Box Office Has Record Year as Few Share the Wealth

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Courtesy of Disney

At the multiplexes this year, it was a clear case of the haves and have nots.

Thanks to monster hits such as “Furious 7,” “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — all four of which will end up among the top seven highest-grossing films — ticket sales soared to record levels. For the first time in history, the domestic box office will hit $11 billion, but that hefty number was achieved on the back of a small collection of pictures.

Through Christmas weekend, the top ten films in 2015 accounted for nearly 35% of overall ticket sales. Last year that number was less than 25%.

“A significant portion of the overall gross was coming from far fewer films,” notes Chris Aronson, Fox’s domestic distribution chief. “Yes, it was an up year, but that was driven by fewer films than normal.”

And while there was a great preponderance of global-spanning blockbusters than ever before, with five movies likely to exceed $1 billion in revenue for the first time, the wealth was more concentrated. Here’s a sign of how the riches weren’t divided as equitably. In 2013 and 2014, thirteen films made more than $200 million domestically, while in 2012, eleven pictures exceeded that threshold. This year, only nine films have eclipsed that figure.

For studios that do manage to tap into the zeitgeist, the rewards are plentiful. That latest “Star Wars” has a good chance of blowing past “Avatar” to become the highest-grossing film. The mammoth hauls for “Jurassic World” and “Furious 7” demonstrate that even after a decade, these franchises are only increasing in popularity. And films like “The Martian” and “Inside Out” rode a wave of critical raves to commercial riches both here and abroad. They manage to enjoy what in television is referred to as “water-cooler status” — a cultural primacy that has people rushing out to multiplexes to see them so they won’t be left out of the conversation.

“The heavy lifting is being done by fewer films, but the ones that work, man do they work,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment.

It’s not just that a few films were responsible for a greater percentage of the gross that’s signaling the movie business, like the American economy at large, is entering a period of income inequality. Only two studios, Universal and Disney, were responsible for the top six grossing films — the first time that has happened since at least 1980.

The one-percenters’ slice of the overall pie was far greater too. Universal, which fielded “Jurassic World,” “Furious 7,” and “Minions,” commanded 22% of the market share and earned a massive $6.8 billion globally. In the past fifteen years, no studio has gobbled up more 20% of the market and exceeded $6 billion in receipts.

For its part, Disney, armed with popular brands such as Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm, exceed $5 billion globally for the first time, and currently is seen as a studio superpower without equal.

“The rich got richer and the poor got poorer,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This isn’t just something we’re going to see more of in the future. This is the future. Disney is now a super studio. The other studios can’t touch them right now.”

The discrepancy in wealth accumulation is squeezing out mid-range hits, Bock and others argue. There is still a week left in 2015, but it appears as thought the number of films that gross $100 million or more will likely be at its lowest levels in five years. A sign that studios are hitting for power rather than average, mashing more home runs and scoring fewer doubles and triples.

The new model also allows films to land with a louder thud than previously suffered. The year had three of the 10 best openings in history with “Jurassic World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” but also suffered six of the worst wide-release debuts ever with “We Are Your Friends,” “Jem and the Holograms,” “Burnt,” “The Walk,” “Victor Frankenstein” and “Rock the Kasbah.” Many of these pictures had big stars and high-profile directors and it didn’t make a difference with audiences.

“There is no floor any more,” said Aronson. “We used to be able to open something like ‘Victor Frankestein’ to $8 million and we could do $20 million and lick our wounds. But we’re going to do $6 million on that movie, and that’s with Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy.”

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  1. James says:

    Every one of the films you used in you worst releases were given really horrible reviews and none of them had an ad buy/screen count even close to the big successes mentioned. Not a good mixture in this day and age.

  2. Robert says:

    OMG! As I was reading this article I was already planning a sarcastic “Income inequality at the box office” comment and then the author actually went there! “The discrepancy in wealth accumulation is squeezing out mid-range hits,” Are they serious!? Now we’re going to be told which movies we have to go to so that everyone has a hit and doesn’t get their feelings hurt because we were not interested in viewing their product? So what if Victor Frankenstein had stars and a director? Obviously people were not interested in seeing that story! Move on! You invested your money, thought it would be a hit, It wasn’t, now stop your whining and try something else! Maybe something original. Look at how well The Martian did. It was based on those things that most people these days seldom use, BOOKS!
    I weep for the future!

  3. Kyle Lauren says:

    A reflection of America in 2015 : 99% of the wealth amassed by 1% of the participants. So America now relies on the generosity of the 1% to survive.

    Nice job, guys.

    • Mr Furious says:

      “So America now relies on the generosity of the 1% to survive. ” You’re a moron. The 1% are anything but generous. They don’t pay taxes. They don’t spend their money. They do nothing.

  4. Jake says:

    “But we’re going to do $6 million on that movie, and that’s with Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy.” Sure, their presence guarantees big openings!

  5. C.M. Brandt says:

    It was a good year for massivly budgeted tenpoles, with only a few disasters like Jupiter Ascending and Tomorrowland. But it’s unfortunate that most of the mid-budget adult fare were weak films like Our Brand Is Crisis, Burnt, Aloha, Rock The Kasbah. Just as back in 2013 people were predicting a move away from relying on just a few gazillion dollar budgeted films to carry the box office after the likes of 47 Ronin, Ender’s Game, Jack The Giant Slayer, RIPD, The Lone Ranger and White House Down. There’s still a market for small adult fare like Ex Machina to break out.

    • Adam says:

      Actually, 2015 had quite a few big budget disasters. In addition to “Tomorrowland” and “Jupiter Ascending” there was also “Seventh Son”, “In the Heart of the Sea”, “The Last Witch Hunter”, “Pan”, “The Man from UNCLE” and “Fantastic Four”.

      • jedi77 says:

        The point is a good one.
        Out of all the films mentioned, Our Brand Is Crisis, Burnt, Aloha, Rock The Kasbah, “Tomorrowland”, “Jupiter Ascending”, “Seventh Son”, “In the Heart of the Sea”, “The Last Witch Hunter”, “Pan”, “The Man from UNCLE” and “Fantastic Four” – only “The Man from UNCLE” was relatively well recieved by critics and audiences alike.
        The rest are savaged on RT as well as on IMDB.

        The point is, no matter the budget, a bad film is in a high risk of loosing money at the box office.

        Only franchise tentpoles are quality proof in the way that even if the audience don’t really like them, they still go see them (Transformers).

        And what that means for the mid-budget adult oriented films, is an even greater need to be good.
        I would never go see Our Brand Is Crisis, Burnt, Aloha or Rock The Kasbah, because the reviews were scathing. It isn’t that we the audience are killing the mid-budget, adult oriented films. They are killing themselves when the quality is as low as that.

        Just, for the love of God, make better films.

  6. Adam says:

    Why all of the complaints? If art house and indie movies are your thing you have nothing to worry about. Plenty are still being made and you can still watch them from many different sources besides a movie theatre. Sorry but the big mega movie theatre chains like Cinemark or Regal aren’t going to be showing artsy stuff. Their business overhead doesn’t allow it.

  7. Rudy Mario says:

    JAMES whatever and Rad whatever are stars ? Did not know that. The cited flop movies were almost all very low budget that yes, used to have some swing. NoW with netflix and HBO, it has moved over. Wonder why the real flops Luke UNCLE, that whale movie, and other high priced were not mentioned.

  8. jonnyrp says:

    Like others have already said, a lot of interesting small films will be shown once or during a week end only and hit the direct to video market.:( I miss the days when indies and more intriguing, original films had a market, or at least a shot at being seen in a bigger number of theaters in North America. They could still make it and become a cult classic in Europe during festivals even if they were lesser known entities in their own countries. As we’re having a record year, it seems that time will just flow by and we’ll keep getting less and less choices each year to sink our teeth into. This has already become boring to look at the films that will play at our local theaters.

    I’d rather have people taking more chances with smaller films and stars, as it was once the case.

    • jedi77 says:

      We are all to blame. We decide which films make money, and which films don’t.
      And we have voted for the blockbusters this year.

      What I think should be noted though, is that the films mentioned as flops all had terrible reviews.
      So when saying that they had ” big stars and high-profile directors and it didn’t make a difference”, don’t forget that they had terrible reviews as well – and that did make a difference with audiences.

      I hate it when crap films are trotted out and studio people cry about them not making money. Just make decent films, and there’s a better chance people will go see them.

  9. James says:

    “Disney is now a super studio. The other studios can’t touch them right now.”

    Actually, genius, look a couple of paragraphs up….Universal killed it without a single superhero movie or Star Wars nostalgia.

    • Chirs says:

      No, just Jurassic Park nostalgia… Don’t throw shade at people when you’re using half truths. Universal never makes this much money, Jurassic World is their new stake in the game. Disney JUST released Star Wars and had the Avengers. It’s income will overshadow Universal’s. But calling out Disney for capitalizing on nostalgia and acting like Universal didn’t is ridiculous. That’s on top of the fact that both Age of Ultron and The Force Awakens were better made blockbusters than either Furious 7 or Jurassic World.

      • jedi77 says:

        Thank you for your reply. The OP is clearly in denial about Universal’s nostalgia trip to Jurrassic World, and the whole “Paul Walker is dead” nostalgia which was behind the runaway success of Furious 7.

        Universal’s year is based on nostalgia.

  10. Cath says:

    If you go back years and years this same article has been written over and over. The only difference is in the amounts of money pulled in by certain studios. The percentages probably are the same. Every year we get the, “The small pictures don’t get seen,” theme. Gee, if they would find theaters to put small pictures, offering them in most communities, maybe people would go see them. There are at least 5 movies out there right now that I would go see if they were being shown in my community. I would be surprised if they make it here at all.

    • James says:

      I know, man. It’s so frustrating that we keep hearing how their is so much content out there, but the smaller movies get a single screen in most major cities while Star Wars gets 1,000 in the same region.

  11. Rae says:

    Victor Frankenstein was pulled prematurely from theaters. It also got jerked around in it’s release date. Originally was set to open in October, which was appropriate due to the subject matter, but then was moved to November up against Mockingjay2. Lack of promotion was also a factor. I enjoyed the movie and really liked the perspective they story was told from. I wanted to see it a second time but it had already been pulled from the theater.

    • Jake says:

      Pulled prematurely? Theaters owners are in business to make money. Victor Frankenstein was out grossed by all openers that week. The lowest opener of the following week was going to out gross Victor’s per screen average. Why wouldnt you get rid of it to show a movie that was going to generate more revenue. You drop it as soon as you can. That’s business.

    • gkn says:

      Yes, there often seems to be a LOT of self-fulfilled predictions on films not made for overgrown boys. The more interesting films whiz past so fast, you have to be really on your toes to see them in time.

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