In case you missed it, Universal Pictures is having a record-breaking year at the box office. With big-screen juggernauts like “Furious 7,” the “Despicable Me” spinoff “Minions” and the sequel/franchise reboot “Jurassic World,” the studio, owned by Comcast, has made more than $5 billion worldwide, which is its highest-grossing year ever. And, its good fortune continued this weekend with the opening of “Straight Outta Compton,” which exceeded expectations and made an estimated $60 million.
What’s surprising about Universal’s success is that it achieved so much without a superhero movie, of which there were a few this year. The studio’s success can be attributed to two factors: its diverse movie slate and the many sequels. The studio had something for everyone this year, and it paid off.
“The diversification of the slate, that's been very key to their success,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Rentrak, said. “You can’t pigeonhole Universal with one type of movie, because they have every type of movie.”
Let’s look at the studio's four big releases this year: The dinosaurs of “Jurassic World” had the biggest opening weekend of all time; “Furious 7,” which gave us fast cars, is the fifth highest grossing movie of all time; “Straight Outta Compton,” a biopic about the gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A., had the highest August opening weekend for an R-rated movie; “50 Shades of Grey” had the largest February opening weekend of all time, and “Minions” had the second biggest opening weekend for an animated movie.
Much of Universal's success this year also was diverse in terms of who was on screen. "Furious 7" had one of the most diverse casts on screen. "Straight Outta Compton" featured a predominantly African-American cast. "50 Shades" and "Trainwreck," which starred sneaky feminist icon Amy Schumer, locked down female viewers. These movies catered to segments of the population that often are underserved by Hollywood, namely women and African-Americans.
“It was definitely entertainment people wanted to see,” said Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It [the success of 'Furious 7' and 'Straight Outta Compton'] blasts a hole in the theory that you need to have a strong Caucasian lead [for a movie to succeed].”
However, it can't be ignored that Universal, like most studios, relied heavily on sequels and existing franchises, thereby following the standard Hollywood playbook for summer box-office success. Sequels have been generating big bucks for Hollywood studios for years, but Bock said Universal's sequels pushed them over the top because they were made and marketed with an awareness of what audiences wanted and what was popular. Chris Pratt ("Jurassic World"), comedy's current "It" girl, Amy Schumer, and the casts "Furious 7" and "Pitch Perfect" are all popular commodities this year. In the case of "Minions," Bock said Universal realized the minions were the breakout stars of the "Despicable Me" franchise and gave them a movie because of that.
"They're in tune right now, more than any other studio, with what's going right now, from a media standpoint," Bock said.
The Wall Street Journal noted "Furious 7," "Jurassic World" and "Minions" were all movies that were previously slated for 2014 at some point during their development. By chance, they all ended up being released in 2015, thus ensuring Universal's success.
"If they knew they were going to have $3 billion franchises, there's no way they would've released them all at the same time. That just wouldn't do them any favors," Bock said, noting this will make it harder for Universal next year because everyone will be looking at it to repeat this year's successes.
For now, Universal should take a bow. It’s having a better summer than most.