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The 2013 summer blockbuster season: 7 lessons for Hollywood
Want to make the next Iron Man 3-sized hit? Or at least a profitable summer movie? Here's how.
Who knew superhero franchises could be so profitable!
Who knew superhero franchises could be so profitable! Facebook/Iron Man
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his summer has been the highest-grossing summer in cinema history. You might think otherwise based on the poor critical reception many blockbusters have received — or the long list of high-profile box-office flops — but according to Box Office Mojo, American movie theaters sold 583 million tickets for a total of $4.76 billion this summer — and that's not even counting international grosses. The previous record was $4.4 billion in 2011.

Here are seven ways Hollywood studios can re-create their 2013 success in future summers.

1. Don't make any original movies
The most obvious and durable piece of recent Hollywood wisdom holds up again. Of the 10 highest-grossing movies released worldwide this summer, there are six sequels, one prequel, and one reboot. The "originality" of high-profile blockbuster flops like R.I.P.D. and White House Down is a matter of some dispute, but it's safe to say that you're a lot more likely to earn your investment back if you bet on a property with a proven track record.

2. Everything should be in 3D
Conventional wisdom holds that audiences have grown tired of 3D — and if it were up to domestic audiences, that conventional wisdom might actually hold up. Out of the 10 highest-grossing movies released domestically this summer, three — Fast & Furious 6, The Heat, and The Conjuring — were released without 3D glasses (and the surcharge that comes along with them).

But as soon as the international box office is figured in, it becomes clear that the death of 3D has been greatly exaggerated. Out of the 10 highest-grossing films released worldwide, all but one — Fast & Furious 6 — were released in 3D, with movies like The Heat and The Conjuring being edged out by 3D releases like Pacific Rim and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. As long as that appetite for the technology continues to exist abroad, you'd be crazy not to release your blockbuster in 3D and enjoy the substantial box-office boost you get for it.

3. Foreign audiences are just as important as — if not more important than — domestic audiences
You'd be crazy not to think about how to draw foreign audiences to your blockbusters — and your first step should be thinking about China. Critics rolled their eyes when Marvel announced that it was tacking on four minutes of extra (and essentially irrelevant) scenes to Iron Man 3 for Chinese audiences, including appearances from Chinese movie stars Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing. But Iron Man 3 is easily the highest-grossing movie of the year — the only film to make over $1 billion at the box office in 2013 — and $120 million of that came from China. The growth of the Chinese box office has been so substantial that it can make or break a film. Pacific Rim was a minor flop domestically, but a $110 million hit in China — a number that might be substantial enough to green-light a sequel.

4. Don't spend $200 million on a movie
A recent article in The Hollywood Reporter described studios' newfound reluctance to budget a film at $200 million after the massive write-downs required for failures like The Lone Ranger, After Earth, and White House Down. Blockbusters can be — and have been — made for cheaper; The Wolverine's franchise-low gross of $358 million worldwide is a much easier pill to swallow when it cost just $120 million to produce.

5. Cheap horror movies will always be profitable
If you're scared off blockbusters for good, there is a lower-risk, lower-reward market that's far more consistent. The Conjuring, which grossed over $240 million worldwide on a skimpy $20 million budget, might be the summer's unlikeliest mega-hit, besting far more expensive rivals like The Lone Ranger and White House Down. The Conjuring is far from alone. Universal's The Purge — which cost just $3 million to produce — earned $34 million on its opening weekend, nearly doubling the opening gross of its far more expensive box-office rival The Internship. It went on to net a stellar $84 million worldwide. And those are just the hits. Even a relative "flop," like Lionsgate's You're Next, has earned nearly $15 million for a film insiders say cost around $1 million to produce. The horror genre mitigates several of the risks that come with blockbusters — you don't generally need big-name stars or major effects work — and audiences have shown that they'll show up to horror movies year-round.

6. There will still be the occasional surprise
In the midst of blockbuster season, the occasional mid-tier film breaks though. This year it was Now You See Me — a $75 million Jesse Eisenberg-starring magician heist flick that earned over $300 million worldwide, though it never even made it to No. 1 at the box office. Now You See Me isn't exactly a plucky indie film — but it's also not a tent-pole release, and no one expected it to out-gross seemingly surefire hits like The Hangover Part III and White House Down at the domestic box office. A sequel, of course, has already been fast-tracked.

7. Independent movies can turn a profit, too
Blue Jasmine, which opened in New York and California in the heart of blockbuster season, earned the best-ever per-screen opening of director Woody Allen's long career and has since grossed well over $20 million. Fox Searchlight's The Way, Way Back has grossed over $19 million. Fruitvale Station has grossed over $15 million. These smaller pictures, which sit at the bottom of the charts and are often dismissed as niche counter-programming, are actually earning tidy profits. In the midst of all this analysis, the simplest rule is still the best: If you make a quality film at any scale, an audience is exponentially more likely to find it.

Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticOutside Magazine, and Think Progress.

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