By Bryan Alexander

School kids might beg to differ, but Hollywood isn’t missing the summer of 2014. Instead, studio bean-counters are warming to autumn, where box-office revenues are beginning to pile up like so many leaves.

The May 2-Labor Day period that constituted the film industry’s crucial summer season closed with a domestic box office total of $4 billion, down 14.6 percent from the giddy success of 2013’s $4.8 billion summer, according to tracking firm Rentrak. “The Expendables 3” was the poster boy for a slew of under-performing blockbusters, limping to a $39 million domestic total.

The spiral continued into early September, but the mid-month arrival of solid performers such as “The Maze Runner” and Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer” triggered a sustained climb that has carried into October.

“By mid-summer everyone screamed that cinema is dead,” says Scott Mendelson, Forbes box office analyst. “And then all of a sudden it’s fall and you get these lower-budget, adult-skewing films along with Oscar-bait movies. Suddenly everyone is like, ‘Movies are great after all.’ ”

In the seven weeks since Sept. 1, the box office has totaled $1.04 billion; that’s up 3.7 percent from the same time period last year and marks the biggest output ever for that span, according to Rentrak.

“Since September, Hollywood has been on a roll and it shows no sign of letting up,” says Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “The turnaround is amazing.”

Instead of tent-pole movies, the autumn rally is being propelled by a diverse slate of modestly budgeted films spread across several categories. Among them:

Oscar bait

“Gone Girl,” adapted by Chicago’s Gillian Flynn from her own blockbuster novel, is the most obvious example of the quality movies offered up to discerning audience members as awards season looms. Director David Fincher’s film topped the box office for its first two weeks and passed the $100 million milestone last weekend.

“This is the baby-sitter movie of the moment,” says Mendelson.

Michael Keaton’s buzzed-about “Birdman” also gave a partly symbolic boost with a strong limited release this past weekend, earning $415,000 in just four theaters. It expands to Chicago theaters on Friday.

Films for grown-ups

Adult-skewing films have dominated the fall box office, led by R-rated projects such as “Gone Girl” and Brad Pitt’s “Fury,” which topped last weekend’s box office at $23.5 million.

“The Equalizer” returned Washington to box office prominence with the fourth highest September debut ever ($34 million), and it has continued to perform, with a domestic total of $89 million.

“The autumn has shown that older audiences still love going to the movies,” says Dergarabedian.

REVIEWS: ‘Gone Girl,’ ‘The Maze Runner,’ ‘The Equalizer,’ ‘Alexander …,’ ‘The Boxtrolls,’ ‘The Book of Life’

Family fare

Young-skewing works have stayed under the radar but performed solidly. Disney’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” out since Oct. 10, continues in the top 10 with $36.8 million. “The Boxtrolls” has quietly pulled in $46 million since its Sept. 26 release.

Even the PG-rated animated “Book of Life” opened last weekend with a solid $17 million, and analysts think it will have legs.

Horror

Though “Annabelle” and “Dracula Untold” lost out to “Gone Girl” in their opening weekends, both have been consistent performers ($74 million and $40 respectively) with gaudy international box office numbers.

Given that Halloween is nigh, “people are in the mood for horror,” says Ryan Turek, editor of horror website ShockTillYouDrop.com.

The industry still has a ways to go to catch 2013’s total domestic haul of $10.9 billion; the marker stands at $8.3 billion now, off about 4 percent from last year at this time. But the autumn jolt is helping.

“The gap is narrowing, but it’s too early in the horse race to see if we can close it completely,” says Dergarabedian. “But we’re on the right track at least.”

Gannett News Service