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David Poland

By David Poland

The Grosses Of Universal, 2011-2012

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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.

interesting times…

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25 Responses to “The Grosses Of Universal, 2011-2012”

  1. Fitzgerald says:

    Insightful stuff, David. They are a bunch of intelligent, tasteful people at the studio who are looking longingly for something to connect. I personally hope they will. They seem to have cornered the market on a certain well-pedigreed comedy that just can’t quite break out, and haven’t been able to get their monster movie legacy to turn into gold in today’s world. They need franchises. To that point, I’ve been hearing very early good rumblings about R.I.P.D., the Dude in what seems to be a very appealing role. Could that be the white knight of summer 2013?

  2. hcat says:

    I posted this after Battleship tanked:

    “Since jumping in the 100 million dollar pool in a big way with Waterworld here are the 9 figure budget films that Universal has made.

    Waterworld, Dante’s Peak, End of Days, Grinch, Hulk, Cat in the Hat, Van Helsing, Riddick, King Kong, Miami Vice, Bourne Ultimatum, American Gangster, Incredible Hulk, Evan Almighty, Mummy 3, Land of the Lost, Public Enemies, Wolf Man, Green Zone, Robin Hood, Little Fockers, Fast Five, Cowboy and Aliens, Battleship.”

    So not only are there only a few decent movies in there, there are very few moneymakers. The studio seems to do better by not concentrating on world-beaters and sticking with less expensive, more gonzo fair. Not only do they fail at pushing the budget (and this has been going on for awhile when 1941 and Howard the Duck were expensive fare from the studio), but they have next to no success at franchises, or at least didn’t before Mummy, Bourne, and Fast (which took some odd turns).

    I keep seeing their centenial reel on their rentals, and they would do well to consider if what they are greenlighting would fit alongside those successes instead of simply chasing what the other studios are doing.

  3. chris says:

    “Snow White” doesn’t seem like the one. Stewart problems, mostly.

  4. JS Partisan says:

    Why would Kristen Stewart be a problem for Snow White? Dislike or hate the Twilight films all you want, but there’s plenty of evidence out there that proves how awesome of an actress Kristen Stewart is. If anything, Stewart is the reason a lot of girls will be going to see Snow White and The Huntsman in the first place. It’s definitely not for Theron or for Hemsworth, who’ve they all but forgotten in the ads. If that film performs and is a hit for them, Stewart will have a hand in it’s success.

    One more thing: Universal have had no luck with superhero flicks and have turned their back on ya fiction adaptations. That’s a lot of money they could have had, if they took the chance, and have decided to make their own YA adaptations like film with Snow White. Hopefully it works for them, but when you are ignoring two of the biggest successes in the movie biz to go with what they eventually put out, that’s when you have these sort of failures.

  5. bulldog68 says:

    The only KS problem I see is that most people I know think that Charlize Theron is hotter, which kind of flies in the face of the whole ‘more beautiful than the queen’ premise. Stephen Colbert said it out loud to Charlize last night.

    Aside from that, I think the numbers of people who dislike KS will be negated by those who do.

  6. martin s says:

    hcat – “Waterworld, Dante’s Peak, End of Days, Grinch, Hulk, Cat in the Hat, Van Helsing, Riddick, King Kong, Miami Vice, Bourne Ultimatum, American Gangster, Incredible Hulk, Evan Almighty, Mummy 3, Land of the Lost, Public Enemies, Wolf Man, Green Zone, Robin Hood, Little Fockers, Fast Five, Cowboy and Aliens, Battleship.”

    Utterly depressing.

    That group has around a dozen should-be-fool-proof hits.

    I wouldn’t count the first three because the 90’s was a different animal, especially Waterworld.

    But starting with Grinch, you can play Downhill Racer, with Gangster and Fast Five being the only slalom’s in a course made of moguls.

    I wonder how many “Reboot Jaws” conversations have taken place? I would just do the damn thing as a Jurassic sequel. It’s what they should have done with KK instead of letting Jackson remake Mighty King Joe Yong. This way, you can claim you’re not fucking with the classic, but “synergizing IP franchises” like Avengers, or some such bullshit…

  7. Paul D/Stella says:

    I saw Snow White and the Huntsman last night. I don’t think it’s going to be a breakout hit, at least domestically. Respectable opening weekend is best case scenario.

  8. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Although not Universal, Paramount also gets a conspicuous pass for Hugo which was certainly bleeding in the red to the tune of $50-100mil.

  9. hcat says:

    Universal adapting YA novels trying to replicate Twilight is no different than trying to replicate Star Wars with Flash Gordon and Dune.

  10. chris says:

    The Stewart problem, in addition to not being the fairest one in the movie (which doesn’t seem huge to me), is that she’s a drag and not very good in it.

  11. Paul D/Stella says:

    She really isn’t unfortunately. In her defense, the role is incredibly thin. I was amazed by how little she says and how little she gets to do during the first 90 minutes.

  12. movieman says:

    Pretty much agree with you Paul.
    Universal’s (mis)fortunes continue unabated.
    And–suicidally, I think–moving “Ted” opposite three other movies on the 29th (just four short days before Spidey Redux which, “Avengers” style, will gobble up all box-office action for anyone 10 and older until “TDK3” hits) means that “Hope Springs” is possibly their only chance for a breakout hit this season.
    And even that can’t realistically hope to approach, say, “Mama Mia” numbers. I’m guessing “Julie and Julia”/”Crazy, Stupid, Love” biz at best.

  13. hcat says:

    Hope Springs is through Columbia.

  14. JS Partisan says:

    HC, like every other studio, they had a chance and passed at both of them. Summit and Lionsgate have all of that money because everyone passed. Now Universal are trying with Snow White to tap into that market, and seeing as girls have demonstrated their power already this year with Hunger Games. It seems possible Universal can get a bump off of it with Snow White.

    Also, BD, take your friends and go look at the pictures of Kristen Stewart in the red dress, and then get back to me about whose prettier.

    Chris, is that because you dislike Stewart or how you felt about her character in the movie?

  15. hcat says:

    JS, I would say that a movie about a society where teens are thrown together to kill each other is a natural fit for Lionsgate. The subject matter might be a little too toxic for one of the majors to take on (except for maybe Warners) and that is one area where Lionsgate has excelled, grabbing up projects with potential that others deem untouchable or at least not worth the headache. Their early hits Dogma, O, Farenheit 9/11, House of a Thousand Corpses all originated elsewhere by people who were squimish about putting their names on it. This has still continued and gives Lionsgate a certain edge when it comes to material like Hunger Games.

    And what I would like to see Universal do would be to look for their own natural fit, which they have proven time and time again are not $150 and up action bonanzas. The Bourne’s, Seabiscuit, Mamma Mia all big hits, all affordably made, concentrate on these and on the middlebrow comedies like It’s Complicated (but Christ again, keep costs down) and Fockers instead of chasing the billion dollar brass ring. I am not saying that no one should make Twilights and Hunger Games, or even Snow Whites and Hulks, just put them in the hands of studios that can deliver them. They need to go back to the more charecter driven comedies, biographies, and thrillers that have made them money.

    David has said numerous times that Mamma Mia was more profitable than TDK. But in the post he seems Universal to task not for failing to make more Mamma Mias but for not being able to make TDKs.

  16. movieman says:

    mea culpa, Hcat.
    not sure how I could’ve made that mistake. (it does, however, make the best-case-scenario “J&J” comparison somehow more meaningful, lol).
    i guess that means summer 2012 is officially over for Uni then?

  17. chris says:

    I don’t dislike Stewart — I think she’s been terrific in some things. But her sullen reserve in “Snow White” is a drag (and her big inspirational speech to the troops is not inspiring).

  18. hcat says:

    I think you are underestimating Ted movieman. Opening against Magic Mike and Weepers like Us it should gross more than those two combined. After we had all those R-rated comedies do well, this summer only Ted seems to be out there urging us to laugh (however guiltily) at its raunch. The Watch will be slightly more family friendly and The Campaign less juevinile, Ted might have a big fat audience slice, that actually goes to the theaters, to itself. I can see it landing at 125, but even if it falls short of that it will outgross Battleship’s weak 63 million take.

    And Bourne and Savages, not guarentees but cheaper and possible breakouts. It would be nice if the summer’s BO was not as predictible as most of its films.

  19. MIBFan says:




  20. on_a_ledge says:

    good points re rich ross and mt carney at disney…besides the billion dollar grossers, there were plenty of other successful disney pictures.

    say john carter were a success, would ross/carney “own” that or would that be a lasseter/pixar win? i donna know what ross/carney “own” of disney’s product the last couple but the numbers on the apparent misfires are never as bad as i imagined

    i know there’s stuff about ross/carney i’m not privvy to but still

  21. Krillian says:

    I caught a matinee of Battleship, and here’s a couple thoughts on it.

    1. The product placement was annoying. Coke Zero, Ford trucks, Subway, I remember how obviously you were placed. Congratulations.

    2. Taylor Kitsch just isn’t that good a leading man.

    3. The movie wanted to be Top Gun with aliens, to the point that I’m shocked that James Tolkan wasn’t cast as some officer who can yell at Kitsch, but it was more like Pearl Harbor with aliens. I can picture Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett fighting over the love of nurse Kate Beckinsale now, except… agh, they’re shooting exploding pegs at us!

    4. Actually now that I think about it, it wanted to be ANY Bruckheimer production.

    5. The first half hour was the worst. I don’t need backstory; I don’t want to get to know these people if this is the backstory.

    6. Rihanna was solid in her role. No complaints.

    7. Had the preview for GI Joe 2 in front of it, still pretending it opens June 29.

    8. That scene with AC/DC’s Thunderstruck? I liked it.

    9. The aliens had some interesting aspects, but it seemed too easy to kill them, and there never seemed to be much attempt at communication. There’s no consideration if any of the aliens survived, and when one alien puts his hand on Kitsch’s forehead, why does it give him a vision of destroying the Earth? Then again, the analogy was Columbus and the Indians, and so the Columbus aliens must have been really arrogant.

  22. Foamy Squirrel says:

    1. The product placement was annoying. Coke Zero, Ford trucks, Subway, I remember how obviously you were placed. Congratulations.

    I’m wondering if this is Hasbro’s business model for movies. I remember reading somewhere that they got a shitton for the Transformers movies, and the slow panning over all the logos (Lenovo computers in TF3 being the most blatant) was pretty jarring.

    the analogy was Columbus and the Indians

    Really? I would have thought Cortez would be more appropriate.

  23. movieman says:

    Hcat- I still think opening “Ted” (or “Savages” for that matter) opposite “Ice Age Ad Infinitum” makes more sense than their present June 29th or July 6th dates.
    Anytime you open four adult-marketed films the same weekend there’s going to be an automatic cannibalization effect (what generally happens is that none of them have the chance to break out). The T/Perry movie probably has the best shot since it pretty much owns its niche.
    And “Savages” just screams “sacrificial lamb” opposite the Spidey reboot.
    There was a very good reason nobody opened opposite “The Avengers.”
    While I don’t think “Spider-Man: Me Again” is going to come anywhere near “A” figures, it should have no problem sucking the oxygen out of the marketplace for at least 17 (i.e., pre-“TDK3”) days.
    I’d love to see “Ted” and/or “Savages” break out. I’m just not feeling very confident.
    An unproven Renner or not, “Bourne Redux” is admittedly a safer bet.

  24. Paul D/Stella says:

    I kind of can’t believe that Savages is opening in a month. I feel like there’s no buzz and little awareness. Haven’t seen a single TV spot. Not really reading too much about it. If the studio moved it to summer because they think it’s a potential breakout hit, why aren’t they pushing it more aggressively a month before it’s released?

  25. Geoff says:

    Ok am I the only one who isn’t a bit floored that Sony didn’t see the GI Joe punt as an opportunity to move up Spiderman one full week before July 4th?? I have to think they would love a little more breathing room before the Dark Knight sucks up the marketplace in just over two weeks now – it’s not as if there isn’t a precendent for this. Four years ago when Hancock opened, it did two strong weekends of business before it dropped precipitously with TDK’s record opening. As it stands now, I doubt that Spiderman will crack $250 million domestic the way this schedule is.

    And I swear if most other studios were opening Snow White, I could see it being a huge breakout – if this was Sony or Paramount marketing it, I have little doubt it would crack $150 million domestic. But for some reason, Universal just doesn’t have the same kind of chops to launch franchises.

    And I saw Battleship, enjoyed the hell out of it – I think they marketed every possible element of it in the best way possible and really no money was left on the table. The concept drew laughs from the getgo and that had to be a stumbling block, but they should get a bit of a pass for The Avengers maelstrom that no one really could have predicted… one thought that movie would be doing close to $60 million in its THIRD weekend!

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