Universal Is Not Having The Greatest Year – Can The Studio Still Turn Things Around? (Studio Series)


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This is part one of our weekly series analyzing the current state of the studios.

I’m not here to bury Warcraft before it even opens. Honestly, I don’t have any feelings about it, one way or the other. Neither the video game nor the movie is my brand of whiskey, but I’ll probably still see the Duncan Jones-directed adaptation at some point in the next week or two, out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is not to talk about why the film was made or how it might fare (it’s already setting records in China, while playing on, get ready, over 26,000 screens, and doing pretty well around the rest of the world, even if domestic prospects are not so hot) or what was behind Jones’ decision to follow up his first two films — the fascinating Moon and the exceedingly entertaining Source Code — with this kind of thing, but rather the fact that its studio, Universal, broke just about every box office record there was in 2015 but is struggling through the first five-plus months of this year.

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Looking at the numbers, it’s pretty straightforward: the studio had a 21.3 percent market share last year, while this year’s tally is just 8.3 percent. A 61 percent fall off like that is fairly precipitous, and it made me think about why that happened, and what Universal has in store for the rest of the year and for 2017.

To put things in their proper perspective, the six films the studio has released thus far in 2016 (combined with the three movies that carried over from a late 2015 release) have grossed a combined $383 million domestic, with the six new releases gathering an additional $264 million globally. That’s roughly $647 million total for the year to date.

This time last year, the same number of films (seven 2015 films and two 2014 carryovers) combined for $756 million domestic, or over $100 million more than this year’s movies have done worldwide. And that was even before Jurassic World and Minions were unleashed on theaters and combined to gross just shy of a billion dollars domestically (and over $2.8 billion worldwide) on their own.

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So what’s the difference? Why was last year so much better than this year has been? That’s easy: this year doesn’t have the ferocious combination of Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey and Pitch Perfect 2, all of which made more year to date than 2016’s highest grosser thus far, Ride Along 2. Those three films, in fact, had made almost exactly $600 million as of the beginning of June, and that’s just domestic.

But just because the first half of the year hasn’t exactly been the stuff that dreams are made of doesn’t mean that the outlook is bleak. On the contrary, there’s no reason to think that Universal won’t have a really strong second half of the year. Even though the Lonely Island movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping bombed horribly this past weekend, it’s still got Warcraft this week. The latter may not be the blockbuster the studio was hoping for (Popstar certainly wasn’t), but give it a few weeks and things get very interesting.

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The month of July has great potential, with The Purge: Election Year, The Secret Life of Pets (from Illumination Entertainment, the folks behind the Minions flicks) and Jason Bourne all scheduled, then the horror-thriller Spectral in August, a new Bridget Jones movie in September, the highly anticipated adaptation The Girl On the Train, as well as a Kevin Hart concert film and the horror sequel Ouija 2 in October, the Will Packer-produced Almost Christmas in November and another Illumination film, Sing, in December. Plenty of reasons to feel optimistic.

Likewise, even if 2016 ends up being a disappointment, 2017 shows all the signs of being an enormous rebound year. No, there isn’t a Jurassic followup planned, but we will see Fifty Shades Darker, Fast 8, Despicable Me 3 and Pitch Perfect 3 (a sure thing even without Elizabeth Banks in the director’s chair), Insidious 4, a pair of Blumhouse horror films, an R-rated comedy from Seth Rogen, Zach Galfianakis and Bill Hader, and not one, but two Tom Cruise films. The first is the real life drug cartel film Mena, from Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, and the other is a little thing called The Mummy, which by the way is also launching the studio’s shared universe of monster movies, with The Invisible Man set for 2018, a year, incidentally, that also has another Jurassic World move set, as well as the third and final Fifty Shades film and a new take on How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

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That’s a lot of insurance against an off year, even if it’s unrealistic to expect another annum like 2015. I mean, let’s be fair, no studio has ever had a run like Universal did in 2015, and the folks running the show over there are no dummies, so they very likely took a gander at what the 2016 schedule had in store and braced for some level of disappointment. Still, with all the good things that appear to be on the horizon, it doesn’t seem like there should be a lot of reason to worry down in the Universal City executive suites.

Looking at all this information and speculating about what the future holds for a multi-billion dollar corporation and its got my blood pumping a bit because, let’s face it, I’m a complete and total nerd for this kind of thing. So, with this space at my disposal and a bunch of other studios to discuss, there’s no reason not to take a look at them, too.

With that in mind, it’s important to point out that, while no studio had ever amassed such enormous grosses as Universal did last year, this record suddenly doesn’t look quite so robust. The way Disney’s movies are performing in 2016, in fact, it could be rather short-lived. So, next week we’ll take a look at the Mouse House, and discuss the benefits of having under its umbrella several smaller operations that are not only reliable cash cows, but could also be studios all on their own.

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.



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  2. The sad thing is that the first 5 films you list as proof of a strong ’17 are all sequels. Hollywood doesn’t seem to get that you can only sequelize, iterate, and reboot things for so long before people get bored. I’ve been rooting against sequels and for original properties for a long time now.

    I know not everyone is a fan of Tom Cruise but I have to salute the guy for consistently trying to make original movies interspersed with the more predictable franchises. It’s too bad that films like Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow had lukewarm commercial receptions because both were interesting and fresh. I haven’t heard anything about Mena but The Mummy and this new monster universe that Universal is planning sounds underwhelming.

    Thanks for the article!

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