Studios Winners and Losers: Before and After COVID

With no new blockbuster releases planned for the next few weeks, I thought it would be fun to take a moment to breakdown how the box office is so far for 2022, and to compare the 4 major studios (Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros and Disney). 

So let’s compare their performances from 2019 (the last “normal” year), including money, reception, and expectations, to now.


PARAMOUNT STUDIOS

(a redemption story )

WAS in 2019: C-/C 

NOW in 2022:  A

Even before 2019, it has been a rough decade for Paramount. They sold off their biggest franchises (Marvel & Dreamworks Animation), and their own big franchises bombed (Transformers, Star Trek, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc.) , as the characters and top-of-the-line spectacle were seen as weak, compared to the more popular Star Wars or Marvel or Fast and Furious films.

But NOW in 2022, Paramount is officially king of the world again! In 2019, Paramount only earned $1.35 billion. Top Gun Maverick alone has earned $1.38 billion

The studio isn’t 100% depending on pre-existing franchises, as The Lost City was a solid original hit ($190.8 million global). 

But all of their sequels are doing better than their previous movies, as well as just better than expected. (Scream 5 with $140 million Global, Jackass Forever $80.3 million, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 $401.8 million)

Each of these were received well by critics and audiences, and had long legs.

The best example though is Top Gun Maverick. Not only did it earn more ticket sales than the first Top Gun (even adjusted for inflation), but it just passed Titanic as Paramount’s highest grossing film ever!

Paramount has clearly found great success from Tom Cruise’s movie-star charisma, working with him and his business partner/ writer/filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie for quite a long time.

Paramount is also looking for new relationships and signing new deals with movie stars like John Krasinski, and Ryan Reynolds.

Maverick is right now the biggest “part-two” sequel ever, and should end with $1.45+ billion. Your move, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water! Both those sequels will be released by Disney this holiday season.

With this hot streak, hopefully Paramount can keep this up with their continuing franchises, and strong relationships with actors and creative filmmakers.


UNIVERSAL PICTURES

(still rocking)

WAS in 2019: A-

NOW in 2022: A-

Before the pandemic in 2019, Universal had a couple of big blockbuster hits (Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw, How to Train Your Dragon 3, Jordan Peele’s Us), well-received comedies (Good Boys, Yesterday) and some thrillers that underperformed (Glass, Ma, Black Christmas).

Now in 2022, Universal has more popular franchises with movies coming out, and is continuing their luck with original films from Blumhouse and Jordan Peele. 

In 2019 through the entire year, Universal earned $3.671 billion. Through the first half of 2022, Universal has already crossed $3 Billion

Universal had two blockbuster sequels that met expectations (Jurassic World 3: Dominion is nearing a billion [$975+ million Worldwide] despite the worst reviews/reception of the franchise.

Meanwhile Minions: Rise of Gru is expecting to end with over $800+ million worldwide. Even after over a decade or two, both franchises have characters and icons that still remain popular enough with today’s adults and kids (specifically, dinosaurs and minions).

Universal is also continuing their luck with distributing Blumhouse’s low-budget horror films. The Black Phone is at $155+ million worldwide,  now the top horror film of 2022 internationally and globally, and is one of the biggest original Blumhouse films ever.  

Another thriller, Jordan Peele’s Nope, should finish with $160-180 globally, which, while too expensive to be profitable in theaters (the budget was $69 million), should eventually break even on VOD and streaming. 

Another highlight at Universal is DreamWorks Animation’s The Bad Guys, with $246.8M worldwide.

The cartoon was very well-reviewed and well-received, staying in the Top 10 U.S. Box Office for 10+ weeks. 

Overall, Universal is still rocking up big numbers and box office successes, with strong potential relationships with filmmakers and talent.


WARNER BROS./ DISCOVERY

(frenetically figuring it out)

WAS in 2019: C+

NOW in 2022: C+

2019 was a mixed year for Warner Bros. They released several small old-school dramas, many of which underperformed or bombed (Richard Jewell, Blinded by the Light, Motherless Brooklyn, The Goldfinch), as well as sequels with tepid interest (Godzilla 2, Lego Movie 2, Doctor Sleep).

The only real solid success they had in 2019 was with DC films (Joker, Shazam).

Fast forward to 2022: the theatrical movies are performing better (Batman, Elvis, Fantastic Beasts 3), however behind the scenes, Warner Bros./Discovery appears a mess. Films are being cancelled left and right, staff and titles are being axed at on HBOMax, while the future success of their DC films is still uncertain (The Flash, Batgirl).

FIRST the good stuff. The Batman ($770 million global) was very successful and well-received (strong legs and SVOD sales) and should lead to a strong future relationship with Matt Reeves as filmmaker and director. 

Elvis ($260+ million) has also been successful with long legs continuing throughout the summer.  

NOW onto the bad/controversial.  Fantastic Beasts 3 ($401 million global) was critically panned, the lowest Harry Potter movie ever and has effectively ended Wizarding World films at least for the near future.  

And although the studio has outlined a 10-year plan to build the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) into the next Marvel, two of their next films have implodedBatgirl, completed for $90m, was abruptly canceled with no plans for release, not even to streaming. 

And The Flash‘s release, a film which is nearly completed for ~$300m, is still uncertain as its troubled star, Ezra Miller, faces criminal charges.  

The killing of Batgirl by David Zazlav, the head of Warner Bros./Discovery (whose picture is on the RIGHT), is a signal this studio is cleaning up and refocusing.  Zazlav’s focus on “it’s not about how much, it’s about how good” has led to cancelling many completed film projects, film productions, HBOMax and Discovery shows.  And more content is likely on the chopping block.  

Going forward, the company says it’s committed to using theaters as a driver of profit – not just dumping films immediately to streaming.  

Emphasizing “theaters first”, plus the probable merging of HBOMax and Discovery into one streaming service, indicates it will take a while for the dust to clear on whether this “refocused” direction will yield future success.


DISNEY

(failing to expand…)

WAS in 2019: A

NOW in 2022: C+

In 2019 Disney had the most successful year for any studio ever. Their animated sequels rocked it (Frozen 2, Toy Story 4), their live action remakes rocked it (Aladdin, Lion King), Star Wars was mixed negative (Rise of Skywalker), but their Marvel movies were at the top of their game (Avengers: Endgame). 

Now, it’s just Marvel that’s performing well in theaters.  Disney is perhaps a victim of their own expectations, with Thor 4 and Doctor Strange 2 still earning healthy numbers ($750+ million and $955 million respectively), but feeling like missed potential given both their budgets and expectations from Disney investors. 

Perhaps Disney’s focus on streaming and success on Disney+ has hurt their theatrical films, with less of an urge to see their upcoming films right away. 

It doesn’t help that Marvel movies are pretty much now banned in China or Russia, which is increasingly becoming a problem (that’s $150-200 million in box office for each movie left on the table).  

After 2019, the Chinese government has gained an anti-Disney bias, arbitrarily banning future Marvel films from playing in the country, in order to emphasize their own blockbusters in cinemas instead.

Hopefully this years Black Panther 2 will be big enough to do well without China. 

But easily the worst blockbuster performance of the year though goes to the misfire Lightyear, the lowest grossing Pixar film ever with $230+ million global, on a $150-$200 million budget.

I still blame Disney+ for diluting the Pixar brand (Pixar‘s last 3 films went straight to streaming for free), but the damage has already been done against the studio’s reputation.

With the seemingly inexhaustible hunger for content to gain and retain streaming subscribers, AND stay on top at the box office, Disney may be running the risk of exhausting their brands (Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar) by pumping out endless theatrical and TV content.


CONCLUSION:

While none of these studios are in danger of folding any time soon, Warner Brothers/Discovery and Disney stocks are at lows.

It seems safe to say that there is a path for money to be made at the box office, at least for tentpole movie experiences.  And although studios continue to be dependent on franchises for ideas, there is still room for original content to do well if the right cast and story is there.

But the era of “unlimited production of content” for streaming services seems to be ending, as studios and investors are finally realizing this feeding frenzy of content is not sustainable.  That doesn’t mean that great non-tentpole content won’t be made; it just may have to find a new home, now that streaming is now longer the priority for the studios.

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