Before “Straight Outta Compton” opened this weekend to a terrific $60 million, Universal Pictures was already king of the box office—not just for the summer, but for the year. Earlier this month they announced they had crossed $5.53 billion worldwide, the highest grossing year for any studio in history — and they did it in just seven months. They also set records this year for the fastest a studio has reached $1 billion domestic, $2 and $3 billion international, and $3, $4 and $5 billion worldwide. It’s unlikely any studio will catch them, barring a $2 or $3 billion haul for Disney‘s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in December. But here’s the most interesting piece of trivia: they did all of this without a single picture adapted from the most coveted genre in Hollywood — the comic book movie. So how did they do it?
A big factor has been nostalgia, and that’s clearly evident with “Jurassic World.” The return to Steven Spielberg‘s beloved dino franchise was bigger with audiences than anybody could’ve expected. While critics and fanboys quibbled about the bones of the movie, moviegoers were eager to strap into a brand new dino adventure, and they did to the tune of $1.6 billion worldwide. The feat of Colin Trevorrow‘s film was that while it subtly nodded to the past, it was an exciting, entertaining, contemporary blockbuster that stood on its own. The filmmaker managed to put his own stamp on the material while delivering everything moviegoers were looking for in a “Jurassic Park” affiliated film. It worked like gangbusters.
Looking further into the rearview back to the ’90s also helped this weekend’s “Straight Outta Compton,” as did strict attention to the film’s marketing. THR reports that in May, three months before the release of the movie, Dr. Dre (one of the producers) sat down with marketing executives from Universal Pictures, Interscope, Apple, and Beats, to discuss the game plan for the picture. What followed was somewhat unprecedented for a music biopic, particularly an R-rated one. Dr. Dre himself nabbed headlines by dropping his first album in years with Compton, inspired by the film, that also earned very good reviews. According to a survey conducted by Fandango (via Bloomberg), the album alone increased interest in the movie in two-thirds of moviegoers. Then there’s that meme you’ve seen far too many times on your Facebook feed, which became another popular tool to get the word out. It was a perfect storm of social media engagement, coupled with turning a gangsta rap milestone in a brand, and the result was the tenth best R-rated opening in history.
While the April release of “Furious 7” perhaps doesn’t quite count as a summer movie (for what it’s worth to this conversation, it was still in cinemas in June), it’s another strong brand in Universal’s arsenal, but one that hardly needs the kind of coordinated effort of “Straight Outta Compton.” An entire other article could be written about the “Fast & Furious” franchise, which might be the only one in movie history to nearly fade away midstream, only to be stronger than ever with its seventh installment earning $1.5 billion. Universal has the ingredients of the series down cold by now: just mix Vin Diesel, his ensemble crew, and increasingly outrageous stunts. Rinse, repeat. The passing of Paul Walker may have added slightly more interest in the movie, but the studio were respectful not to hang the tentpole too hard around the actor’s death. And let’s face it, most people wanted to know why Vin Diesel was jumping his car from one skyscraper into another. “Fast & Furious” is simply one of the new benchmarks when it comes to the action genre, and Universal is up to the challenge of continually raising the bar.
Elsewhere, the studio made smart plays. While they could’ve poured all kinds of money on “Pitch Perfect 2,” they only increased the budget from the first movie by $12 million (a total of $29 million) and simply gave audiences what they wanted: more of Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and company singing big pop hits, with no shortage of nostalgic tunes. Like “Fast & Furious,” they figured out the formula, made some adjustments, and just like “Straight Outta Compton,” a potent sense of nostalgia found in the song selections was a key ingredient as the movie earned over $280 million worldwide. However, it’s interesting to note that one of studio’s few summer disappointments was “Ted 2,” a sequel that offered more of the same obnoxious humor… but little else. The movie earned far less than its predecessor, cost more, and is a lesson that audiences need something a little more than simply a repeat of what came before. It also suggests that Seth MacFarlane‘s brand of comedy has very little lasting power with viewers.
Meanwhile, the studio didn’t forget about families, giving the little yellow creatures from their “Despicable Me” franchise their own movie. The result? $957 million worldwide for “Minions,” a figure helped by the half billion worth of ads from Chiquita, Amazon, General Mills, McDonald’s, Comcast, and Snapchat, plus more from licensing partners hocking toys featuring the characters. It’s another example of Universal’s savvy marketing paying off in a big way. Coupled with successful theme park attractions, the studio has a big, all-ages franchise to carry with them for years to come. Swinging in the other direction, the studio scored an early year win with the erotic hit “Fifty Shades Of Grey” which took over a half billion worldwide, even if the reviews were savage.
Universal executives should rightly be celebrating what has been a banner year so far, but here’s the question they will likely be asking themselves: do they need a comic book franchise? Certainly, most of their competitors are trying to catch Marvel, with Warner Bros. launching their massive DC universe next year with the double whammy of “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” and “Suicide Squad,” while Fox has their X-Men universe, and Sony is still riding with Spider-Man, developing webslinger movies brewing both with and without Marvel’s assistance. Paramount is an odd duck because outside of “Mission: Impossible,” they don’t have much going, and they whiffed with “Terminator: Genisys” putting that series in peril. In terms of spandex, Universal does have “Namor: The Submariner,” but it’s hardly a character general audiences know about, and unlike Marvel, the studio doesn’t have the comic book brand recognition to take a risk with a big budget movie around that hero.
However, I’d argue that by not being caught in the glut of the superhero movies coming down the line puts Universal in a very unique and somewhat enviable position. Free from having to create elbow room between Marvel, Warner Bros., Fox, and Sony in an already crowded comic book movie marketplace, Universal are free to develop pictures like “Straight Outta Compton” or find the next “Pitch Perfect” — films that don’t deliver the familiar to audiences, but rather, promise something exciting and different than they’re getting elsewhere. If Universal takes anything away from the success of 2015 it’s that they not only kept brands like “Jurassic Park” and “Fast & Furious” relevant and fresh, but they gave audiences stories and experiences they weren’t getting from rival studios. And Universal would be wise to take some of those billions of dollars and invest in more of those kinds of movie while continuing to carve out their own place in the market, rather than chase what everyone else in town is already doing. With Guillermo del Toro‘s period-horror-piece “Crimson Peak” and awards-season-contender “Steve Jobs” among the highlights of the studio’s fall slate, there’s much more to offer in 2015 that will help them stand out from the pack.