From ‘Minions’ to ‘Jurassic World,’ Universal Shows You Don’t Need Superheroes for Record Year

Minions Movie
Courtesy of Universal

Minions,” which this weekend scored the second biggest opening ever for an animated feature, is just the latest hit from Universal Pictures in a year that has overflowed with breakouts and blockbusters.

Thanks to the “Despicable Me” spinoff, “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Jurassic World,” Universal tops all of its rivals in terms of market share, and is likely to be the first studio in history to field three films that top $1 billion globally in a single year.

The studio’s remarkable run is in marked contrast to five years ago, when Universal was mired in last place among the six major Hollywood players, weighed down by costly disappointments such as “The Green Zone” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Its hard climb back to the top is a reminder that, just as Nathaniel Hawthorne famously said of American families, studios are always rising and falling in Hollywood.

Going into 2015, most analysts believed the big story would be Disney, which finally would see major releases from each of its three Tiffany brands — Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. While Disney has enjoyed its share of successes, Universal is likely to have the bigger year, and could even set a new high-water mark for box office results after becoming the fastest studio to cross $3 billion in receipts.

“We’re only in July and they could say we’re done, we’re good and they’d have had a ridiculous year,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “There has to be a vision, and I think Universal has a vision. Some of it’s kismet, but a lot of it is strategic.”

One of the most impressive things about Universal’s year is that in an era dominated by costumed avengers, the studio achieved record-breaking results without having a major superhero franchise to its name. In fact, Universal, perhaps not by choice, has largely ceded the comicbook moviemaking to Disney and Warner Bros., which boast the Marvel and DC Comics libraries, respectively.

“The fact that Universal has done this outside of superhero movies is a unique accomplishment, because at some point superheroes will fade into the sunset and Hollywood will need to find another cash cow,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

Universal’s successes show that there are alternatives out there for studios not looking to raid the outer recesses of the graphic novel and comicbook world in the hopes of competing. Yes, there are a lot of sequels on Universal’s dance card, with follow-ups to the “Fast & Furious,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Jurassic Park” franchises among its biggest grossers, but these are organically produced, homegrown series.

Moreover, Universal has wisely mixed in other types of movies, such as erotic bestseller adaptation “Fifty Shades of Grey” and rap biopic “Straight Outta Compton” to augment its tentpole releases. It has also bolstered its animated offerings by aligning itself with Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, the company behind “Minions.”

“You don’t want to have all of one type of film or it creates a bit of fatigue,” notes Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution chief. “We knew we had so many times at bat and we wanted to create as many diverse opportunities as we could.”

He notes that the packed slate was accidental. “Furious 7” was originally intended to come out in 2014, but the death of Paul Walker during filming meant its debut was pushed back. Likewise, “Minions” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” were both originally scheduled to land last year before getting new release dates.

Not everything worked, of course. “Ted 2” left audiences cold, and it’s unlikely that “Blackhat” and “Seventh Son,” two bombs the studio distributed for its financial partner Legendary, will be featured in any sizzle reels going forward. Analysts also worry that Universal has waited too long to get a sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey” into production, potentially allowing the public to cool on all things E.L. James.

But the hits have dwarfed the misses. Some credit goes to the way these pictures were marketed and distributed, analysts say. The studio has avoiding clustering all of its major releases in the summer blockbuster season, preferring to drop films like “Fifty Shades” and “Furious 7” in the winter and the spring when competition is less pitched.

It has also done an effective job of engaging with fans on Facebook and Twitter. In the case of “Minions,” Universal primed the viral pump by crafting shareable graphics that integrated the cuddly critters into masterpieces by the likes of Mondrian and Munch. Art historians may object, but social-media mavens would disagree.

The marketing team also managed to navigate some daunting challenges. Take “Furious 7,” which was released after Walker’s death. Universal managed to find the right tone in its black and white posters and promotional materials, promising fans a “last ride” with a star they loved and making a movie about driving fast with no repercussions — a moving testament to a man who, after all, died in a racing accident.

“They’ve taken already strong titles and nurtured them in a way that allowed them to shatter expectations,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst of BoxOffice.com. “Look at what they do on  Facebook and Twitter. They keep promoting a film so fans don’t forget them.”

No superheroes required.

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  1. therealeverton says:

    No Studio has “one type of film”!? Only MArvel Studios, which is no longer an indie as Disney bought them produce one kind of film, and even they would argue that they make several types of films based on super heroes Sci-fi, fantasy, caper, spy etc.

    Just take Disney and Fox. Disney have MArvel Studios putting out two films next year, one of which (Captain AMerica: Civil War) they doubtless believe well capable of grossing over $1b. They had an Avengers film out this year; but most would say that the expectation would be that the film which they may be looking to gross the highest is Star Wars. Fox have 6 Super Hero films out by the end of 2017 (assuming Fantastic Four is a hit) out of at least 35 films. Even then, even with sequels to the two highest grossing X-Men films ( Days of Future Past & The Wolverine) at least one of which has to be hoping for that $1b mark, Fox have at least two films they likely expect to do better – Independence Day 2 & Ice Age 5; as well as one they would expect to do at least as well “……. OF The Apes”.

    There’s plenty of other films getting made and plenty of other big budget “tentpoles”; there’s just this idea that it “feels like” there are more Super Heroes than anything else, but there aren’t that many en now.

    They make a big deal out of Marvel Studios and then WB booking in dates for 4 or 5 years in advance..which makes it sound huge, then you work out it’s only 4 – 5 films a year; and then you have a look and see that the studios all have films booked in years in advance. Then you realise that this Tsunami amounts to, between now and the latest pre-dated release in 2020 there’s well over 250 films booked in by the big studios (leaving out their specialty labels) and to believe all this kind of thing there must be 100 Super hero films right? Well more like 30. Only WB, with their Justice LEague, can be said to be banking on their super hero film being their biggest hit of the year and they have, as usual, a ton of non super hero related “tentpole” films o the way.

    Stop beating the thing to death already. People that don’t like super heroes have more choice and fewer films to avoid than Horror haters, for example; and this unfounded, factually incorrect bashing of super heroes is getting way past annoying now.

  2. therealeverton says:

    Change the “….” record! Only TWICE in 10 years (Avengers in 2012 & Dark Knight in 2008) has a Super hero film been the biggest film of the year BUT THIS proves you don’t need Super Heroes to succeed?!

    ONLY ONCE have there been more than 3 superhero films in the top 10 (There were 4 in 2014 – which also demonstrates that there remains far fewer super hero films than statements like the one here would have us all believe)

    But no, despite the fact that dozens of non superhero films have been successful every year and most of the biggest films every year are NOT super hero films THIS, THIS finally proves it.

  3. wendell lee says:

    This year isnt even over yet and it been the best year in revenue history. The hits will keep coming with the James Bond movie, the final Hunger Games and of the the Star Wars film. Hopefully however the movie heads will understand that this success with probably translate to next year or beyond. Hopefully everyone will use these huge gains to improve the movie going experience and maybe take the 3D visual experience.

  4. Skeeter says:

    these superhero movies are coming out all the time and are nothing special. They’re like horror remakes now. We’ve seen the best the avengers movies have to offer after the first one. that movie wasn’t really great. Loki is such a stupid/lame villain but seeing all those heros together was cool for a lot of people.
    ultron was hangover 2 compared to the first one. now another one next year? seriously sick of hearing about these. why not take time to make them more then just the same fight scenes and a different title?
    Maybe Batman/Superman and that Suicide Squad thing can be something cool and rejuvenate the superhero thing. make it something cool/epic again instead of annoying and repetitive.
    never thought it was possible for a movie with superheros in it to be lame. those avengers movies are no better than those transformer movies so many people hate.

    • therealeverton says:

      They are not coming out all the time, it is just a nonsense to say so. Look up a release schedule and see how many films there are compared to a handful of super hero films, it’s just not true.

  5. Chris says:

    Nope, you just need sequels, spinoffs, and remakes.

  6. Mkay says:

    I am really happy for Universal. Their success is great, it means more people will continue to have their jobs and it can be trusted to churn out more hits as time goes by. But was it really necessary to even mention superheroes?
    If the recent wave of superhero movies was unsuccessful , you’d probably say that Marvel and WB needed to learn a thing or two from Universal. Now that they’re a proven success, you say Universal proves that superheroes aren’t necessary for success.
    You make fine arguments, and I also think that studios also realize this superhero phase is going to end (though I have a strong feeling that Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Bryan Singer’s x-men movies, and a few marvel movies such as the first Iron Man, Captain America:The Winter Soldier, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers so far will be the few that leave lasting impressions) so they’re riding out this wave of success. However, making comic book movies successfully in the mainstream film industry is its own kinda hard work. They have advantages of proven source material but they require the right vision and interpretation to bring them to life in a way the audience can relate to and care about on some level. Getting this wrong is what led to bombs like Green Lantern. You make it sound like superhero movies have more advantages than organic homegrown movies. Maybe I’ve misunderstood what you were trying to say in between the lines but that’s my response. I wonder what you’d have said about superhero movies if Universal had bombed all year.

  7. JimmyFitz says:

    Whoever is Green-Lighting these Projects, understands the Summer Demos, period.

  8. JimmyFitz says:

    Family oriented projects during the summer is the BOMB! With the kids out of school, we’re all looking for something to do together. M-O-V-I-E-S!

  9. JoeR says:

    Big box-office but they were truly terrible movies. With the possible exception of JW (which I haven’t seen) these flicks were real stinkers. (Hey. Miley Cyrus might sell more records than the Beatle…but that wouldn’t make her better than them, right?) Sad thing is: this means we’re gonna get more of the same.

  10. Xenomorph says:

    Why everyone nowadays acts like only Superhero movies make money these days? Aren’t they just sub-genre of action fantasy movies?
    Big budget action movies & animation movies are always have been making more money than Supehero movies because there are only 3 big budget superhero movies during summer time whereas, we get dozen of those action, fantasy, animation movies throughout the year which may not make a billion dollar on their own & but their total added box office dwarfs the Superhero movies box office easily.

  11. LOL says:

    They just got lucky. Let’s see how well they fare next year.

    • Pixworks says:

      Next year is definitely gonna be a much harder year for them. Warcraft might be big, but unlike Jurassic World, that movie lacks star power and it will be hard to see audiences outside the Warcraft fanbase and fantasy fans going out to see it. Secret Life of Pets has promise, and might be Illumination’s biggest film outside the Despicable Me franchise yet, but it will definitely open smaller than Minions did. Really so far, the biggest movie of theirs for next summer is the new Bourne movie, but even that is a wild card because people might not be interested in another Bourne movie (then again, if Mission Impossible 5 does better than expected, that could mean Bourne has a shot at over-preforming as well). Universal seemed to just get very lucky this year with their lineup, but this streak definitely won’t be a yearly thing for them.

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