Around $400 million separates 2011 from 2010, which can entirely be covered by Avatar's $478 million gross in 2010. Most of that was made in the first quarter, which contributed to the massive 21 percent first quarter downturn in 2011. From then on, the year was fairly solid—the second and third quarters set new records with $2.84 billion and $2.89 billion. Within those quarters, April, May, July and September were all record months, and July 2011 ranks as the highest-grossing month of all-time at $1.394 billion.
Business slowed down again by the fourth quarter, though, with receipts dropping five percent to $2.34 billion. That's troubling considering the abundance of seemingly proven franchise fare, especially in the last two months of the year. December in particular showed that sequels alone aren't going to do the trick: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ($124.1 million), Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol ($122.3 million) and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked ($88.2 million) weren't strong enough to lead to a year-over-year improvement.
The idea that sequels don't drive year-over-year growth is made more apparent when looking at the list of top-grossing movies of 2011. The first seven movies on the list are all sequels, beginning with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 at $381 million. This managed to be the highest-grossing entry in the series thanks at least in part to the finale factor, though it also probably got a boost from the addition of 3D ticket prices. Potter was followed by Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($352.4 million), The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 ($274.8 million), The Hangover Part II ($254.5 million), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($241.1 million), Fast Five ($209.8 million) and Cars 2 ($191.5 million). The only sequels that improved over their predecessors were Potter, Fast Five and Mission: Impossible. Overall, existing franchises (sequels, prequels, spin-offs) contributed $3.35 billion, or roughly one-third of total box office this year.
The highest-grossing non-sequel was Thor, which finished in eighth place with $181 million. Outside of aspiring franchise fare, The Help and Bridesmaids were most attractive at $169.5 million and $169.1 million, respectively.
Aside from being jam-packed with sequels, 2011 will also be remembered as the year when 3D likely reached its saturation point. There were 38 nationwide releases in 3D this year (including three holdovers from 2010), which is up 58 percent from 2010 (24, including two from 2009).
It's tough to tell exactly how much money was made from 3D ticket sales in 2011 because studios only provide a 3D share for opening weekend. Assuming movies hold that same share through their first four weeks in theaters (which is probably a bit generous), 3D presentations accounted for roughly $1.7 billion in 2011 (16.7 percent of total box office). That's down from over $2 billion in 2010, which was the year 3D really exploded thanks to Avatar, Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland.
While $1.7 billion seems like a lot of money, it looks less impressive when considering how much 3D actually added to the ticket price. A 3D surcharge typically represents around 25 percent of the 3D ticket price, which translates to $425 million in revenue in 2011. If 3D doesn't really have an effect on attendance, then this boost is great (even when taking out the cost of the 3D glasses, which would bring it down below $300 million). Still, there's a good chance plenty of consumers are being turned away from theaters due to increased prices and sub-par 3D experiences, and it's obviously worth considering if a drop in attendance is negating the additional revenue.
While 3D might not be driving huge grosses domestically, it does appear to still have a positive effect overseas. 2011 was the first year ever in which three movies reached $1 billion worldwide, and all three movies were the first in their respective franchises to be presented in 3D. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 became the third-highest grossing movie ever with $1.33 billion, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides also entered the Top 10 with $1.12 billion and $1.04 billion, respectively.
Some other interesting statistics: 30 movies made over $100 million in 2011, which is up from 25 in 2010 but down from 32 in 2009. The Top 10 contributed $2.44 billion, which is way less than 2010 ($3.12 billion) and 2009 ($2.69 billion).
• 2012 Preview
• Franchises to Rule Again in 2012
• Mixed Bag for 2011 Sequels
• November Box Office Down Slightly
• Box Office Slows in October
• 'Lion King' Leads Record-Breaking September
• August Box Office Rises and Falls
• July Breaks Box Office Record
• June Sees Box Office Dip
• May Posts Record Gross
• April Sees Box Office Rebound
• 2011 Grosses (2011-only releases)
• Year-to-Year Comparison