2010's attendance drought was mostly due to a tepid slate of movies: it's a product-driven industry, and, when the movies are largely unappealing, empty seats proliferate. It's not that most movies were duds, it's that few were break-outs, and the following were the most impressive of the lot (note that these selections do not necessarily reflect the quality of the movies: bad movies can be blockbusters, good movies can bomb and vice versa):
True Grit - This was one of the few saving graces of the dismal Christmas season, shattering the industry notion that the Western is an inherent turn-off to audiences and becoming the most successful dramatic Western since Unforgiven. Taking advantage of the weak Christmas slate, Paramount Pictures mounted a clearly-pitched marketing campaign, selling the picture as a suspenseful thriller. So upfront was the marketing that the trailer spelled out the whole storyline, save for the resolution, illustrating the fundamental drawing power of story and clarity.
Inception - Christopher Nolan's mind-bending thriller was the top-grossing original movie of the year, racking up a lofty $292.6 million. As Mr. Nolan's follow-up to The Dark Knight with a primo mid-July slot and the full marketing might of Warner Bros. behind it, Inception was far from an underdog, but its campaign didn't take the audience for the granted, intriguing viewers initially with its spectacle and gradually peeling off the layers of mystery as its release date approached. That approach also led to an opening weekend that accounted for just over a fifth of the final gross, meaning Inception had the best overall hold of 2010's would-be live-action blockbusters.
Despicable Me - Sold as the flipside of The Incredibles, this animated family comedy scored big numbers, despite opening in the wake of Toy Story 3 and packing relatively few 3D presentations (out of all the 3D titles of 2010, it had the smallest 3D share at 45 percent). At over $251 million, it was the second highest-grossing non-sequel from 2010, out-gunning the higher-profile and better-positioned Shrek Forever After.
How to Train Your Dragon - Action-oriented animation and movies about dragons and/or Vikings typically struggle at the box office, but this movie broke the mold, drawing $217.6 million and holding up better than any other 2010 saturation release. In fact, by grossing five times its $43.7 million opening weekend, it had the highest multiplier of any major animated release since The Polar Express. While DreamWorks Animation backed Dragon with a typically ubiquitous marketing campaign, the studio seemed to take a page from Pixar by focusing on a timeless story and emotional resonance instead of their usual celebrity voices and pop culture references.
Tangled - Another animated movie that wasn't a sequel impressed. Disney's fairy tale comedy seemed to put a DreamWorks spin on its standard princess fare, extending the self-mockery from Enchanted, yet still maintained a relatable angle in its marketing. It debuted on Thanksgiving weekend just like Enchanted, only with seemingly less fanfare, but it out-grossed Enchanted by a wide margin and delivered Disney's highest-grossing non-Pixar opening yet.
Black Swan - Unlike many other high-profile platform releases, this picture delivered on the promise of its packed first weekend in limited release. It was pitched as a creepy psychological thriller with striking visuals, and that led to growth with each of its early expansions. With over $75 million in the till as of this writing, Black Swan is poised to become parent studio 20th Century Fox's top-grossing movie from 2010. Among other Oscar hopefuls, The King's Speech was another exceptional platform release, rapidly out-drawing The Queen.
Tron Legacy—Sure, it paled compared to Avatar (what movie wouldn't?) from the same December period last year, was incredibly expensive to make and market and had unwarranted blockbuster expectations from fanboys. But, considering its origin, Tron Legacy gets a rave box office review. The original Tron was one of Disney's great follies from the 1980s, better known back then as an arcade game than as a movie. It had a decent sampling, ranking 22nd from 1982 and making the equivalent of nearly $90 million adjusted for ticket price inflation, but it did not permeate the mainstream over time nor did it grow in esteem. Some fanboys carried a torch, but they amounted to a niche. Tron Legacy not only had little brand equity but the challenge of getting people to understand and care about a fanboy fantasia. Disney's massive campaign succeeded: Tron Legacy sold more tickets than its predecessor (something most 2010 sequels failed to do), and it hooked the franchise into the mainstream.
Alice in Wonderland - A perfect storm of factors yielded a mighty $334.2 million gross, ranking as the second-biggest haul from 2010 and surpassing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the top Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration. It not only benefitted from Burton and Depp batting in their wheelhouse, but the good will generated by Avatar as the first 3D event of the 2010 and a ubiquitous marketing campaign that balanced the mad fantasy with a relatable story. It's also the top-grossing children's book adaptation ever (though it's far from the best in terms of attendance).
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - With $300.5 million, the third Twilight made only slightly more than predecessor New Moon did seven months earlier, but it broke the curse of the closely-timed, serialized sequel. When the second movie in a series makes much more than the first, future sequels are about retention, not growth, and the norm is for business to cool significantly with the third. This was typified by the Pirates of the Caribbean and Matrix franchises. Eclipse also marked Twilight's first summer foray after its predecessors' pre-Thanksgiving launches, and it had better retention than Harry Potter at the same point, which dipped with its third movie/leap to summer.
The Karate Kid - It wasn't as popular as the original The Karate Kid nor The Karate Kid Part II (not to mention the first two Rush Hour movies), but this remake revitalized the summer season the weekend before Toy Story 3 with its exceptional $55.7 million start. It was powered by one of the best marketing campaigns of the year, clearly and grandly presenting a relatable underdog/culture clash story. It ultimately didn't hold up as well as its crowd-pleasing aspirations anticipated, but it still packed a $176.6 million punch.
Jackass 3-D - This perceptually-bound franchise reached a commercial high, despite being ten years old. Jackass 3-D drew $50.4 million in its October opening weekend, setting a new gross benchmark for autumn, and it's made over $117 million in total, topping the first Jackass's $64.3 million and Jackass: Number Two's $72.8 million. Attendance didn't improve over the first two Jackass movies, but maintaining an audience over time (four years after Number Two) and getting them to swallow the 3D upcharge was impressive. Jackass's perceptually-bound appeal made it the right fit for 3D (which accounted for 89 percent of business), promising that audiences would get their 3D money's worth of things flying out of the screen at them.
The year's other highlights included The Town and Shutter Island, though several of the shoo-in blockbusters generated huge business but still left the box office wanting. Toy Story 3 earned the biggest haul of its franchise by far ($415 million), but its attendance was on par with the first Toy Story and less than Toy Story 2. Given the built-in audience from the first two movies and the ticket price boost from the 3D illusion, Toy Story 3 was well-positioned to become the highest-grossing animated movie ever, but Shrek 2 still holds that title. On the bright side, maintaining most of the audience level after more than ten years was no small feat.
Iron Man 2 did fine for a superhero sequel ($312.4 million, retaining 98 percent of its predecessor), but the first Iron Man's rousing success was the perfect platform for a sequel to build on, much like Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men, Dark Knight and others. Unfortunately, the Iron Man 2 campaign rested on the nascent franchise's laurels, offering more of the same and failing to raise the dramatic stakes. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 maintained its franchise's blockbuster streak (one could also say it did great for half of a movie), but seemed lacking for the penultimate movie of the series: it's on track to gross less than the last movie, and it will be the least-attended movie of the series. Each of these movies showed that one can't rely just on branding and the good will from predecessors for growth.
Bankability:Leonardo DiCaprio made hay out of playing haunted widowers in thrillers. He headlined both Inception and Shutter Island, which pulled in over $420 million combined, making him the top-grossing star of the year. Denzel Washington may not have made a big splash with The Book of Eli and Unstoppable, but those movies' solid showings rested on his shoulders, demonstrating again how he's one of the few bankable stars. Jeff Bridges received top-billing in back-to-back $100-million-plus movies Tron Legacy and True Grit (though he didn't physically appear on the main posters for either one) after the modest success of Crazy Heart.