Sometimes, everything just goes your way.
Top Film Industry Stories of 2015:
#2 Universal is Practically Perfect
By Kim Hollis
January 22, 2016
2015 was just such a time for Universal Pictures, a year that saw them place six films in the top 20 highest domestic grossers - and that’s competing with five other major studios, six if you count Lionsgate. Even more impressive, three of Universal’s top six grossing films ever were released in 2015. They didn’t achieve these lofty heights as a matter of routine, either. Every couple of weeks, the BOP staff was discussing another Universal breakout success and analyzing how they continued to defy expectations.
It all kicked off with the Valentine’s Day weekend release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Over the past few years, we’ve seen female-targeted films excel at the box office, from Sex and the City to Twilight. With its built-in book audience, Fifty Shades of Grey took advantage of its 68% female audience to debut with an absolutely massive $85.2 million. It stole the record for top February opener from The Passion of the Christ, and it did so even though reviews were pretty subpar. This audience didn’t particularly care, as they were going to pack into theaters on opening weekend regardless. Ultimately, the $40 million-budgeted film finished with $166.2 million and has a worldwide total of $570.5 million.
Only two months into the year, Universal was already setting the pace.
When April rolled around, it was time for the studio to kick it into an unimaginable gear. Furious 7 debuted on April 3rd, and as it did it rewrote the rules for what people believed to be possible for the franchise. It opened $50 million higher than the previous film in the series, Fast & Furious 6, as it came in with $147.2 million in its first three days. It also had an almost ridiculous overseas opening of $250.5 million. Eventually, it went on to tally $353 million from domestic venues, and a gaudy $1.51 billion worldwide. It is currently the sixth biggest all-time worldwide earner - and is only in that position because Jurassic World and Star Wars would pass it later in the year. Furious 7 is a rare example of a multi-demographic film, appealing to men, women, and minorities. Yes, the film’s success can partially be attributed to Paul Walker’s death, but ultimately, the studio presented a well-received, entertaining movie that pulled all the right levers.
They could have rested on their laurels for the rest of 2015 and still called it a great year.
You probably remember Pitch Perfect as one of those “little movies that could.” It debuted with $5.1 million in 2012 before going on to leg it out to $65 million in domestic earnings. From that point, it became a hugely popular home video selection, which paved the way for Universal’s next big thing in 2015. During the weekend of May 15th, it debuted to $69.2 million, $4 million more than the original film made during its entire domestic run. Considering the tiny $29 million budget, the film didn’t really even have to do anything else before exiting theaters, but it still came in with $184.3 million domestically and $287.1 million worldwide.
Universal’s ability to turn everything they touched to gold was becoming a noticeable, significant story. And yet, June would be the month where they blasted into the stratosphere.
Yes, you all know where I’m going with this. Jurassic World became the biggest opener of all-time with $208 million, eventually winding up with $652.3 million domestically and $1.67 billion worldwide. I’m not going to dwell much on the how and why of what happened here - if you haven’t already checked out our about the film’s amazing performance, you should go ahead and read it right now. I’ll wait here for just a minute while you do.
With the prehistoric monsters having rapaciously chomped down on the box office, Universal moved on to July, where they had two impressive new releases. The first was the animated Minions, which set the little yellow sidekicks out on their own adventure. The Minions were our #6 story from the year 2013 thanks to Despicable Me 2’s $83.5 million debut, $368.1 million domestic take, and $970 million worldwide earnings. There was some question as to whether people would support a film dominated solely by the Minions (as Gru and his daughter’s are a key reason the Despicable Me films are so beloved), but those worries were needless. Minions debuted with $115.7 million before going on to earn $336 million domestically. Sure, that number was slightly less than Despicable Me 2’s total, but Minions more than made it up with its worldwide total, which came in at $1.16 billion. It’s currently the 11th highest worldwide grossing film of all-time.
This is probably the moment where I should point out that three of the top 11 highest worldwide grossing films of all-time came from Universal. In 2015.
The studio’s other July success came from Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow in the form of the comedy Trainwreck. The film was able to ride a wave of rapturous reviews to a strong opening weekend of $30 million and an eventual total of $110.2 million - all on a $35 million budget. The film unfortunately also generated headlines of the unwanted sort when a gunman fired into a crowd at a screening of the movie in Lafayette, Louisiana, killing two and wounding nine. This heinous act had little impact on Trainwreck’s overall performance, but rather saw numerous theater chains enact additional security measures, including bag searches. The film won a few awards from critics’ circles, and also received Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy and one for Schumer for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.
Summer closed out with a final exclamation point as Straight Outta Compton defied expectations to debut with $60.2 million. The biographical drama about N.W.A. played heavily into nostalgia for the ‘80s and ‘90s as it took advantage of fantastic word-of-mouth to earn an eventual $161.2 million from the North American box office. It just barely crossed the $200 million mark worldwide. It’s currently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and also received a Producers Guild nomination for Best Theatrical Motion Picture.
If you haven’t been counting along, all the films I’ve mentioned so far combined for domestic box office of $2 billion.
And yet, that number doesn’t count the studio’s single miss (which I’ll get to in a minute), their two horror releases, or a Christmas release. The horror releases were M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which had a tiny $5 million budget but opened to $25.4 million. Its eventual total was $65.2 million domestically (and worldwide was almost $100 million). Then there was Krampus, the December horror story that debuted with $16.3 million and pulled in $42.7 million in North America, all on a $15 million budget. When even your horror films are rocking, you know you’re having a great year.
The studio’s Christmas holiday release was the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters, which started off okay with $13.9 million but has a current domestic total of $83.4 million with still a little bit of gas in the tank. It had a $30 million budget, so once again, the studio had perfectly targeted a film to a welcoming demographic.
I mentioned a solitary miss on the studio’s release schedule, and it does bear discussing. Ted 2, the sequel to the raunchy talking teddy bear comedy that earned $218.8 million during its domestic release in 2012, was an inarguable disappointment. Clearly, once was enough for most people with regards to the foul-mouthed bear, because the follow-up got started with $33.5 million over three days (a 39% decline from the first film’s $54.4 million opening) and ended its North American run with just $81.5 million. Ultimately, the budget was $68 million, and the movie did make $215.9 million worldwide and should do well on home video, but it certainly felt like the studio missed an opportunity here. But since it opened two weeks after Jurassic World, we’re guessing it didn’t sting too much.
What may be the most remarkable about this remarkable domination of the box office is the consistency of it. Every time we had a story about Universal debuting a new film (with the exception of Ted 2, of course), we invariably talked about how the film overperformed and defied expectations. Kudos go to Universal both for picking such ideal projects and for perfectly marketing them in such a way that they broke outside of their established demographic base. It’ll be interesting to watch whether they rest on these laurels or attempt further domination and growth moving forward.