Fast Five raced to an $86 million opening weekend on its way to $209.8 million. Looks like the “summer movie season,” which already begins early in May, will now include late April as well. The month’s two other success stories were both aimed at kids. Rio soared to $143.6 million total, while Hop hopped to $108.1 million, thanks to its proximity to Easter. Water for Elephants earned a modest $58.7 million, a bit underwhelming considering the popularity of the book. Insidious finished close behind with $54 million, but with a tiny $1.5 million budget, the horror flick was one of the most successful films of the year, and it outperformed Scream 4, which failed to revive the ghostface franchise with $38.2 million. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family made a Madea-esque $53.3 million, which was better than the medieval James Franco comedy Your Highness ($21.6 million). April had two outright bombs: Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, the first of many underperforming animated sequels, and Disney’s Prom — both films earned $10.1 million. Oh, and to be totally subjective for one second, the totally underrated Hanna made a just-okay $40.3 million. That is a total shame!

Melinda Sue Gordon

May

Thor kicked off the May box office with a $65.7 million opening on the way to a $181 million total — the best total of this year’s superhero movies — but it was The Hangover Part II that easily topped the month with a whopping $254 million. Audiences weren’t totally enamored with Part II, and the sequel fell short of the $277.3 million that the original Hangover earned in 2009. Another sequel that couldn’t match its predecessors was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which earned a franchise-low (but still huge) $241.1 million. Fortunately for Disney, Pirates played much better overseas and ultimately earned $1.04 billion worldwide. Bridesmaids didn’t need any franchise support to score $169.1 million. After opening with $26.2 million, the wedding comedy never saw a weekend drop above 30 percent for its first two months in release. Kung Fu Panda 2 wasn’t as fortunate. It’s $165.2 million was well below Kung Fu Panda‘s $215 million haul. The real surprise May release was Woody Allen’s delightful hit Midnight in Paris, which ambled its way to $56 million this year in a mostly limited release. Indeed, it’s a more accessible film than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which earned just $13.3 million.

ILM/DreamWorks/Paramount

June

Halfway through the calendar year, summer was in full effect. Transformers: Dark of the Moon earned a tremendous $352.4 million, the second-highest gross of the year. The blockbuster scored $1.1 billion globally. Pixar’s first-ever critical misstep, Cars 2, drove all the way to a respectable $191.4 million, although that was the animation company’s second-lowest box office finish ever behind 1998’s A Bug’s Life ($162.8 million). Two superhero movies debuted during the month, yet neither earned back its production budget. X-Men: First Class found $146.4 million against a $162 million budget, while Green Lantern burned dimly with just $116.6 million against a $200 million budget. J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, which cost a more reasonable $50 million, finished between those two films with strong $127 million. Cameron Diaz comedy Bad Teacher continued the R-rated comedy hot streak begun by The Hangover Part II and Bridesmaids with $100.3 million, which was better than Jim Carrey’s family comedy Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which waddled to $68.2 million after a mediocre $18.2 million debut, and kiddie comedy Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, which attracted just $15 million worth of ticket buyers. In limited release, Entertainment Weekly office fave Beginners scored $5.8 million.

NEXT: The second half of 2011 at the box office

Warner Bros.

July

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 cast a spell on the box office with its record-breaking $169.2 million debut, the largest opening weekend in history. The Harry Potter series finale ended up grossing $381 million domestically and $1.3 billion worldwide, lifting the franchise’s worldwide cume to $7.7 billion. As if all that’s not enough, Deathly Hallows – Part 2 sold over 10 million DVDs and Blu-rays in its first six weeks on the home market, earning an additional $180 million. We (and Warner Bros.) will miss you, Harry! Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger opened with a Thor-ish $65.1 million, and Cappy ended its run just behind the Norse god with $176.7 million. We’ll see both heroes again in 2012’s The Avengers — perhaps then they can pull numbers closer to Spider/Iron/Batman’s. After a surprise neck-and-neck opening with Cowboys and Aliens, which debuted in first place with $36.4 million but earned a hugely disappointing $100.2 million total, The Smurfs emerged as the true hit of the pair, grossing a big $142.6 million and $562 million worldwide. Horrible Bosses continued the R-rated comedy hot streak with a $117.5 million haul, but Friends With Benefits fared worse with $55.8 million. After middling debuts, Crazy, Stupid, Love., and Zookeeper both exhibited substantial endurance, ultimately grossing $84.4 and $80.4 million, respectively. Unfortunately, no amount of endurance could turn the Julia Roberts-Tom Hanks film Larry Crowne ($35.6 million) into a success.

APES TRASHING Freida Pinto and James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Joe Lederer

August

With the notable exception of two breakout hits, 2011’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in August, but let’s focus on the positive first. Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised everyone with $54.8 million in its first weekend. The well-reviewed preboot enjoyed strong word-of-mouth and grossed $176.7 million. Close behind was the Kathryn Stockett adaptation The Help, which debuted with a decent $26 million and then rode its “A+” CinemaScore grade all the way to $169.4 million and a whole bevvy of award nominations. The rest of August’s movies fared much worse. The Change-Up and 30 Minutes or Less, both of which stumbled to $37.1 million, and Our Idiot Brother, which made just $24.1 million, definitively ended the R-rated comedy wave, while Anne Hathaway romance One Day flopped with $13.8 million. The biggest victim of all, though? 3-D. All five of the month’s 3-D releases disappointed in a big way. Final Destination 5 ($42.6 million) and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World ($38.5 million) both sank to franchise lows, while Conan the Barbarian ($21.3 million), Fright Night ($18.3 million), and especially Glee: The 3D Concert Movie ($11.8 million) were all DOA.

Everett Collection

September

Simba returned to Pride Rock to claim his rightful place as king of the box office in September. Disney theatrically rereleased The Lion King in 3-D ahead of its Blu-ray release, and the classic animation grossed a tremendous $94.2 million. It’s no surprise that Beauty and the Beast and Titanic are getting similar treatments next year — though, the jury is still out as to whether 3-D or simple nostalgia was the actual draw here. Meanwhile, Steven Soderbergh’s viral thriller Contagion contracted $75.8 million, while Brad Pitt’s baseball drama Moneyball batted up $74.4 million, and family film Dolphin Tale became a surprise mid-level hit thanks to slim week-to-week drops, swimming all the way to $71.5 million. The modestly budgeted 50/50 and Drive enjoyed fairly solid holds as well, finishing with small-ish cumes of $35 million and $34.8 million, respectively. And then there was a whole lot of unsuccessful dreck: Abduction ($28.1 million), I Don’t Know How She Does It ($9.7 million), Dream House ($21.3 million), Shark Night 3D ($18.1 million), and Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star ($2.5 million) all went belly-up — as did Warrior ($13.7 million), unjustly I would argue! Two small movies did succeed amongst all the failures though, church-produced Christian drama Courageous, which was made for only $2 million, grossed $33.6 million, while $750,000 comedy film Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain surprised with $7.7 million in limited release.

DreamWorks Animation LLC

October

Shrek-spinoff Puss in Boots debuted impurrfecty with $34.1 million (blame the World Series, Halloween, and a freak snowstorm), but it quickly turned its fortunes around and finished atop the month of October with a moderately good $143.9 million. Sure, that’s not a Shrek-level gross, but Puss wasn’t the stray he initially appeared to be. Paranormal Activity 3 scared up a terrific $103.8 million against a $5 million budget, making it one of the most profitable ventures of the year. Hugh Jackman’s robot-fighting film Real Steel grossed $84 million, which would be okay if the DreamWorks film hadn’t cost $110 million to make. A Footloose reboot kicked up $51.4 million, a mid-level gross that doesn’t make the dance flick the bomb some people have called it — critics should save their reboot tomatoes for The Three Musketeers and The Thing, which only made $20.4 million and $16.9 million, respectively. George Clooney and Ryan Gosling’s collab The Ides of March found a moderate $40.6 million, while Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried’s In Time clocked a weak $36.9 million. Bird-watching dramedy The Big Year never got off the ground, earning a disastrous $7.2 million, which makes sense when you read the words “bird-watching dramedy.” In limited release, Wall Street thriller Margin Call hit theaters and VOD on the same day, and performed admirably. It earned $5.2 million theatrically and another $4.5 million On-Demand.

Andrew Cooper

November

In what came as a surprise to absolutely no one, November’s top release was the penultimate Twilight movie, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, which has earned $272.7 million so far, and may finish just below $280 million. That’s a bit short of 2010’s Eclipse, which sucked up $300.5 million, but it’s still huge, and Summit’s not worried — they still have the sure-thing Twilight finale ready for theaters in 2012. No other movies even came close to Breaking Dawn, as November proved to be an exceedingly weak month at the box office. In 2008-2010, November movies pulled in an average of $1.2 billion each year. This year, partially due to a very weak Thanksgiving frame, November films have only earned $855 million. Swords-and-sandals actioner Immortals slashed up $82.2 million, while Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller comedy Tower Heist stole a middling $76.4 million. Both films carried a $75 million price tag. The Muppets, budgeted at $40 million, proved more successful, although the film fell quickly after its five-day opening of $41.5 million, and it has earned $78.9 million so far. After this point, things get very grim. Adam Sandler made a rare misstep with Jack and Jill, which grossed $71.1 million — well short of his $100 million standard. Happy Feet Two found a chilly $60.3 million, less than a third of the original Happy Feet‘s $198 million cume. Two other family films did even worse. Hugo, which is rumored to have cost about $150 million, has earned $45 million and won’t likely make it much further. Arthur Christmas only unwrapped $44 million against a $90 million budget. J. Edgar couldn’t overcome negative buzz and took in a sad $36.3 million. The film will be passed in no time by The Descendants, which has platformed all the way to $35.2 million and has ample life remaining. Fellow Oscar-bait limited releases haven’t fared as nicely, but its a bit too soon to rule out My Week With Marilyn ($7.8 million), The Artist ($3.4 million), Melancholia ($2.4 million), or A Dangerous Method ($1.1 million).

Industrial Light & Magic

December

All this brings us to December, the best performer from which will certainly end up being Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which has already earned $94.6 million and should have no trouble blazing right past Mission Impossible III‘s $135 million take. Ghost Protocol may finish in the $200 million range, effectively putting Tom Cruise’s career back on track. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, the sequels everyone thought would lead the month, have underwhelmed. Both films are running far behind their predecessors, and after 13 days, they have earned disappointing-but-not-disastrous grosses of $103.7 million and $69.8 million, respectively. A few films are still finding their footing, and it’s unclear how far great reviews will carry The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ($32.5 million) and War Horse ($22.4 million). We Bought a Zoo started slow with $23.4 million in six days, but I’m not writing it off just yet — its family appeal could help the $50 million film become a modest success in weeks to come. The same can’t be said for New Year’s Eve, which has only found $37.9 million, The Adventures of Tintin, which has earned $31.8 million (but cost $130 million), or Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter, which grossed only $24.1 million. Bad girl comedy Young Adult ($8.2 million) hasn’t quite clicked with audiences, but Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is showing major potential in very limited release. The British drama has earned $2.4 million in three weeks, and it’s still only playing in 55 theaters.

Top 10 Highest Grossing Movies in 2011

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 – $381.1 million

2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon – $352.4 million

3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 – $272.7 million

4. The Hangover Part II – $254.5 million

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – $241.1 million

6. Fast Five – $209.8 million

7.  Cars 2 – $191.5 million

8. Thor – $181 million

9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes – $176.7 million

10. Captain America: The First Avenger – $176.7 million

NEXT: Six box office trends from 2011

So, now that we’ve gone through the whole box-office year, what have we learned? Well, here are a few key trends about the state of the industry:

1. While the domestic box office fell, international receipts soared

Ten years ago, it was typical for a tentpole movie to make about two-thirds of its global gross in the U.S. and the rest from foreign territories. By 2011, international box office was booming, and that ratio had flipped for most blockbusters. The top 10 domestic performers all earned substantially more money overseas than in America — on average, about 63 percent of their grosses came from foreign markets — but this trend was most notable with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. While the film earned a franchise-worst $241.1 million domestically, it sailed to a franchise-best $802.8 million overseas — about 77 percent of its total. Increasingly, Hollywood is targeting a global audience.

2. 3-D giveth, and 3-D taketh away

To be clear, 3-D had some major high points this year. Transformers, Harry Potter, and The Smurfs all earned substantial portions of their grosses from 3-D showings. But then, there were action blockbusters like Fast Five and Rise of the Planet of the Apes that skipped 3-D altogether and earned major audience praise as a result. And, of course, there were outright 3-D flops (see every 3-D release in August) as well. But now that the novelty of 3-D — which helped make Avatar a $749.8 million hit in 2009 — has faded, people have started asking whether 3-D actually does boost box office for some movies. If you ask me (or anyone outside of Hollywood), consumers don’t seem to be very enamored with the format at this point. They see it as a blatant cash grab that lessens the film-going experience.

The 3-D blockbusters that succeeded this year probably would have succeeded without the added dimension — it’s just that theaters don’t offer many 2-D screenings, and people settle for expensive 3-D tickets. Studios and theater owners always adamantly insist that “the consumer has options,” but frequent moviegoers know that that’s not always the case. A few weeks ago, a quick Fandango search revealed that 83 percent of Hugo‘s weekend showtimes were in 3-D and that many theaters didn’t have any 2-D shows at all! For movies that people really want to see, like Transformers or Harry Potter, the hefty 3-D surcharge on ticket prices doesn’t prove too dissuasive. Those films do well. But for movies that look somewhat unappealing to begin with, like Conan the Barbarian, consumers balk at the idea of having to pay a regular ticket price PLUS an additional $3.50 for an experience that doesn’t often provide much more than a headache.

Furthermore, some insiders believe that 3-D’s pervasiveness is damaging the industry as a whole. As Hollywood.com’s Paul Dergarabedian told me last week, “3-D put a spotlight on high ticket prices,” and now that Avatar and Alice in Wonderland have passed, “all consumers remember are the huge prices.”

3. Animated sequels are hurting

Every animated sequel released in 2011 earned less than its predecessor. Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil bombed with just $10.1 million. Kung Fu Panda 2 trailed Kung Fu Panda by $50 million. Cars 2 earned $53 million less than Cars. And Happy Feet Two fell $138 million short of Happy Feet. In fact, sequels in general had a rough year. Only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Fast Five, and Paranormal Activity 3 outdid their previous installments. Every other sequel, including films like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Scream 4, and Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, underperformed.

4. Thor, Cappy, and Green Lantern are no Spider-Man, Batman, or Iron Man… Heck they’re no Superman either!

Marvel did have a good summer — Thor, Captain America, and X-Men First Class grossed over $1 billion worldwide — but those movies and DC Comic’s Green Lantern proved that in the world of superheroes, these ones are on the second tier. While Thor did earn a strong $181 million, that gross can’t compare to $300+ million hits like Spider-Man or Iron Man and they fall way short of a $500+ million hit like The Dark Knight (but then, so does every movie). Even Warner Brothers’ unheralded 2006 Superman reboot reached $200 million. But in 2011,  moviegoers demonstrated superhero fatigue. Or perhaps this crop of heroes just wasn’t all that well known. Maybe The Avengers will solve that mystery in 2012.

5. Moviegoing habits are rapidly changing

Admittedly, moviegoing habits are always changing, but the rise of On-Demand entertainment made that fact more apparent than ever in 2011. Margin Call, which was released On-Demand on the same day it hit theaters, pulled in about $4.5 million from the service. Melancholia, meanwhile, played for weeks On-Demand before it ever reached a single theater. Tower Heist was going to be available On-Demand in select cities for two weeks during its release, but theater owner uproar led Universal to abandon the experiment. Still, with tablets selling like wildfire and people becoming accustomed to watching entertainment whenever-however they please, On-Demand seems like a format the industry will have to confront in a very real way soon — even if it, as feared, it may continue to chip away at theatrical attendance. After all, on-demand is in-demand.

6. Titles Are Really Long: They Have Colons & Dashes – Part 1

Thanks to the two-part franchise finales of Harry Potter and Twilight, and Hollywood’s oscillating cautiousness about putting a number at the end of a title (Which is why Mission: Impossible 4 is called Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), long-winded movie titles are suddenly incorporating every punctuation mark under the sun. I’m expect titles like The Ascent of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Revolution – Part 1 in 3D!!! will be common by 2015.

And so, EW readers, that was my not-so-succinct (but hopefully enjoyably thorough) recap of the year in box office. What industry stories caught your attention in 2011? What’s your opinion of the state of the industry? Do you think the combination of The Hunger Games, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hobbit will turn the industry around? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.

For more box office tidbits and musings, be sure to follow me on Twitter. Happy New Year!

Read more:

Box office preview: ‘Mission: Impossible’ won’t lose its grip over New Year’s weekend

10 Best Movies (and 5 Worst) of 2011: Lisa Schwarzbaum’s Picks

10 Best Movies (and 5 Worst) of 2011: Owen Gleiberman’s Picks

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