Thanks to movies like ''The Lorax,'' the box office has been surprisingly strong this year

Step aside, Johnny Depp — there’s a new money magnet in Hollywood, and he’s sporting a yellow mustache. Heading into last weekend, box office experts were predicting a hearty $50 million opening for the tree-hugging tale Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Instead, Universal’s 3-D animated fable collected a colossal $70.2 million — the strongest opening of the year and the third-best ever for March.

Industry insiders should have seen it coming. After all, this kind of overperformance has been occurring all year long. Starting with 2012’s first weekend — when the $1 million horror flick The Devil Inside seemingly appeared out of nowhere to snatch $33.7 million in three days — Hollywood has watched one movie after another exceed expectations. The Vow (Sony) and Safe House (Universal) both debuted to more than $40 million — on the same weekend. Warner Bros.’ Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is outpacing its predecessor, while Sony’s Underworld Awakening is now the vampire franchise’s top entry. And Act of Valor, Chronicle, and last weekend’s Project X have each started their theatrical runs with at least $20 million, even though none of them feature a single well-known star.

As a result, the overall box office is up 24 percent compared with last year, with admissions up an estimated 25 percent. Futhermore, 2012 has now outgrossed 2011 for nine consecutive weeks.

Just recently, many in Hollywood were wringing their hands about the state of moviegoing — attendance dropped 4 percent in 2011, hitting the lowest level since 1995; box office was down 5 percent in the fourth quarter, year over year. So why the sudden turnaround? The most popular answer among studio insiders is also the simplest: It’s the movies, stupid. ”The films are delivering what people want to see, and there’s been something for everyone,” says Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony. ”Good movies are contagious,” adds Warner Bros. domestic distribution president Dan Fellman. ”When people see a good one, they want to see another — we’re building up momentum that’s going to take us into the summer.”

But better content cannot single-handedly explain this year’s hot streak. In fact, some movies have performed well despite dreadful reviews. Take The Devil Inside, which was so bad it garnered a rare F rating from audience pollster CinemaScore. ”Paramount knew exactly how to market The Devil Inside,” says Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock. ”I don’t know what else you can attribute the film’s success to, because it certainly wasn’t word of mouth.”

As part of its marketing campaign, Paramount shrewdly screened The Devil Inside at a Pasadena church. The resulting clips of screaming parishioners became an integral, and admittedly enticing, part of the film’s ads. In an equally offbeat move for its teen superhero picture Chronicle, Fox commissioned the viral-video marketing agency Thinkmodo to fly remote-controlled ”people” around lower Manhattan. And Warner Bros. screened Project X, another ”found-footage” film, at several college campuses and then showcased the students’ Twitter remarks in subsequent commercials. ”It seems Hollywood has finally turned these alternative marketing tools to their advantage,” says Bock. ”The studios really are getting the word out to the core demographics that they know will want to see these films.”

Besides savvy marketing, outside influences like a recovering economy and relatively mild weather on the East Coast may be inflating box office figures. Still, the spring movie season features a number of question marks, none more worrisome than Disney’s $250 million sci-fi epic John Carter. And to keep things in perspective, the 2012 box office still trails 2009 and 2010 by a small margin.

Nevertheless, the mood around Tinseltown is jubilant. ”In my 45 years with Universal, I’ve never been this excited about a slate of films [including Battleship and American Reunion],” says the studio’s distribution president, Nikki Rocco, adding that she expects that Lionsgate’s upcoming tentpole The Hunger Games ”is going to kill” at the box office. If the beginning of 2012 is any indication, the odds will be ever in Hollywood’s favor.

Biggest Hits of 2012
1. The Vow — $112 mil*
2. Safe House — $108 mil
3. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island — $85 mil
4. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax — $70 mil
5. Contraband — $66 mil

*Domestic grosses as of March 4, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
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