From 'Jurassic World' to 'Minions': Why Universal Owns the Box Office
From rampaging dinosaurs to yellow henchman, Universal Pictures can't be stopped.
With "Minions" scoring a $115.2 million opening weekend -- the second highest for an animated film, behind 2007's "Shrek the Third" with $121.6 million -- it's not just another hit for Universal this summer, but for the industry in general.
The overall take is keeping up with 2013, the best year to date. It's also part of a stellar year for Universal, which boasted this week that it's reached the $3 billion mark overseas in record time, thanks largely to such hits as "Minions," "Jurassic World," "Pitch Perfect 2," "Furious 7," and "Fifty Shades of Grey."
But the big box office of these movies points to a larger issue. All of them, save "Fifty Shades," are spinoffs, sequels, and/or reboots of previously successful films. (And "Fifty Shades," of course, is based on a huge bestseller.) If Universal had a great first six months of the year, it's only because it's managed to execute better than the other studios that strategy of focusing on blockbusters based on familiar brand-name properties.
So far, Universal has released 10 movies this year. Most of the success comes from the five movies mentioned above. Out of the studio's $4.6 billion take worldwide from 2015 releases, $4.2 billion, or 92 percent, comes from those five movies. Just $350.1 million comes from the remaining films.
What are those other five? There's "Blackhat," a $70 milllion Michael Mann thriller that flopped in January with just $17.3 million worldwide. "The Boy Next Door," the Jennifer Lopez thriller that reportedly cost just $4 million to make but grossed $50.2 million worldwide -- a modest success. There's "Unfriended," a horror film from producer Jason Blum's cheap-scare factory (much like this weekend's "The Gallows"), which cost just $1 million to make but returned $46.7 million worldwide -- making cheap horror the only genre besides franchise entries that offer a huge return on investment (as a percentage, but not in absolute dollars).
And then there was "Seventh Son," a $95-million attempt to launch a young-adult fantasy franchise that bombed big. It earned back just $110.6 million worldwide, which means the movie lost money (once you add in distribution and marketing costs). Finally, there's "Ted 2," with a reported budget between $68 and $85 million. So far, it's made $124.8 million in three weeks, about 22 percent less than the first "Ted" made at the same point in its run. Given its higher budget ("Ted" cost $50 million), the talking-bear sequel has to be considered a stiff disappointment.
So that's two costly franchise failures -- plus one bargain-priced horror hit, one similarly cheap original thriller hit, and one expensive original thriller flop -- against five overwhelmingly successful franchise installments. From a strict accounting standpoint, it's hard to argue against that strategy.
Even the two expensive franchise flops were good gambles (well, at least one of them was; which studio wouldn't have greenlit "Ted 2"?) whose losses were more than offset by the hits.
And the other studios are behaving largely the same way. Disney is now little more than Marvel, Pixar, "Star Wars," and live-action remakes of its cartoon hits. It's one big gamble on an original premise this year, "Tomorrowland," didn't pay off.
Highlights of Paramount's slate so far this year include the "SpongeBob" sequel and "Terminator Genisys," still struggling in its second week but also the studio's second-highest grossing film of the year so far. Coming later this month is the studio's fifth "Mission: Impossible" film.
Fox's big hits so far this year have been franchise launchers "Home" and "KIngsman: The Secret Service," along with Melissa McCarthy comedy "Spy" and action sequel "Taken 3." Coming soon are "Fantastic Four" (reboot of a franchise that's only a decade old), "Hitman: Agent 47" (a reboot of a fairly recent video game-inspired film), a "Maze Runner" sequel, a "Frankenstein" movie, and the latest animated films from the "Peanuts" gang and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Sony has barely made a ripple this year; it's biggest hits have been the "Paul Blart" sequel and the Kevin Hart comedy "The Wedding Ringer." Its big original movies -- Hugh Jackman sci-fi tale "Chappie" and Cameron Crowe romance "Aloha" -- went nowhere. Its upcoming films include two Adam Sandler projects ("Pixels" and animated sequel "Hotel Transylvania 2") and the launch of a franchise based on the "Goosebumps" kiddie-horror books.
Warner Bros., typically the most franchise-minded studio, gave us new installments of "Mad Max" and "Magic Mike," as well as the big-screen version of "Entourage." "Mad Max: Fury Road" aside, however, none of these movies performed as well as the studio's non-franchise films, including: Oscar-nominated war drama "American Sniper," Dwayne Johnson action film "San Andreas," and Will Ferrell-Kevin Hart comedy "Get Hard."
Another attempt at launching a franchise, the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending," was a planet-sized flop. Due by the end of the year, the relaunch of the "Vacation" franchise after 18 years, the big-screen version of 1960s TV spy series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," and a remake of 1991's action thriller "Point Break."
Even though Warners' seems to have done better this year with non-franchise movies than with reboots and sequels, don't expect its strategy to change -- and don't expect the others to change either.
Yes, horror movies, comedies, and mid-budget dramas and thrillers are a lot cheaper to make than big action spectacles, but every studio would rather have the next "Jurassic World" than the next "Unfriended" because the rewards are so much greater.
Hollywood still has to take the occasional risk on originality -- after all, "Minions" is the stepchild of "Despicable Me," a thoroughly original animated feature. But originality seems like little more than a means to an end: a repeatable success. The result may make critics despair and doesn't always please moviegoers either, but it makes studio executives and accountants rub their hands together with glee like Gru or Scarlett Overkill.
By the way, "Despicable Me 3" is coming in 2017.