All images courtesy of Lionsgate
You probably can’t quite get away with calling Lionsgate a proper studio, in the way that you would the Big Six, but you can’t really call it an independent anymore, either. The company simply puts out too much content, and makes too much money, to be lumped in among the smaller outlets that, respectable as they might be — what with A24 having distributed the most recent Best Picture winner — aren’t anywhere near the same size as the big boys.
So, the question is, what to make of an outfit like Lionsgate? Not one thing or another, the company sort of exists in its own category. While STX — which we will get into next week — is still making its mark as an up and comer that wants eventually wants to be spoken of in the same breath as the studios, Lionsgate has established itself very firmly as the maker of mid-level films that the studios don’t often make anymore, as well as genre fare and, now and again, the kind of franchises that lead to huge international box office.
Sometimes, those franchises are planned, like the Hunger Games movies, or the Twilight films, others just sort of happen, like John Wick, and still others start out as something and then sort of fizzle out into nothing, like the Divergent Series, which hasn’t even finished yet because the third movie didn’t do well enough to warrant a fourth and final film.
What’s especially interesting, though, is that, now and again, the company will catch lightning in a bottle and give us a La La Land, a movie that no one else really wanted to make, so they stepped up and did it, only to see it gross almost $450 million worldwide and score six Oscar wins. Not bad for a $30 million investment, plus P&A. That, obviously, is a bit of an outlier, but there are enough of those surprise victories to allow the company to release as many movies every year as it does.
That, in fact, is part of the secret to its success. Over the last six years, it has released 22 movies, 21, 18, 25, 24, and, this year, it has 19 scheduled. That’s 129 movies, more than anyone else but Warner Bros. Starting in 2012, the first year of this run, Lionsgate had its first billion dollar domestic gross, thanks to the first Hunger Games, the fourth Twilight, the second Expendables, a pair of Tyler Perry movies, a couple of high grossing horror flicks in The Possession and Sinister, and the Joss Whedon-Drew Goddard horror camp-fest The Cabin in the Woods, which led to a total of over $1.2 billion domestic. Not only is that a company record that still stands, it’s about a billion dollars more than the company had made in 2011, just a year prior. That’s a heck of a jump.
In 2013, it went north of a billion once more, and while it hasn’t done so again, the numbers since have been quite respectable, $736.9 million in 2014, and $665 million each of the last two years. Thus far in 2017, it has grossed $434 million, and while $120 million of that comes from the continued success story of La La Land (and thus not confined to this year’s releases), it’s still the second best year the company has ever posted to date.
That is for eight movies thus far released in 2017, with the ninth, the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me, coming out on Friday. There are eight more set to come, including next weekend’s Sundance sensation, The Big Sick, which could very well be this summer’s Big Indie Success Story.
Let’s back up, though, and take a peak at how we got to this point. Last year’s films did solid business, but nothing really jumped out as a huge success. The Now You See Me series might have done well enough in its foreign grosses to suggest a third film, but, again, The Divergent Series: Allegiant was pretty much an outright failure, a shot across the bow that was especially painful since it was supposed to take the place of the expired Hunger Games series, but didn’t come within shouting distance of that sensation.
Therein lies the issue the company has at the moment, which is to find that particular series that will sustain it through any rough times. The Hunger Games put Lionsgate at another level, but to remain there, something similar has to be found. Hence, the plan to throw a bunch of stuff up against the wall and see what sticks. Sure, Tyler Perry’s movies make money, but they are all relatively low budget affairs that have a very specific audience. This audience flocks to his movies, but there isn’t a ton of crossover, which means that, generally speaking, there is also a built-in limit to how much they’re going to make.
This is why it does things like resuscitate Blair Witch, in hopes that the reboot will catch on and offer a brand new horror franchise (spoiler alert: the 2016 effort did no such thing), but also why they release films with more prestige, such as La La Land, or Hell or High Water (my personal choice for the very best film of 2016, as a matter of fact), or Deepwater Horizon, or Hacksaw Ridge. Those movies racked up some solid grosses and a ton of Oscar nominations, and what lesson have we learned about awards talk? That’s right, it almost always leads to higher grosses.
Which is another way to sustain its status. Franchises go a long way, but so does gravitas, and Lionsgate continues to put that front and center. The Big Sick is a good example of this, as is August’s The Glass Castle (with Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson, from Short Term 12 director Destin Cretton), and Wonder (with Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay, from The Perks of Being a Wallflower director Stephen Chbosky), which goes along with The Hitman’s Bodyguard (starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, and featuring one of the funniest trailers of the year), and three potential franchise launches: American Assassin, based on the series of bestsellers by the late Vince Flynn, My Little Pony, and a relaunch of the fabulously lucrative Saw series, this one called Legacy. Throw in another movie from Perry (this one being another Madea sequel), and that’s an interesting, and potentially lucrative, second half of the year.
All this on the heels of the revamped Power Rangers, which lost a bunch of money (just $140 million worldwide, on a $100 million budget and a lot of marketing costs), but that money was production company Saban’s, not Lionsgate’s, so whether or not there is a sequel is not necessarily the distributor’s decision. More successful was the second John Wick movie, obviously, but even that film with limited and manageable costs, is only going to gross so much. Neither film in the series, so far, has cracked $100 million domestically, and the two movies combined have done just over $250 million worldwide. Nice, but not exactly earth shaking.
One thing that Lionsgate does better than just about anyone else is appeal to Latinx moviegoers. Its Pantelion division is aimed directly at this ever growing audience, which is, for some ridiculous reason that makes exactly zero sense, mostly ignored by the major studios. One would think that the best way to add to the bottom line is to appeal to the fastest growing demographic attending the movies, especially in a time when fewer and fewer young people are doing so, which is why a low budget movie with mediocre reviews and no major American movie stars like How to be a Latin Lover beats out a Tom Hanks movie in its opening weekend, and makes $32 million overall.
This news shouldn’t be so stunning, and there’s no reason why Lionsgate should be so far ahead of the curve on this, and yet … it is. And there’s no reason to believe it’s not going to continue to be so, unless and until everyone else gets with the program.
So, the rest of the year looks pretty solid, though there are questions about the future. Whereas the release schedules of the Big Six tend to be easier to foretell, Lionsgate doesn’t schedule things nearly as far in the future. On the contrary, there are only three films currently on the schedule for 2018, though each has a fairly large upside. In January, there is the latest collaboration between Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, The Commuter, followed in March by the much ballyhooed Robin Hood movie that, yes, is intended as a potential franchise launch. Four months after that, on July 6th, is The Spy Who Dumped Me, aka Perfect Summer Counter Programming starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Those three films could easily form a solid base from which the distributor can build another successful year (also, on Monday, it was announced that Lionsgate would be making The Book of Luke, a biopic of Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew, though no release date was declared), but of course there will almost certainly be another 18-20 titles being mixed in, sooner or later.
Take it all into account, and it’s really sort of a status quo. Lionsgate has built itself a nice and mostly successful operation, and occupies its own little corner of the film industry. It’s a cozy corner, probably only room for one there, but you have to hand it to the mini-major, the company had the foresight to find this space, and stake it out for its own. That, in and of itself, is a good business plan.
For more entries in our studio series, click here.