Hollywood loves its unstable characters, and this summer it played one.
One of the most unpredictable movie seasons in memory careens to a close with the Labor Day holiday weekend, and analysts see three distinct ways to interpret ticket sales.
For bottom-liners, summer was an unqualified success: Ticket sales will hit a record $4.7 billion, according to projections from Hollywood.com.
Those who look at the bigger picture point to overall attendance numbers, which are down 3% from last year and indicate a flatlining business.
And for those trying to read the cinematic tea leaves, the summer was nothing less than maddening. "I don't ever recall a summer with this many high-profile flops," says Hollywood.com's Paul Dergarabedian. "You'd think we'd be down (in ticket sales), and we'll hit a record. It was a schizophrenic summer."
Among the high-profile misses: The Internship, which cost $58 million but managed just $45 million; The Lone Ranger, which lassoed only $88 million against its $215 million price tag; and White House Down, the $150 million political thriller that mustered just $72 million.
Still, the season shattered the 2011 summer box office record of $4.4 billion. While observers say the record-high cost of tickets - now at an average $8.38 apiece - helped set the record, moviegoers turned out for unexpected films to overcome the midsummer string of big-budget movie turkeys.
Among the surprises:
. The female buddy-cop film starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock was this summer's Hangover,
collaring $156 million.
• The Conjuring.
Few horror films cross the $100 million mark, but this haunted-house tale has done a blistering $132 million - more than six times its production budget.
• World War Z.
Last-minute re-shoots and declining star power had analysts predicting doom for this Brad Pitt zombie thriller. But Z rose from the dead to an impressive $199 million.
The common denominator? Few saw the hits coming.
"The midlevel movies over-performed," says Jeff Bock, vice president of industry trackers Exhibitor Relations. "But there was no telling what would happen this year. We knew Iron Man 3 would be big (the summer's box-office champ at $409 million). But that was it."
Dergarabedian says that studios and analysts may be putting too much stock in social media, where films like Pacific Rim ($99 million) and Kick-Ass 2 ($23 million) lit up Facebook and Twitter but didn't translate into dollars.
"If there's a lesson here, it may be that social media measures awareness, not intent," he says. "Just because people know a movie is coming out, that doesn't mean they're going to go see it. I think we'll look at summer, scratch our heads and say, 'What the hell just happened?' "