2010 provided valuable lessons about what works - and, more important, what doesn't work - when it comes to the box office performance of movies. Studios, in planning the kinds of films to make this year and next, might want to take note:
1. Be careful what you pay for.
Reese Witherspoon ("How Do You Know"), Johnny Depp ("The Tourist"), Russell Crowe ("The Next Three Days") and Tom Cruise ("Knight and Day") still command fat paychecks, but what's good for their agents isn't necessarily good for the box office: Each of the actors' last movies faltered. And Disney spent about $260 million making "Tangled" (domestic gross: $132 million), whose performance was clobbered by Universal's $69-million-budgeted animated movie "Despicable Me" (domestic gross: $250.6 million).
2. Originality is for the ivory tower.
Of the year's 10 top-grossing films, only two - "Despicable Me" and Chris Nolan's "Inception" - were purely original: not sequels, remakes or adaptations. Even Pixar Animation Studios is hitching its wagon to the do-it-again horse, with "Cars 2" and "Monsters Inc. 2" among its next animated features. And the major studios? Look for a summer of "Pirates of the Caribbean 4," "Kung Fu Panda 2," "The Hangover 2," "Transformers 3," "Harry Potter 7: Part 2" - you get the picture.
3. Kids rule.
If you're a parent, you already know that - but now even the most child-phobic studio executives will have to change their thinking. The G-rated "Toy Story 3" was the year's top-grossing film and the biggest hit in Pixar's history. Despite dreadful notices, "The Last Airbender" packed in families, and the well-reviewed "Despicable Me" and "How to Train Your Dragon" each grossed more than $200 million. But it's not all about rugrats: "The Expendables" and "Red" proved grandparents matter, too.
4. The art house stands on a shaky foundation.
Fox Searchlight saw its movies gross an average of $22.4 million in 2009, but the average (with the studio's "Black Swan" not yet at its peak) fell to $12.6 million in 2010. Other highbrow movie outfits struggled to find a breakout hit, and NBC Universal may sell Focus Features. "The Kids Are All Right," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Winter's Bone" and "City Island" were among the strong performers, but a number of acclaimed dramas - "Never Let Me Go" among them - flamed out fast.
5. There's no trade deficit in Hollywood.
Many movies that might have been dismissed for less-than-stellar performance domestically turned in huge numbers overseas. "Robin Hood," starring Russell Crowe, grossed $105.3 million in the U.S. and Canada but $212.8 million beyond our borders. The receipts were similarly lopsided for several other titles, including "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" ($90.8 million domestically, $244.4 million overseas), "Resident Evil: Afterlife" ($60.1 million domestically, $234 million overseas) and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" ($63.2 million domestically, $152.1 million overseas).