LOS ANGELES -- In the end, not even The Avengers could save the summer box office.
Astronomical receipts for the early May smash starring some of Marvel's biggest superheroes -- which has become the third highest-grossing film of all time -- weren't enough to prevent the summer box office from closing down roughly 3 percent to $4.3 billion compared to the same period from May to Labor Day in 2011.
Attendance, meanwhile, tumbled about 4 percent to 533 million, according to Hollywood.com, the lowest number in almost 20 years.
Not that there weren't hits. In addition to Avengers, which has grossed $620 million domestically and is still earning, Christopher Nolan's grim farewell to Gotham City, The Dark Knight Rises, has so far earned $431 million, while another costumed crime-fighter, The Amazing Spider-Man, has made $260 million.
The surprise hit comedy Ted, starring Mark Wahlberg and a foul-mouthed CG-animated bear, brought in $216 million. (A total of 11 pictures grossed more than $100 million this summer, compared with 15 in summer 2011.)
But if there's a bigger picture for Hollywood coming out of the busiest moviegoing season, it's surely a split screen -- on one side are the intermittent hits, on the other a long string of film flops.
Big-budget spectacles such as Battleship, the Tom Cruise-led musical Rock of Ages and the oddball historical horror-action movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter joined the remake of the sci-fi thriller Total Recall, the sequel The Expendables 2 and the reboot The Bourne Legacy in the heap of misfires.
And then there was Oogieloves. The toddler-aimed film from toy mogul Kenn Viselman earned a dubious distinction this Labor Day holiday weekend: Its three-day weekend gross of $445,089 marked the lowest opening ever for a movie in wide release.
By the end of Monday, The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure was expected to collect $601,545 -- meaning its per-theater weekend average would be a whopping $278.
Signs of a weaker summer were visible early on. Box-office totals for the four-day Memorial Day weekend were off 31 percent from the same period a year earlier. Men in Black 3 drove the weekend with a respectable $70 million, but its box-office numbers couldn't compete with the 2011 Memorial Day totals driven by The Hangover 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2.
Box-office watchers offered varying explanations for the bottoming out of the box office.
Some blamed the hugely popular Olympics telecast, which set viewing records.
Others cited the July 20 massacre during a Dark Knight screening near Denver.
The shooting left 12 people dead and 58 wounded and, according to a survey by the consulting firm Screen Engine, left many Americans uneasy about going into the movie theater.
Four weeks after the shooting, more than 17 percent said they were leery of attending a movie.
At least one movie executive, however, said the fault lies with the movies themselves.
"You can't get away from what happened in Denver," said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution for Warner Bros.
"But hanging your hat on the tragedy and saying, 'That's the problem with the end of the summer at the box office' isn't right. It comes down to the content. There were real disappointments this summer that just didn't deliver."
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