This is Part Three of our weekly series analyzing the current state of the studios.
About a year and a half ago, I was in a general meeting with a big time producer, chatting about the business, when he asked me what I thought would happen in the coming years. Box office trends, projects I had my eyes on, stuff like that. I remember very specifically telling him, “Here’s what I know for sure: 20th Century Fox is going to break every box office record there is in 2016.”
This was in the middle of what was, at the time, a record-setting year for the studio, which hit an all-time best $5.5 billion at the global box office during the 12 months that made up 2014 (a record that would be shattered less than a year later when Universal did almost $7 billion). I was dead solid certain that the great numbers the studio was putting up at the time would pale in comparison to what it would do this year.
Turns out, my prognostication was half-right: I was correct about the year, but mistaken on the studio, as we discussed last week. Still, I had my reasons which, in hindsight, seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Here, I’ll even quote myself from that meeting.
“Fox has five sequels coming out that are going to be enormous,” I said to the producer. “It’s got a new X-Men movie, a new Ice Age, a new Independence Day, a new Planet of the Apes and, of course, there’s that second Avatar movie, which is going to be a license to print money.”
Look at that list of films and, come on, you’d have thought there were big things in store, too. I mean, how was I to know that the Apes movie would be bumped a year and Jim Cameron’s next trip to Pandora at least two (and I maintain that I’m still right about that one, even if I’m now a couple years early on it)? Or that X-Men: Apocalypse would be such a disappointment? Or that Independence Day: Resurgence would be tracking towards a mid-eight figure opening, and not a low nine-figure one?
Read that over, and it would seem like Fox is not having such a great year, but there’s a wild card that got tossed into the mix that I had summarily dismissed back in the second half of 2014 because, at the time, it seemed so outlandish, so absurd, so … well, stupid, that it didn’t occur to me that it could actually happen.
This wild card was the concept that Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool movie would be one of the biggest hits of the year, and would almost singlehandedly turn the studio from a pretender into a contender.
And now, thanks to that, and the fact that, for now at least, it’s the year’s second highest grossing film, Fox has risen from a fourth place finish in 2015 to second this year, and seen its market share jump from 11.3 percent to a most impressive 17.7 in the process, well ahead of Warner Bros. in third place, which sits at a pedestrian 12.9.
Going into this weekend, and the release of that Independence Day sequel, Fox has grossed $918 million at the domestic box office, well over two-thirds of its 2015 total of $1.302 billion, as well as over $2.5 billion worldwide. To be fair, a good chunk of both those numbers comes from the stunning success of The Revenant, which counts as a 2015 release, even though almost the entirety of its $183 million domestic and $532 million overall came after New Year’s Day, but even without it, the studio would still be firmly ahead of Warner Bros.
But okay, let’s lose the numbers from The Revenant and the studio is still on pace to surpass last year’s totals, and conceivably at least approach the impressive domestic of two years ago. That year saw Fox do $1.79 billion and finish first, with 17 movies released during the calendar year. So far this year, the studio has done over $660 million domestic and nearly $2 billion worldwide on the films actually released since January 1st. That’s less than half of what the studio did last year, and we’re at the midway point of the year, so concern would be understandable.
Here’s the thing, though: those totals are on the strength of just six movies. There are 11 more scheduled to hit theaters before year’s end, including that aforementioned Ice Age movie, as well as a new Tim Burton film — doing, with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, what he does so well after the colossal misstep that was Big Eyes — a DreamWorks Animation movie, Trolls, that looks like one of those can’t miss fall family films, and the Michael Fassbender-led video game adaptation, and potential franchise starter, Assassin’s Creed.
Add in a few comedies, like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and Greg Mottola’s Keeping Up With the Joneses, and, oh yes, a new Warren Beatty movie, and that could end up being a very successful year, indeed.
No one is catching Disney. There’s just no mathematical way that can happen. But a strong second place showing? A market share north of 18 percent? Perhaps even around 20? That’s entirely possible, and would be a heck of a triumph for the folks in Century City.
Regardless, the 2016 numbers are almost certain to surpass those of 2015, and that’s always a good thing. Another good thing is what Fox has in store. That Apes movie? It’s on the schedule for 2017, along with at least 14 others, like one last Hugh Jackman Wolverine flick, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, sequels for The Croods and Kingsman, a new Amy Schumer movie, an untitled Fox/Marvel film (possibly the long-awaited Gambit), and DWA’s Captain Underpants, which can’t possibly fail. The next year, 2018, has plenty of upside, too, with the final Maze Runner, Shane Black’s Predator remake, a couple of Blue Sky animation flicks, Jim Cameron and Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, almost certainly a Deadpool sequel, definitely a third How to Train Your Dragon, and, conceivably, that second Avatar opus.
A word about Avatar: Cameron is shooting four — count ‘em, four! — sequels all at once, for release in 2018, ’20, ’21 and ’22. Remember, the first one set just about every box office record there is, and even though Star Wars: The Force Awakens surpassed it as the all-time domestic box office champ, Avatar still holds the global record at $2.8 billion. But. By the time the second Avatar film hits theaters, it will be nine years since the first film took audiences by storm, and the world of Pandora has not aged all that well. I imagine that there will be a good number of folks lining up to see the first sequel in a couple years (like me, admittedly), but if it’s not that good … what then? There will still be three more coming, at a price of a couple hundred million per, and if that first one doesn’t knock everyone out, expect no small amount of panic in Century City.
Still, when you consider Cameron’s track record — as well as the fact that he brought in a team of writers to pen all the sequels, ideally addressing the weaknesses of the Cameron-written first film — it might be worthwhile to give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
Anyway, all of this was already in place even before last week’s announcement that Stacey Snider would be succeeding Jim Gianopulos as company Chair/CEO, which gives her a solid basis to move forward, even as she starts to assemble her own slate and make the films that she wants to make, a shift we’ll see with force once the calendar turns to 2018.
Taking over the reins at Fox, she knows that the studio doesn’t have all the weapons at its disposal that Disney does, but with a handful of reliable franchises, a good number of potential ones to join them and her history of working with visionary filmmakers, she’s got more than enough in her arsenal to keep things interesting.
For more entries in our studio series, click here.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.