The domestic box office in 2015 delivered $11.1 billion in ticket sales, but as impressive as those numbers are, they only tell part of the story.
Universal Pictures and Disney each brought in more than $2 billion domestically, Disney for the second year in a row. “Furious 7,” “Jurassic World” and “Minions” drove Universal to the top of the market share heap, while Disney wasn’t far behind with Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
And there was more good news. Admissions, trending downward for a decade, were up roughly 4 percent. Young moviegoers, who have been increasingly skipping theaters for digital and other options in recent years, returned in 2015 and drove the success of the seven of the 10 top-grossing movies. Premium options like IMAX, Premium Large Format and 3D thrived.
Here are 12 of the most memorable achievements and developments that defined the 2015 box office:
After topping $1 billion in global grosses in a record 12 days, “The Force Awakens” is on course to overtake “Avatar” as the all-time box office king. But the through-the-roof launch of the first “Star Wars” movie in a decade means much more than grosses for Disney.
In addition to triggering merchandise sales projected to hit $5 billion, the movie sets up a new era for the “Star Wars” franchise: Two more films in this trilogy are scheduled, and two spinoffs are already in the works. A successful Jan. 9 debut in China will give a major boost to Shanghai Disney, which opens in 2016, and the company’s long-term success behind the Great Wall.
Disney’s leadership deserves credit for pulling the rollout off in the face of enormous expectations fueled by unprecedented social media buzz and advance sales, and the pressure — “responsibility,” CEO Robert Iger has called it — of fulfilling George Lucas‘ legacy.
2. “Jurassic World” Rumbles Into Record Book
When Universal took on its own legacy project with “Jurassic World,” a followup to Steven Spielberg‘s groundbreaking 1993 dinosaur thriller, they looked to an expert. Spielberg hand-picked unproven director Colin Trevorrow and as a producer helped keep the big lizards and star Chris Pratt headed in the right direction. The movie paid homage to the original, but balanced that with fresh edge to bring in young fans. A sequel is in the works and Spielberg recently brought his DreamWorks deal to Universal.
It was clear Pete Doctor’s 3D computer-animated tale of what goes on the mind of a young girl was going to have a tough time opening just one week after “Jurassic World.” And Pixar’s streak of 12 straight No. 1 debuts did indeed end. But the $90 million “Inside Out” opening was the biggest for a non-sequel Pixar film and the top opening for any original film, live-action or otherwise, eclipsing the $77 million debut of “Avatar.” And two weeks later, Riley and her pals got some revenge, ending the dinos’ run at No. 1.
Stars may not open movies these days, but Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plainly didn’t get the memo. He played an L.A. helicopter-rescue pilot in the earthquake disaster epic from New Line and Village Roadshow, which blew away expectations with a $55 million debut in late May. It went on to take in nearly $475 million globally.
After a disastrous close to 2014, DreamWorks Animation retrenched with layoffs, sold its campus and cut its film slate. When it pushed “Kung Fu Panda 3” to 2016, it was left with just one release in 2015 — “Home.” With Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Steve Martin providing the pipes, “Home” debuted to $52 million in March and went on to take in $177 million domestically and $386 worldwide. And DWA finished 2015 in the black.
To land an IMAX run and to avoid “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Paramount’s marketing and distribution chief Megan Colligan moved up the release of the $150 million action sequel by nearly five months, from Christmas Day to July 31. With Cruise, spectacular stunts, a giant-screen boost and not much competition, “Rogue Nation” opened to $55 million and went on to make $195 million domestically, $682 million worldwide.
Credit Fox and distribution chief Chris Aronson with a smooth move in shifting the Ridley Scott sci-fi tale to October 2 and away from a crowded Thanksgiving and a showdown with “The Hunger Games” finale. With NASA fortuitously making headlines by discovering water on the Red Planet days before its debut, Matt Damon and “The Martian” opened to $54 million and won four of the next five weekends.
8. The Selling of “50 Shades of Gray,” “Furious 7” and “Straight Outta Compton”
These films have nothing in common, you say? That’s just it — the Universal marketing team led by Josh Goldstine and Michael Moses successfully sold moviegoers on three wildly different movies, each with potential pitfalls.
“Fifty Shades” was a huge best-seller but that didn’t mean moviegoers, especially women, were ready to see S&M on screen. By selling E.L. James‘ steamy saga as a romance, then a date movie, Universal positioned it for a record Valentines Day weekend debut of $85 million.
“Furious 7” was shifted to 2015 in the wake of Paul Walker‘s untimely death. That triggered fans curiosity but left the studio open to charges of exploitation if it pushed too hard. But the $190 million sequel got a big boost from Vin Diesel‘s social media followers, opened to $147 million on April 3 and ultimately drove to $1.5 billion worldwide.
“Straight Outta Compton,” the story of ganta rap group N.W.A that included the song “Fuck Tha Police” looked like a tough sell with mainstream America. But the F. Gary Gray-directed biopic dominated late summer after a robust $60 million August debut.
In an off year for independent films, the No. 1 non-studio film wasn’t typical art-house fare: “War Room,” an unabashedly straightforward paean to the power of prayer directed by Alex Kendricks and co-written and produced by his brother Stephen. The $3 million production for Sony’s Affirm Films finished No. 1 in its second week and grossed more than $71 million.
10. “Narrow and Deep” Marketing Finds its Niche
Social media and ultra-deep digital data dives enabled studios to economically target audiences. As a result, a movie can appeal to just one demo and be a hit. While women flocked to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Fox’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and suave star Colin Firth rode a nearly all-male audience to a $44 million debut. CBS Films’ very low-budget high school comedy “The Duff” drew teen girls almost exclusively and took in $35 million. And Lionsgate used a fashion focus to sell “The Age of Adaline” to women and basically ignored men. The drama starring Blake Lively and Harrison Ford grossed $58 million on a $25 million budget.
The teen-fueled frenzy around star Jennifer Lawrence in the first “Hunger Games” and the roaring sequel “Catching Fire” couldn’t be matched by the last two films in the YA franchise. But “Mockingjay Part 2” has crossed $600 million globally and the entire series will reap nearly $3 billion for Lionsgate. No wonder the studio is considering a prequel.