We won't know what effect the 2012 movie year will have long term for quite awhile, but we may very well come to see 2012 as the year audiences said "Thanks, but no thanks." No, I'm not talking about some imaginary movie going slump that never was and arguably never will be. I'm talking about the fact that this year, seemingly moreso than in recent years prior, American audiences seemed actually almost... picky? If you glance at the films that were hits and the films that were bombs, you'll notice at least a token quality curve, especially when dealing with the mainstream and/or blockbusters. Time and time again, audiences seemingly rejected the prepackage blockbusters that were tossed their way as if to ignite some kind of Pavlovian response. While on the other hand, they seemed to embrace not so much the 'good' would-be blockbusters but ones that existed somewhat outside the conventional wisdom about what could or couldn't reach mega-gross levels. To a certain extent, at least to a degree worth acknowledging, conventional wisdom went out the window in 2012.
It started of course in March when the overblown and overwritten John Carter debuted on a sea of bad press and rumblings about its $250 million budget. General audiences didn't care about the cost, but they clearly noticed that the marketing was expecting them to show up as if by reflex and instead they stayed home and/or flocked to The Hunger Games instead. Now it's no secret I'm not a fan of The Hunger Games, but a film set in a post-dystopian world where children are made to murder other children in televised competition isn't exactly what you'd call a conventional blockbuster. The relative high quality of 21 Jump Street prevailed over the rehashed leftovers of American Reunion. It wasn't a perfect trend, as one of Denzel Washignton's worst thrillers (Safe House) became one of his highest grossers while Jason Statham's best pure action picture (Safe) is among his lowest earners.
But the relatively positive trend continued in May when the genuinely good The Avengers debuted to record numbers and maintained popularity while Universal's 'blockbuster in a box' Battleship sunk like a stone both here and overseas. This positive trend continued with the poor performance of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in June (which seemed to exist as a parody of what studio executives considered an original idea) and the relative box office disappointment of Universal's desperate and desperately terrible The Bourne Legacy (lowest-grossing of the franchise here, second-lowest overseas). Sony's stunningly cynical Total Recall remake crashed and burned, signaling that maybe remaking every popular action property from the 1980s and 1990s might not be as foolproof as you thought. Meanwhile original films like Ted and Magic Mike flourished alongside the likes of The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus.
Yes the situation was a little more complicated than that. I may cheer the female-driven successes of Snow White and the Huntsman and Brave while not liking either picture (that's for another essay next week or so), and The Amazing Spider-Man still made $751 million worldwide, no matter how much less it grossed in America and elsewhere compared to the previous Spidey pictures (even less when you factor in the 3D bump). I happen to have liked Men In Black 3 quite a bit, but if you didn't then you probably view its $624 million worldwide gross as an exception to the rule, if not an outright rebuttal. But just as important as what technically flopped is what hit it big. Almost all of the major arthouse releases of the summer (The Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild, etc.) hit it relatively big. We saw strong arthouse-level grosses for Bernie, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Killer Joe while critically-ravaged pictures like That's My Boy and The Watch were generally rejected.
The news was even better during the last third of the year, as we saw one rock-solid critical darling after another reach either major hit status (Argo, Pitch Perfect, Looper) or relative financial success (End of Watch) while mediocrities like Alex Cross tanked. One could argue that ParaNorman and/or Frankenweenie deserved to outgross the harmless but toothless Hotel Transylvania, and I'd argue that The Master and Cloud Atlas did about as well as could be expected considering the competition (and let's just say Taken 2 is the official exception that proves the rule). The year will end with the unmitigated box office triumphs of Lincoln and Skyfall along with the somewhat deserved box office failure of the painfully generic Rise of the Guardians (Dreamworks can do better). I'm not going to do a full-blown rundown of the year's box office, but the general trend in 2012 was a positive one: Audiences not only embraced good movies, often overtly adult genre pictures, but they also (mostly) rejected the most cynical pieces of would-be tentpole that the studios had to offer. When films like Battleship get outgrossed by the likes of Argo, it's hard to completely argue that the American filmgoer lacks good taste.