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Hollywood's 'disappointing' summer sets box office record

Summer 2013 didn't generate too much buzz at the box office, but it did generate a record amount of money. Call it Hollywood's summer of not-quite-blockbusters.

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This film image released by Universal Pictures shows Ethan Hawke in a scene from 'The Purge,' one of the summer's unexpected box office hits.

Daniel Mcfadden/Universal Pictures/AP

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The story of the 2013 summer film season, which officially ended on Labor Day, would seem to be a tale of disappointments.

First, there were the potential blockbusters that flopped, from "The Lone Ranger" to "After Earth." And second, many of the successes were sequels ("Iron Man 3"), prequels ("Monsters University"), or reboots to old franchises ("Man of Steel"), meaning the summer lacked a big infusion of excitement or innovation.

Yet with the figures now in, 2013 will go down as the biggest summer in American movie history, taking in $4.76 billion and topping 2011's record of $4.4 billion. Even taking into account the fact that movie tickets cost more because of inflation and 3D, 2013 did well, with more tickets sold than in any summer since 2007.

How did that happen?

The simple answer is that Hollywood had more mid-range hits than normal this summer, more than making up for the lack of mega-blockbusters.

There were some surprise hits, like "The Conjuring" and "The Purge." And there were a string of movies that did very well, even though they didn't quite hit blockbuster range, such as "Despicable Me 2," "Star Trek: Into Darkness," and "Fast and Furious 6."

For Hollywood, summer 2013 was a confusing concoction – a record season that felt underwhelming.

"I'm not sure there are any grand lessons to be learned from this except that you have to throw a lot of stuff on the wall of mass culture to see what sticks," says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "Yes, there were no mega-blockbusters, and yes, the movies way down the list at 4, 5, 6 and lower made up for the gap … but to translate that into a workable formula is impossible. That’s why they call it show business and not mathematics."

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