“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.