TIME movies

5 Things We’ve Learned in 5 Years of Box Office Reports

Frozen
Disney

The foreign market has exploded while North America is stagnant. Women, kids and Hispanics have replaced young males as a prime demographic. And 3-D saved Hollywood

Correction appended, April 8, 2014.

Five years ago this week, TIME.com launched its Box Office Report column. Each Sunday, or Monday on holiday weekends, I’ve laden readers with stats and analysis on the business of show: the winners, losers and trends of new movies. The occasion of this anniversary (for which, hint, the traditional gift is wood) got me to wondering what’s changed in the film industry over the past half-decade. It turns out: lots.

Here are five things we learned over the past five years of Box Office Reports:

1. America doesn’t matter. In 2009, according to a new study by the Motion Picture Association of America, customers in North America spent $10.6 billion on movie tickets, compared to 36% of the foreign market ($18.8 billion). Last year, domestic revenue was up a bit, to $10.9 billion, but the international tally had risen to $25 billion; so only 30% of worldwide ticket sales were from the U.S. and Canada. Business over the past five years has been stagnant here but up one-third in the rest of the world. The region the MPAA calls EMEA — Europe, the Middle East and Africa — accounted for $10.9 billion in 2013, the same as North America, while the biggest growth came from Asia Pacific: up from $7.2 billion to $11.1 billion. Japan brought in $2.4 billion, India $1.5 billion and China a celestial $3.6 billion. That China bonanza, an increase of 27% over 2012, is as much as last year’s top dozen movies earned in North America.

(READ: TIME.com’s first Box Office Report)

Most blockbusters register about two-thirds of their worldwide take internationally, and some much more. The last two Ice Age animated features, only moderate hits at home, amassed 80% of their global gross abroad. Foreign audiences go for action movies, even for ones Americans reject. Last month’s racecar drama Need for Speed has earned less than $40 million here but $130 million (or 77% of its total gross) in foreign markets. The monster-bot movie Pacific Rim struggled to reach $100 million in North America last summer; yet it made more than that ($111.9 million) in China alone.

Recognizing the huge offshore potential, some smart producers have tailored their pictures to the tastes of foreign fans. Marvel’s Avengers movies (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and, for that matter, the smash that was The Avengers) had never earned as much as 60% of their money overseas. So for Iron Man Three, director Joss Whedon shot separate scenes featuring Chinese stars for the Mandarin-language version. The result: IM3 earned $135 million in China and Hong Kong. Its $806.4-million foreign revenue represented a healthy 66% of the movie’s $1.2-billion worldwide gross.

2. Women do matter. For decades, Hollywood has trusted one narrow demographic — young males — to subsidize its big-budget productions. In fact, the gender split in the domestic audience is 50-50: women attend as many movies as men do. The studios must have figured that the few femme-angled blockbusters (like Mamma Mia!, which earned $610 million worldwide in 2008) were flukes, and that, in the absence of “women’s pictures,” the gals would go to movies made for guys. Statistics seemed to bear out that prejudice: Of the 12 top-grossing films of 2011, only one — The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 — boasted a leading character who was female.

Credit the Twilight success, which spurred other gynocentric franchises based on Young Adult novels, and the skew of girl-power animated features for the return of that beleaguered majority — women — to movie marquees. In 2012 The Hunger Games, Breaking Dawn Part 2 and Pixar’s Brave were among the year’s top eight films. And last year three of the top six had female protagonists: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen and Gravity — all released in Oct. or Nov., outside the usual blockbuster summer season. Indeed, Catching Fire, with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead, became the first top-grossing film of any year since 1965 (Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music) with a woman in the primary, starring role.

(READ: Jennifer Lawrence’s Silver Lining Yearbook)

Three other residents of last year’s top 10 (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University and Oz the Great and Powerful) attracted strong majorities of female viewers. Now Hollywood has to think of new femme heroines — as long as she’s a warrior, a princess or a lonely space traveler.

3. So do kids, old folks and Hispanics. Hollywood’s traditional wheelhouse — adults 18 to 49 years old — has recently slipped a gear: movie attendance of that age group is down. But younger and older viewers are swelling the grosses. “In 2013, the share of tickets sold t0 2-11 year olds was at its highest point since 2009,” the MPAA study reports, “and the share of tickets sold to 50-59 year olds was at an all time high.” Senior citizens (60-plus) are also attending in droves. So you’ll be seeing more kid-friendly animated features, and more roundups of elderly stars as in Lost Vegas — a Hangover for alterkockers — and Sly Stallone’s Expendables movies. Lucky oldsters.

The average American “Caucasian,” as the MPAA calls the white majority, goes to just three movies a year. Fortunately for Hollywood, Hispanics have taken up the slack. They “report the highest annual attendance per capita, attending on average six times per year.” Representing 17% of the U.S. population, Hispanics have accounted for more than 30% of the audience for comedies (Ride Along), action films (Furious 6), horror movies (The Purge) and war epics (Lone Survivor). They also made their own hit: the Spanish-language dramedy Instructions Not Included, starring Univision TV favorite Eugenio Derbez. In the U.S. it earned $44.5 million. That’s the biggest foreign-language gross since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — except that, for the bilingual Latinos who flocked to theaters, Instructions was in their own language.

(READ: Who Still Goes to Foreign-Language Films?)

4. Hollywood went digital, 3-D and IMAX. In 2009, most theaters showed films — those rickety reels of acetate that spun through projectors — as they had throughout the industry’s hundred-year history. Only about 16,000 screens were outfitted for digital projection. Now that number is 111,000, nearly seven times as many. About 80% of all theaters, here and around the world, can exhibit movies digitally. The revolution that George Lucas urged a decade ago has come to pass, and the very word “film” is an anachronism.

(READ: George Lucas talks to TIME in 2006 about the digital future of movies)

In our first Box Office Report, for Mar. 29, 2009, the top picture was Monsters vs Aliens, which was also the first 3-D feature from DreamWorks Animation. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio’s boss, was a missionary for 3-D, proclaiming it the most exciting innovation since talking pictures and color. The process was nothing new — it has existed in rudimentary form since 1915 — but Katzenberg’s proselytizing, plus the box-office sensation of James Cameron’s Avatar, helped change 3-D from a gimmick to a near-essential for blockbuster wannabes, both animated and live-action. (Christopher Nolan, maker of the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, remains an important holdout.)

The stereopticon format had its drawbacks — those glasses darkened the true screen image and remain a minor annoyance for audiences — but it allowed distributors to charge an extra few dollars per ticket. In New York City, a customer ordering through Fandango could be paying up to $20 for a big attraction in 3-D on an IMAX screen. Along with the enormous rise in the Asian market, that gizmo surcharge can be said to have saved the movie business. The 3-D revenue spiked from $200 million in 2008 to $2.2 billion, a tenfold increase, in 2010. For that, Hollywood can thank one film: Avatar, which earned $2.7 billion worldwide, most of it on 3-D screens.

(READ: Why Avatar is a 3-D World of Wonder)

Consider that the number of tickets sold annually in North America fell about 16% in the past decade, from more than 1.5 billion in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to about 1.35 billion in each of the last three years. In 2013, admissions dropped by 20 million from 2012; yet domestic revenue actually rose about $100 million. Moviegoers, at least in the U.S. and Canada, went less frequently but paid more when they did.

The MPAA statistics carry a warning: “Despite an increase in films released in 3-D [from 40 to 45], 3-D box office ($1.8 billion) is down 1% from 2012.” Hollywood has to hope that audiences haven’t tired of paying a goggles tax on their moviegoing experience, and that the format won’t be a few-years fad that, as in the 1950s, quickly faded away.

3. A billion dollars ain’t what it used to be. Cameron’s Titanic, released in 1997, was the first movie to crack the billion-dollar barrier in worldwide gross. By Mar. 2009, when we started, four other pictures — Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the third Lord of the Rings, the second Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Batman sequel The Dark Knight — had joined Titanic by earning at least $1 billion. In the five years since, that number has grown to 18, including last year’s Iron Man Three and Frozen.

If the billionaire’s club isn’t so exclusive these days, it’s in part because Hollywood has learned to market its biggest movies to the expanding global market, but mainly because ticket prices keep climbing — up 30% since 2004 and 13% since 2008. Inflation tarnishes the billion-dollar sheen. In real dollars, at the domestic box office (the only numbers available), Titanic is fifth all-time, behind Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Again in real dollars, Cameron’s Avatar is the only movie made in this century to appear in the all-time top 25. On this list, Iron Man Three is in 102nd place, Frozen in 109th.

So show some skepticism when you read stories about a new hit like Frozen passing The Lion King to achieve the “all-time record” for an animated feature, with nary a mention of inflation. In real dollars, or tickets sold, the double-princess movie lags behind at least dozen earlier Disney or Pixar cartoons. By that standard, Disney’s all-time animated hit is its first: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

And on a personal note: A (noninflationary) billion thanks to readers and editors for this first five years. We’ll check back in 2019 to see if the numbers and meanings of movies have felt other seismic changes.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of tickets sold annually in North America. It was more than 1.5 billion.

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