It’s Summer Time, and, for Universal, the Livin’ Is Easy (Studio Series)

universal-studios-bannnerAll images courtesy of Universal Pictures

If you’re a baseball fan, you might be familiar with the peculiar case of Bret Saberhagen. One of the best pitchers of the 1980s, he won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals in 1985, his second year in the big leagues, the same year he won his first Cy Young Award as the American League’s best pitcher. After a miserable season in 1986, he rebounded with a stellar one in 1987. A fluke? Maybe, but then, sure enough, 1988 was another clunker, followed by a brilliant 1989 campaign in which he won his second Cy Young.

And so a legend was born. Saberhagen was great in odd years, lousy in even ones, and it became a running joke for those who followed the game, or played Fantasy Baseball. He eventually broke this pattern, but even now, more than a quarter century later, you can make a Saberhagen reference to the right person and they’ll get it without a second thought.

Wondering why I bring up such a seemingly arcane and esoteric factoid? Take a look at Universal’s grosses over the last six years. Odd years, the grosses and market share go up, even years, they go down. Strange that it has worked out this way, but then, unlike Saberhagen, there is a pretty straightforward explanation for this. At least, a reasonable one that makes more sense than the vagaries of how a baseball breaks.

Starting in 2009, and then every other year since, Universal has had a refurbished and reborn Fast and Furious movie hit screens, and from the fourth one, Fast and Furious, released that year, through Furious 7, in 2015, each new film made more money than the last, peaking with 7 at over $350 million domestic and more than $1.5 billion worldwide. This year’s edition, The Fate of the Furious, couldn’t continue that streak, but still did more than $223 million here and over $1.2 billion globally. For some reason, the decision has been made that this cash cow will only have two more installments — in 2019 and 2021, of course — which undoubtedly means that the streak will continue through then, though the studio is making concerted efforts to break it with the launching of brand new franchises that at least a couple other shops around town wish they possessed.

Mind you, it’s not like Universal’s 2016 was so awful, because it most definitely wasn’t. Yes, it was down a billion dollars in domestic grosses from the year before, but that isn’t quite so bad when you consider that, in 2015, the studio set a record for the biggest year any studio had in the history of movies. The studio dropped from $2.4 billion to $1.4, and from a 21.3 percent market share to 12.4, both steady falls, certainly, but nothing about which to get overly worried, especially since everyone in Universal City saw it coming.

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In fact, Donna Langley even suggested such a thing after the record-breaking 2015. Knowing that there was no Fast & Furious coming in 2016, no Minions movie, no Pitch Perfect, and no Jurassic World, everyone in the executive suites over there knew they couldn’t come close to doing the kind of business they had just done. Sure enough, while The Secret Life of Pets was a sensation, only two other 2016 releases cleared $100 million domestically. Jason Bourne and the animated Sing were the pair, while secondary franchises like Ride Along 2 and The Purge: Election Year turned in solid performances, but nothing close to the big performers of the year prior.

So, with all that in mind, and with all things considered, Universal’s 2016 was pretty good, especially since three of the aforementioned franchises are on the schedule for this year, as well as the brand new one launching this week. Thanks to Tom Cruise and the first in what will be a Major Shared Monster Universe series, The Mummy, Universal has yet another prime jewel in its possession. It’s not foolproof, of course, because so little is, but the studio is definitely putting its money where its mouth is with this endeavor, what with Johnny Depp on board for an Invisible Man adaptation, Javier Bardem on board for a turn as Frankenstein’s Monster, the recent confirmation of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame being in the lineup, and rumors running amok that the studio wants Dwayne Johnson to be its Wolf Man. That’s a major investment, based on more than a hunch that it’s going to work.

But that’s skipping ahead of what has already been, by any stretch of measurement, a smashing year for the studio up to now. Aside from the latest F&F movie, there was the unbridled and completely stunning success story that was Get Out, plus M. Night Shyamalan’s ongoing comeback story, Split, and Fifty Shades Darker, all of which have been insanely profitable. Even A Dog’s Purpose, which was hit with some serious controversy upon its release, still made quite a bit of money.

For a point of reference, Universal’s worst-performing movie of the year so far, the Chinese co-production of The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, was a major flop, but it still made more money — both domestically and globally — than Sony’s highest grossing domestic film, Smurfs: The Lost Village, or its top worldwide grosser, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. If that doesn’t demonstrate the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots, it’s tough to find a better example.

Remember, too, that there is still more than half the year left, and the studio has eight movies on the schedule. That’s twice as many movies as Disney has, though, admittedly, one of those is a new Star Wars flick, which might as well be three movies, for the amount of money it will certainly gross. Still, if anyone has a shot at dethroning the Mouse House this year, it’s Universal, simply because of the size and scope of the films it has on the way.

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Once The Mummy is on screens, we’re three weeks out from Despicable Me 3, aka Universal’s semi-annual license to print money, thanks to its lucrative agreement with animation house, Illumination Entertainment. Three weeks after that is Girls Trip, a female buddy comedy starring Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah, and Regina Hall, then, at the end of September, Cruise returns in the period, based-on-a-true-story drama, American Made, which might lead to an awards push for the star’s turn as a pilot recruited by the CIA to fly drugs in and out of Latin America.

On three consecutive October weekends, the studio has Half to Death — the latest from another incredibly lucrative partnership, this one with Blumhouse — then the adaption of the Jo Nesbo novel, The Snowman, with Michael Fassbender in what could be a new franchise starter, followed by the drama, Thank You For Your Service, which is notable for its use of Amy Schumer in her first dramatic turn. Then, come Christmas, there’s Pitch Perfect 3, and it’s probably safe to say that, even in an overly crowded season, that sucker is going to find its audience.

Add it all up, and that’s a hell of a year, one that could very well challenge the record it set in 2015 (and which Disney broke last year with the first ever $3B domestic year). There’s no reason to think that The Mummy, Despicable Me, and Pitch Perfect 3 couldn’t combine for $750-800 million domestic, and if the remaining five combine for about $300 million or so, that would put Universal over the $2B mark for just the second time.

Another point of reference: only four other times has any studio crossed that mark at the domestic box office, so if Universal does it again, even if it finishes behind Disney, it can only be seen as a major victory. It’s even possible — not necessarily likely, but certainly possible — that if each of the movies performs better than expected, and the trio of Cars 3, Thor: Ragnarok, and Coco do relatively mediocre business for Disney, that Universal could take the top spot. Again, not likely, but not pie in the sky nonsense, either, and, come on, who would have thought that would be at all possible at the beginning of the year?

Looking ahead, there’s every reason to believe that 2018 could break the even-odd trend, if only because that Jurassic World sequel is scheduled for June 22nd, and that alone could make a major difference. To expect another year as big as this one is probably unrealistic, but a drop-off as great as we’ve seen in the past is probably just as unlikely, simply because of the presence of those dinosaurs. And Chris Pratt, of course.

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Beyond that, there is the fourth chapter in the Insidious series, the third and final Fifty Shades flick, a new Pacific Rim, a new entry in the Purge saga, the Dwayne Johnson actioner Skyscraper, a somewhat surprising Mamma Mia! sequel (surprising because, honestly, who knew anyone actually wanted one?), the much discussed Scarface remake, the Kevin Hart comedy Night School, Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong bio (and La La Land follow-up), First Man, a new animated version of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, featuring the voice talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, an untitled Robert Zemeckis movie, and, at Christmas, the first movie in what is expected to be another series, Mortal Engines, based on the fabulously successful book series, and adapted by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.

That’s not a bad list, and it doesn’t slow down at all in 2019. Shyamalan’s Split and Unbroken sequel, Glass, hits that January, followed by the Bardem-led Frankenstein film, a new How to Train Your Dragon, a Robert Downey Jr.-fronted Dr. Doolittle, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out, the ninth F&F, a Secret Life of Pets sequel, the animated adventure movie, Everest, and an adaptation of the Broadway sensation, Wicked. Go into 2020, and you see another Trolls, another Minions, and another Sing, and a new Boss Baby (after Fox released the first one) and that “final” F&F in 2021. Throw in a bunch of other Illumination movies and more movies featuring monsters, college a cappella singers, dinosaurs, purges, ride alongs, and maybe even amnesiac assassins, and it’s all a whole lot of positivity.

The last couple weeks, we’ve spent time talking about how faltering studios can turn things around. That’s not really necessary here. Universal is chock full of the successful partnerships and franchises so key to success in today’s marketplace. So much so, in fact, that it has decided to end the Fast & Furious series, as mentioned above. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to do this (other than the obvious one, that being the series is creatively bankrupt and is only continuing because people like seeing the fast cars and stuff blowing up), at least, from a business perspective. One would think that, with a series that makes as much money as this one, the powers that be would continue it until one of them doesn’t actually turn a profit. That they’re choosing not to says a lot about their confidence level moving forward.

Aside from all the other things mentioned, the franchises and properties and so on, it also has not just one partnership with a big time animation house, Illumination, but, starting in 2019, a second when a new deal with DreamWorks Animation kicks in. It’s got comedy and horror and adventure and action, and seems to have all the things that movie audiences want these days. It is awash in good tidings, and has set itself up in a way that, Disney aside, no other studio in town has succeeded in doing.

Which means that, for the time being, at least, all is well in Universal City, with nothing but rainbows and candy bars ahead.

For more entries in our studio series, click here.


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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Still quiet here.sas

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