Disney Is Shattering Records Thanks To Marvel, Lucasfilm, And Pixar – Can The Winning Streak Continue? (Studio Series)


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This is Part Two of our weekly series analyzing the current state of the studios. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when Disney was just a middling box office performer, in the second division of the studios. Within the last decade, in fact, the Mouse House was finishing sixth of six, barely able to crack a billion dollars in domestic grosses.

How times have changed.

A year ago. Universal captured all the headlines by setting records at both the domestic and worldwide box office. It was the first studio to ever clear six billion in a year in global BO (it actually got to $6.89 billion), while also hitting $2.45 billion domestic. To put that into a clearer perspective, the previous record was set the year before, when 20th Century Fox closed 2014 with $5.5 billion, and the domestic record was six years old, since Warner grossed $2.1B in 2009, becoming the first and, up to last year, only studio to ever reach the $2B mark.

That’s a lot of dough, but something important was lost in the celebration: Disney had the second best year of any studio in cinematic history, it just happened to do so the same year that Universal went bananas.

Disney’s numbers last year were $2.28 billion domestic and a total of $5.85 worldwide, both of which would have been records on their own, but of course nobody remembers second place.

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Which is why this year is so interesting. See, Disney is primed to obliterate every record out there (it already beat the one for fastest to $1B, which it did in just 128 days), and even with a change in leadership in the offing, there are plenty of reasons to think that upward trend will continue apace for some time.

First things first. Through this past weekend, Disney was already at $1.476 billion domestic for the year, or close to $600 million more than the next studio in line, Fox. Take away the $284 million domestic dollars that Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought in after the first of the year (being, as it was, a 2015 release), and it’s still not close. We can also subtract the roughly $14 million brought in by other fall releases Bridge of Spies and The Good Dinosaur, and just for the sake of proving a point, let’s also lose the $27 million that The Finest Hours took in and fellow disappointing 2016 release Alice Through the Looking Glass’ $62 million.

Having removed all of that, it leaves three Disney releases in 2016: Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book and Zootopia.

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Those three films, all on their own, have taken in $1.09 billion dollars domestic as of Monday. Twentieth Century Fox, the studio in second place, has grossed a total of $908 million, and that includes carryovers from 2015, like The Revenant, which made almost all of its $183 million domestic gross after January 1st.

So, that’s three movies that have outgrossed by a pretty fair margin every other studio in town (and also cleared $3B worldwide), and we’re not even halfway through the year. In fact, Disney has eight more releases planned for 2016, including Finding Dory tomorrow, and if that doesn’t come close to grossing a billion dollars all on its own (aside from the name recognition, the early reviews are glowing), then I don’t even know anything about anything anymore.

Add in a new Spielberg film (The BFG), a reimagined classic (Pete’s Dragon), a Marvel movie (Doctor Strange), an animated flick with Dwayne Johnson’s voice (Moana) and, oh yes, a Star Wars movie (Rogue One, which will still do huge numbers, no matter what people are saying about it right now, six months before its release) — plus two prestige pics, The Light Between Oceans and The Queen of Katwe — and I’ll ask you a very simple question: do you really believe that those eight films somehow won’t combine for at least a billion at the domestic box office (and maybe as much as $3.5-$4B worldwide) and break Universal’s year-old mark?

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I’m going to throw a couple more numbers at you that might just turn your head, because they certainly turned mine. When Warner set the record and first cleared the $2B mark in 2009, it did so with a then-record 19.7 percent market share. Last year, when Universal broke that mark, it did so with a 21.3 percent share, the first studio to ever break 20 in a year. (Disney’s, it should be noted, was 19.8 percent, again, a record in any other year.)

Thus far in 2016, Disney’s market share is 30.3 percent.

Read that again. I’ll give you a moment.

More than 30 cents of every dollar spent on domestic ticket sales this year has been on a Disney movie. Now, can that continue? Probably not, but a 25 percent share at year’s end doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, nor does, if all the stars align, a $3B domestic haul. The future is similarly rosy, as 2017 already has at least two live action fairy tales scheduled (including Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, in March), two Marvel movies, a Pirates of the Caribbean flick, a new Pixar movie in Cars 3 and, oh yes, Star Wars: Episode VIII, which can’t possibly repeat the grosses of Force Awakens, but will still put up numbers that will be just fine, thank you very much.

Yes, it’s easy to reach such ridiculous figures when the company owns titanic operations like Marvel Cinematic Entertainment, Pixar and Lucasfilm (not to mention Walt Disney Animation Studios), but give credit where its due: under Bob Iger’s leadership as company CEO, Disney has made the moves it needed to make to raise it from bottom feeder to perennial power house.

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Which brings us to the hiccup in all of this salaam bowing. Iger recently announced his retirement and the man most thought was the heir apparent, COO Tom Staggs, also bolted once it became clear that his rise was not a foregone conclusion. On the contrary, the company wanted to broaden the search for Iger’s replacement, so Staggs split. The good news is that, with Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm all churning out plenty of lucrative and high-grossing content through the end of the decade, you can basically pencil in several billion dollars of grosses to the company’s bottom line.

The thing is, those three companies all have their own leadership, separate from Disney’s. If Disney chooses the wrong person to succeed Iger, it won’t undo his work, but it could very well open the door to tougher times ahead. Still, given all the positives, the outlook does look pretty solid.

Since I made a passing mention to it earlier, come back next time for a look at the vastly improved 20th Century Fox, and several hundred words about how the stunning success of a single movie can turn around the fortunes of an entire studio.

For more entries in our studio series, click here. 

ProfilePic adjusted 2 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.