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Why Universal Is Breaking Box Office Records

Why Universal Is Breaking Box Office Records

Add producer-director Judd Apatow and writer-actress Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” to Universal’s winning streak. The raucous romantic comedy opened at $30.2 million, on a level with Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” and the director’s top opener, 2007’s “Knocked Up.” With Illumination’s animated spin-off comedy “Minions” going strong ($625 worldwide so far) and blockbuster “Jurassic World” hitting on all cylinders ($1.5 billion worldwide and counting), 2015 will be a profitable year indeed for veteran studio chief Ron Meyer and his chairman Donna Langley–likely more than any other studio.
READ MORE: He Said/She Said: Debating ‘Trainwreck,’ Subversive Studio Comedy or Vanilla Rom-Com?

“Jurassic World” opened to the number one highest-grossing opening ever, domestic and worldwide. The movie notched $208.8 million in North America, passing 2012’s “The Avengers” ($207 million), and internationally, the film’s opening gross was $315.3 million, surpassing 2011’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” ($314 million). And as of this weekend, Universal Pictures crossed the $5 billion mark at the worldwide box office, faster than any other studio in history. (That’s $1.709 billion domestic and $3.292 billion international.) Twentieth Century Fox exceeded this number with $5.5 billion– for the entire year of 2014.

READ MORE: With ‘Jurassic World’ Blockbuster, Universal is on Roll

At CinemaCon in April, Langley grinned with confidence as she celebrated the global box office of “Furious 7”– which has grossed $1.5 billion, the fastest to get to $1 billion and the highest-grossing film in Universal’s history; the eighth “Fast & Furious” installment is set for April 14, 2017– and “Fifty Shades of Grey” ($570 million), which she pushed hard to bring to the studio. (The next two titles, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” will open on successive Valentine’s Day weekends in 2017 and 2018.)

Langley has shepherded a diverse and varied slate that has worked with audiences.

Since last November’s $40-million hit “Dumb and Dumber To” ($170 million worldwide), the studio has scored with a diverse and profitable slate –including “Unbroken” ($161 million) and “Pitch Perfect 2” ($280 million) –that appealed to a wide range of audiences, both domestic and foreign, male and female (three were directed by women). While some lower-budgeted entries did less well, the only big loser among them is $70 million “Blackhat” ($18 million). It will be tough for Disney and Warners to compete for top studio share, but in any case because Universal’s slate is less expensive, they’ll make the most profits. 
2014 was a record $1 billion domestic year for Universal–17 films grossed over $100 million in a diverse, spread-out slate devoid of franchise titles with no movie costing more than $80 million: an accomplishment indeed. Of course they are chasing franchises, from Colin Trevorrow’s “bigger and better” “Jurassic World” to recent hit musical “Pitch Perfect 2” which has a third installment in the works with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson returning, along with sequels to “Neighbors” (2016), “Ride Along” (2016) and “Snow White and the Huntsman” (starring Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth). “Ted 2” was a rare disappointment at $146 million worldwide so far.

Universal projects rocked both CinemaCon in April and Comic-Con in July. Schumer told CinemaCon her story of being elevated by Apatow from mere writer to star of her very personal story, “Trainwreck,” which also wowed SXSW. “Maybe I’m really pretty,” she said. “But my stunt double was a guy.” 

At CinemaCon Ice Cube effusively thanked Langley for having the balls to release “Straight Outta Compton” (August 14), an F. Gary Gray biopic produced by Dr. Dre about the rise of 80s rap group NWA, the “real heroes of the summer,” said Ice Cube. “We gave other artists the courage to be themselves. We just wanted to be real. In this movie there’s gang-banging, drugs, hip hop, freedom of speech.” In the movie he’s played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Keith Stanfield plays Snoop Dogg.

Top of the Universal fall line is Baltasar Kormakur’s true story action adventure “Everest” (Working Title, September 18), which will open August’s Venice Film Festival and boasts an all-star cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes and Emily Watson. They shot in horrific below zero conditions at 12,000 feet where donkeys had to carry the equipment. Kormakur set out to keep the mountain-scaling drama authentic and intimate.

Comic-Con’s Legendary panel showcased “Crimson Peak” (October 16), Guillermo del Toro’s reinvention of the “Rebecca” style “classical straight gothic romance,” he told Hall H, “with certain twists, a little more gender liberated, a little more about being yourself.” He wrote this “operatic fairy tale” eight years ago. Mia Wasikowska plays a young naif who marries dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who brings her home to his four-story gothic mansion and Mrs. Danvers-like sister (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain). All is not right–and of course our heroine descends where she’s forbidden, into the basement. The movie looks visually sumptuous–del Toro built sets and used practical effects when possible–and terrifying, as del Toro mashed his art-film Spanish-language sensibility with a mainstream studio one. 

In a similar vein but on a much smaller scale is M. Night Shyamalan’s indie thriller “The Visit” (September) which preys on our fears of old people, in this case grandparents from hell who warn their grandkids not to leave their rooms after 9:30 PM, when many noisy creepy things start to occur. This low-budget effort was shopped around and eventually picked up by horror-producer Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity”). Blum and Shyamalan persuaded Universal to come out to a multiplex preview screening where they could see for themselves how it played. And then they bought it.
READ MORE: Comic-Con: M. Night Shyamalan on Why ‘The Visit” Is His Comeback Film 

Other Universal titles coming this fall include Danny Boyle’s biopic “Steve Jobs,” starring Michael Fassbender, which Langley snatched from Sony’s then-studio-chief Amy Pascal, when she was worried about its cost and commerciality and “By the Sea,” starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

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