Marvel took top spot at the worldwide box office for the second year running, with a $1.215bn sweep for Iron Man 3 (No 5 in the all-time list).
It's still unclear if it's the series' final instalment, or whether Robert Downey Jr will go Starkers on a full-time basis again. Nevertheless, seizing the momentum of The Avengers last year, Marvel's cross-fertilising approach to its IP has put it – or its paymasters, Disney – in pole position among the studios. (Thor 2 finished in eighth.) If the Chinese cut of Iron Man 3 wasn't quite the Mandarin-fluent blockbuster for a new red dawn promised early on by co-producers DMG, the big Beijing promotional push did give a potentially rote threequel the allure of a global jetsetter.
Shane Black and Ben Kingsley were praised for Iron Man 3's red-herring twist, an opportunity for the director to sprinkle his postmodern dust over the SFX blockbuster genre. But was Black's treatise on terrorism-as-global-panto-for-the-masses – and where that dovetails with the cinema industry – a case of dressing up old iron? Yet another CGI-grouted brick in the franchise wall tops the yearly list – and one that arguably benefitted from unusually lacklustre competition this time, with the not-exactly-earthshaking Despicable Me 2 ($918.6m) and Fast & Furious 6 ($788.7m) in second and third place. 2013 looks like a weaker 12 months for the upper echelons of the global box office, with just one film crossing the vaunted $1bn line (compared to four in 2012 and three in 2011; though Peter Jackson's Desolation of Smaug is still in with a shout), and a noticeably shrunken spread of grosses in the top 10. Sony, after a triumphant 2012 led by Skyfall, looked particularly wan, with just the underperforming Smurfs followup near the top 20 – and an embarrassing bomb in Will and Jaden Smith's $130m After Earth (31st, $243.8m).
The desolation of brands
I noted in last year's global box office report that 2012 was a transitional year, with many long-running franchises taking their final bow, and some newbies stepping in. It's still far from clear which will have the kind of legs (perennial guilty pleasure Fast & Furious apart) that let a certain speccy wizard cling to the top spot for so long. The Lone Ranger (29th; $260.5m) is dead wood. World War Z (11th; $540m), Oz the Great and Powerful (12th; $493.3m) and Pacific Rim (16th; $407.6m) were all putative franchise-starters that didn't fully ignite; the execs' fingers presumably hovered over the greenlight button for sequels there. Pacific Rim, especially, was only saved by its impressive $111.9m Chinese take – validating Guillermo del Toro's eastern-centric canvas and casting in the end. Man of Steel (6th; $662.8m) was airborne, but not quite in speeding-bullet territory yet.
The Hunger Games and The Hobbit are definitely going concerns, showing the strong/expanding overseas base de rigueur for sequels these days. That movement is also true of Star Trek Into Darkness (14th; $467.4m) – but it remains an enigmatically US-centric divertissement, and still hasn't yielded megabucks. All in all, 2013 suffered a lack of anything new, piquant and resounding in the franchise world; the amount of critic-proof kids' fare (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, The Croods, Frozen) plumping out the box office was telling. Maleficent, Guardians of the Galaxy and Jupiter Ascending step up to the plate for their shot next year. Anyone waiting for the implosion of the blockbuster-franchise paradigm will have to treasure Gravity's 7th place ($653.3m) for now – a stunning result for a bona fide one-off, old-fashioned spectacular with absolutely no thoughts of a prequel, sequel or spin-off (apart from that Inuit thing).
Check your currency
Getting excited about a $1bn gross is so 2008. One billion yuan ($160m) is the box-office benchmark that movie stat heads should get goosebumps over now. That was the threshold breached at the beginning of the year in China by Stephen Chow's mythological romp Journey to the West – hard on the heels of 2012's Hangover rip-off Lost in Thailand, the first to achieve the feat. If any more proof was needed of the maturing Chinese market and the Chinese film industry's growing ability to feed it, then sentimental drama So Young and sleuth prequel Young Detective Dee came within touching distance of 1bn yuan, and three other films posted strong results that ushered them into the top 10. One more: Feng Xiaogang's fantasy-fulfilment satire Personal Tailor, now in cinemas, looks a good bet to outstrip Journey to the West and hit 10 digits, too.
With six of China's top 10 grossing films of 2013 homegrown (compared to three in 2012), the Chinese are showing signs of finally understanding how to turn their domestic market into a fortress – a crucial first step if they are to eventually go toe-to-toe with Hollywood. The Americans have their own bastion, of course, but US box office – despite early reports projecting a $10.9bn record for 2013 – is stagnant where it really matters: admissions. The reverse is true – spectacularly so – in China. Even using the most conservative growth projections, it will be the world's biggest movie market by the end of 2018. If the 1bn-yuan club packing them in stays predominantly Chinese, multiplex lineups in every time zone could start looking very different.
The rest of the world
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Of course, for the moment, Chinese cinema has a big export problem – and few of its class of 2013 looked like mainstream-botherers abroad. Journey to the West gets a US release on 7 March, but only Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster ($64m) has registered at international level lately. Crossovers from anywhere else were equally scarce, with no sign of an Intouchables-style foreign-language ambush on the global mainstream, and Studio Ghibli's brand clout making it the one predictable fixture: Goro Miyazaki's From Up on Poppy Hill did a respectable global run ($56m) and his dad's swansong, The Wind Rises, is certain – on the back on $119m in Japan – to surpass it next year.
Les Misérables's $441.8 haul through the first few months of the year gave British film big lungs, and Philomena ($33m) is travelling passably. The big local hits in France, Germany and Italy, meanwhile, didn't get a look-in outside their countries of origin. But there are a few other hopefuls on the breakout front: Russia's No 1 film, the numinous 3D war film Stalingrad ($52m domestic), has already opened its account well in China, and been picked up by Sony for release in the UK on 21 February. In the last few weeks, Aamir Khan's buddy-cop movie Dhoom 3 has reminded us, with some of the strongest overseas business since My Name is Khan and 3 Idiots, that Bollywood can be a global player.
And then there's Bong Joon-ho's South Korean locomotive-based barnstormer Snowpiercer, currently in agonising Han Solo-style carbonite freeze in Anglophone markets as the Weinsteins dig their heels in over the English-language cut. Considering that, at $40m, it's the country's most expensive film ever, it could be said to have disappointed at home (it wound up at No 4, taking $59m). But with its mostly English-speaking cast (including Tilda Swinton fielding the fruitiest Yorkshire accent since Geoff Boycott), it was built for international transit – and its quirky interpretation of dystopic sci-fi's operating manual could see it do runaway box office in the right hands. Harvey and Bob, do the decent thing: take off the brakes.
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