While we’re all covering Marvel vs DC like a novelty boxing match, and some are ogling Sony’s dirty laundry, Universal Pictures quietly did the most interesting thing possible this year. The studio that brought us Lucy and Neighbors is on track to make record profits without releasing a single traditional blockbuster. As Scott Mendelson at Forbes points out, none of their films cost more than $70m to make, and only two (of 15) cost more than $40m. There was no spandex, the franchise entries were low budget horror (and the return of both dumb and his friend dumber), and there were no minions.
Yet, as if by magic, Universal netted more money than they ever have before.
They’re assured to be out of the Top Three when it comes to gross this year, but if they get sad about that they have the ability to buy a lot of Kleenex. Even so, there’s one reason to consider them superior to other studios and one reason to shrug at their profits.
The first, positive reason is sustainability. Believe it or not, superhero movies will fall out of favor, and studios will run out of popular franchises to cannibalize one day. Marvel may lay an expensive egg in a few years. The world may grow tired of “geek culture” being paraded past. Keeping costs down and looking to proven genre films (regardless of name-recognition) will most likely provide smoother sailing even as other studios fulfill Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster implosion prophesy.
The second, negative reason is that Universal’s movies are exactly tingle-inducing. They managed to bank nearly half a billion by making a female superhero movie with Scarlett Johansson, and Ride Along and Neighbors were R-rated breaths of comedic fresh abs air, but otherwise the line up isn’t exactly innovative. They’ve made a record amount of profits by doing just good enough. Liam Neeson aiming more guns (Non-Stop), another day of lawlessness (Purge 2), another take on the most famous vampire (Dracula Untold), and so on and so on and so on. They are low-cost, reheated concepts that probably won’t be remembered come 2016.
Let’s go back to Mendelson for the money quote:
“None of Universal’s stable of would-be franchises (Bourne, Fast & Furious, etc.) made an appearance this year. Their highest-grossing film earned under $500 million worldwide. But nonetheless Universal made more profit than it did in 2013, when Fast & Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2 flirted with $1 billion worldwide.
Because alongside a lack of Fast & Furious type smashes were a lack of 47 Ronin or R.I.P.D. type bombs. There are two lessons worth taking from this. First of all, you can make massive profits from a solid and stable and diverse slate of moderately budgeted movies. Second of all, if you’re aiming for the fences, you’re going to strike out pretty hard too, to the point where the big flops may-well cancel out the big hits. I’m sure Universal will see massive grosses next year, with the likes of Furious 7, Pitch Perfect 2, Jurassic World, Ted 2, and Minions. What will be interesting is whether or not they see massive profits as well.”
So, the bottom line is that in an age where the common wisdom is to go as big as possible in order to go home at the top of the box office, Universal is sticking to an older model of filmmaking and doing better than ever. Hopefully this victory makes them feel comfortable enough to spend a little on riskier, more energetic ideas in the future.