LOS ANGELES • The movie-going masses sent clear messages last year: They are most definitely not tired of superheroes. The more animated animals, the merrier. Fantasy worlds of any kind, whether underwater or in outer space, are worth the trip to theatres.
But reality? Not so much. Unlike in recent years, when films such as American Sniper (2014) and The Hangover (2009) broke through, not one movie rooted in a real-life setting was among the top 10 box-office performers.
For the box-office year that ended last Saturday, theatres in North America sold an estimated US$11.37 billion (S$16.4 billion) in tickets, a record in raw dollars and a 2 per cent increase over the same period in 2015, according to comScore, which compiles theatrical data.
The top three ticket sellers were Finding Dory (US$486.3 million), the spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (at least US$440 million) and Captain America: Civil War (US$408.1 million).
Despite the increase, the year- end results gave ammunition to those who contend that movie- going in North America is troubled. Higher revenue could be attributed almost entirely to higher ticket prices: Attendance was flat, with about 1.32 billion tickets sold in the United States and Canada. The average ticket price was US$8.61, up from US$8.43.
The riches were also unevenly spread in Hollywood. Eight of the top 15 performing films, including four of the top five, came from Walt Disney Studios, which includes the Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm brands. That astounding performance - Disney's hits included The Jungle Book, Moana, Zootopia and Doctor Strange - resulted in about US$2.7 billion in domestic ticket sales, or more than 25 per cent of the market.
Second-place Warner Bros took in about US$1.87 billion at domestic theatres and had three films in the top 15. They were Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.
On the opposite end of the scale, Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures finished the year with less than US$900 million in domestic ticket sales apiece. Each did spark some cultural heat, however. Sony had the much-discussed, women- led Ghostbusters and Paramount delivered critical darlings such as Arrival and the drama Fences.
Among art film companies, indie distributor Roadside Attractions had a particularly strong run. Successful releases such as Manchester By The Sea and Hello, My Name Is Doris enabled Roadside to take in more than US$70 million, the largest total in its 13-year history, and to have a better year than that of Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Co.
"We zigged when studios zagged, especially in the first half of the year," said Mr Howard Cohen, one of Roadside Attractions' founders.
In March and May, "when major studios were not releasing upscale intelligent films", he said, Roadside was able to push its movies into 900 theatres, a relatively large number for the speciality market.
In recent weeks, prestige films have done well in general. Generating strong sampling over the weekend in a handful of theatres were entries such as Pete Berg's Patriots Day (CBS Films and Lionsgate) and 20th Century Women (A24), a period comedic drama starring Annette Bening.
Since its wide release on Christmas Day, Fences, an adaptation of August Wilson's play about a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh, has taken in about US$32.7 million. That euphorically reviewed film, directed by Denzel Washington and starring Washington and Viola Davis, cost about US$24 million to make.
Even more impressive, La La Land (Lionsgate), a celebrated musical about the romantic and professional trade-offs faced by two young entertainers, has been playing in only 750 theatres before wide release and has taken in about US$37 million, making it the No. 1 prestige release of the year.
Results for La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, are on a par with films such as Silver Linings Playbook, which went on to collect more than US$132 million in the United States and Canada in 2012.
But none of those sophisticated earthbound films were able to attract anything close to the turnout for the top-performing weekend offerings. Rogue One was No. 1, taking in about US$52 million between last Friday and Sunday, for a three- week domestic total of more than US$440 million.
Sing, an animated musical from Illumination Entertainment and Universal, was second, selling about US$41.5 million in tickets, for a two-week total approaching US$180 million.
Passengers, a science-fiction movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, was third, with ticket sales of about US$15 million, for a total since arriving on Dec 21 of more than US$60 million - a bit soft given its production cost of roughly US$110 million, which was shared by Sony and several financing partners.
Passengers, which could make up ground overseas, relied heavily on the star power of Lawrence and Pratt. Star vehicles sometimes worked last year - Ryan Reynolds turned the R-rated Deadpool into a massive hit for 20th Century Fox, and Tyler Perry succeeded in Boo! A Madea Halloween.
But crowds, more often than not, shrugged at marquee names. Suffering flops were Ben Stiller (Zoolander 2), Will Smith (Collateral Beauty) and Julia Roberts (Mother's Day).