By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
The Grosses Of Universal, 2011-2012
The lack of media knives regarding Battleship and Universal is probably a neutral default position. First, the media got all its jollies out on John Carter, with two, count ‘em two, senior execs at Disney heading out the door on either side of that financial debacle. Second, with Nikki Finke inhibited by her intimate relationship with the second Nikki Whisperer and probably the #1 leader of that pack at this time, Ron Meyer, there was no one out in front of the pack trying to get fat on the financial failure of the film. And Nikki is not the only person who enjoys the lining of Mr. Meyer’s pockets. Beyond that, The Avengers was an upbeat story and Universal had pre-cauterized the wound by opening international first… and though the showing was modest, most American journos who position themselves as box office writers these days are scared of international grosses and ending up looking foolish in their dismissals. So…
The year leading up to the dismissal of Marc Shmuger & David Linde offered only one $100m domestic grosser for Universal (Fast & Furious), some expensive misses (Duplicity, State of Play, Land of the Lost), and some high profile less-bottom-line-more-embarrassing misses (Flash of Genius, The Changeling, Frost/Nixon, Funny People, The Tale of Despereaux). There were also two expensive, high-profile titles that shuffled off to 2010 (The Wolfman and Green Zone).
I don’t want to pretend to know where the bodies were buried on every project. So let’s give the current team of Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley, both of whom were in the mix at the highest levels with Shmuger & Linde, a year and a Focker sequel to get to their first real slate. Start with January 2011… 23 released movies ago. They have had six $100m domestic releases, including the surprise that was Bridesmaids and the revitalization of the F&F franchise, with Fast Five topping the best worldwide gross by a previous entry in the series by more than 70%.
On the other hand, this is the second summer in which Universal seems to have the biggest flop, Battleship following in the sad tradition of Cowboys & Aliens. Movies like The Adjustment Bureau, Sanctum, Larry Crowne, and Paul found black ink overseas after being soft at home. But the string of head shakers is pretty impressive. Your Highness, The Change-Up, Dream House, The Thing, Wanderlust, The Five Year Engagement amongst them.
Safe House is the classic Universal frustration. One of Denzel’s biggest hits… his biggest driven by him without a more internationally valuable acting partner. Over $200m grosser. Yay. But with an $85m price tag, yeah, it’s profitable… but it’s not head-turning profitable. Same with American Reunion, which thanks to international and a lower price tag, will actually be more profitable than Safe House. But it did about half what any of the original cast Pies did at home, so no one is getting excited.
The two $100m domestic grossers not mentioned yet were Hop and The Lorax… both of which also go into the “okay” category. Lorax actually had the biggest domestic gross for an animated film in just under two years… since Despicable Me. However, not only were expectations much lower for DM, but the international was much biggest, totaling out at $543m vs Lorax’s current $305m ww gross, taking some of the bloom off the rose.
There are many ways to parse numbers. For instance, Judd Apatow giveth Bridesmaids, so how much do Wanderlust & 5 Year Engagement taketh away? How much credit should go to studio chiefs for getting out of the way of Team Apatow and doing good marketing?
And how do you measure value? Disney, though these were not films “owned” by Rich Ross, had FOUR billion dollar releases under Ross or within weeks of his exit… four of the twelve all-time. (Disney leads all studios with five such films, two being Pirateses.) He’s gone and so is his marketing chief. There were all kinds of other issues at Disney and with these two execs… but the home run numbers, which is where the John Carter discussion took place, were exceptional.
Universal, on the other hand, hasn’t had a film top Fast Five‘s 2011 gross of $627m worldwide since Jurassic Park, almost 20 years ago, in 1993. The next lowest number for a major in recent history is Sony, with $891m for Spider-Man 3.
In fact, there have been 41 releases in the last decade that have outdone the best grosser of Universal’s in that period. Every major has had at least four such films, Summit’s had three, and even two defunct distributors (New Line and DreamWorks) and Lionsgate have each had one.
Be clear… I am not calling for anyone’s head (not that anyone would care if I did). But for all the attacks on Fox and the JC hysteria earlier this year, there is one studio that hasn’t hit a single major league home run in almost 20 years (Bridesmaids is an inside-the-parker), though it’s had plenty of doubles and a few triples. The franchises it does have – F&F and Bourne – seem to operate under a glass ceiling. (Bourne’s best is $443m worldwide) And of top of that, it had one of the biggest money losers of the last decade this month. It won’t lose as much as JC… but about half as much is still a lot of red ink.
Will Snow White and the Huntsman be the breakout for which they’ve been praying? If not – what if it’s just a big success with $450m worldwide? – do we just wait until next summer, when another F&F, another Despicable, and another Jurassic Park (in 3D!) arrive?
Personally, I don’t want the surviving staff at Universal to go through any more unneeded trauma. The last two hires have been internal and the results have not changed much. Is there someone out there on a white charger who could turn the whole thing around? Always possible. But recent history isn’t brimming with thrills. Disney is barely in the production business and the Adam Goodman era at Par is really still being defined in light of many pre-existing relationships, though last year was very promising.