The US box office so far this year has seen audiences embrace a string of star-driven thrillers and chick flicks. So why are safe, old-fashioned concepts working so well?

It’s an exciting time at the box office in 2012. The Presidents Day weekend box office in the US was up 10% on the same four day period last year, while so far year on year, box office is up 9% on last year.
Movie stars were back in fashion and drawing in the crowds, a big sudsy romance – The Vow – was posting blockbuster numbers, and even underwhelming sequels to Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, Underworld and Ghost Rider were over-delivering. For Jan and Feb - months which are anything but dependable for distributors – audiences have been showing remarkable loyalty to tried-and-tested talent and stock Hollywood story packages.
The box office numbers demonstrate certain trends:
- 58 year-old Denzel Washington with Safe House and 60 year-old Liam Neeson with The Grey proved that grizzled men in late middle age have still got what it takes in action pictures, leaving young pretenders like Taylor Lautner and Sam Worthington in the dust.
- Solid entertaining thrillers like Safe House, Contraband and The Grey may not be breaking the mold in the creative scheme of things but they are still a draw in North America.
- A cleverly pitched lower budget genre film like The Woman In Black can hit the jackpot, especially if it has the right name in the lead role – in this case Daniel Radcliffe. The movie has been doing spectacular business in the UK as well as in the domestic market and Radcliffe has been promoting it tirelessly around the world, illustrating not only that talent promotion still works wonders but that this particular Potter alumnus has a wider appeal than the series for which he became famous.
- Romance isn’t dead. As distributed by Screen Gems, the Sony division which has a particularly astute sense of what the audience wants to see, The Vow is racing towards $100m and beyond, filling a void as a must-see chick flick and confirming Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, The Time Traveler’s Wife) as the queen of the women’s movie.
- Families need movies every week of the year and Warner Bros tapped into that need with Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, switching out Brendan Fraser for The Rock in the 3D adventure and grossing a stunning $200m worldwide so far.
- 3D is far from dead, as witnessed by the success of new versions of Beauty And The Beast ($47m) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ($36m and counting). With Titanic on the way on April 4, the 3D-ification market is booming. Old is good.
I have a couple of theories for this return to conventional moviegoing appetites, which perhaps first showed its face when Tom Cruise came back into fashion with a third Mission: Impossible sequel.
First, the appetite for expensive, effects-laden spectacles might be on the wane. Disney’s $250m Mars epic John Carter is getting poisonous advance press, and the Superbowl ads for Battleship, The Avengers and GI Joe: Retaliation were all similar, generic and tired.
Second, the awards season has not been as successful in driving box office as it was last year when The King’s Speech, True Grit, Black Swan and The Fighter all did big business through to the Academy Awards. This year, The Weinstein Company is reaping gradual rewards from The Artist (on $28m at presstime) and The Iron Lady ($24.7m), Fox Searchlight has kept The Descendants strong ($75.6m) and Focus has done well with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ($22.8m) but other big awards titles – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Albert Nobbs, My Week With Marilyn, Shame, Carnage, In The Land Of Blood And Honey et al – have failed to convert the free publicity and awards heat into significant box office return.
The message from US audiences so far in 2012 is clear: give them entertaining films with dependable movie stars and tested genres and they will turn out in droves. Conventional wisdom that wide audiences only want effects, high concepts and comic book brands is, as yet this year, unproven.