‘Dumb and Dumber’ Sequel Is 7th Score in Universal’s Year Without Blockbusters

The studio is getting maximum box-office bang for its bucks — without a tentpole movie

No studio has done made more of its movie slate at the box office than Universal Pictures this year, and “Dumb and Dumber To” is the latest example of that.

It’s been a dominating year for 20th Century Fox, which is the clear market share leader. Disney has 2014’s biggest hit in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Warner Bros. is just behind those two and about to unleash the finale in its “Hobbit” franchise. But only Fox has as many No. 1 openings — seven — as Universal.

The $36 million first-place debut of the Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels comedy sequel was preceded by “Lone Survivor,” “Ride Along,” “Non-Stop,” “Neighbors,” “Lucy” and “Ouija.”

It’s a diverse list of films, with nary a superhero, sequel or tentpole to be found. “Non-Stop” had the biggest production budget of the bunch at $50 million, but the studio’s seven No. 1 openers had an average cost of $31 million — and have opened to an average of $37 million. Produced by Red Granite Pictures’ “Dumb and Dumber To” had a $40 million production budget.

“This is true efficiency,” Rentrak Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap, “and when you do it so many times it starts to look easy, but it’s not. When you market and distribute a major motion picture – especially original material like these films — it’s like a whole new undertaking every time.

“They’ve made the right choices on the projects, especially with what are essentially genre films like ‘Ouija’ and ‘Lucy,’ and they found the right stars for movies like ‘Lone Survivor’ (Mark Wahlberg) and ‘Ride Along’ (Kevin Hart and Ice Cube).”

The marketing department headed by Josh Goldstein has honed in on the niches that several of the films targeted, and found a sweet spot with “Dumb and Dumber To.” It drew the older fans of the original movie and younger fans who had come to know it as a cable TV staple. The distribution team under Nikki Rocco and Ncholas Carpou has been on the money, too. The slot they locked for “Dumb and Dumber To” — capitalizing on the fact it was the first comedy since “Let’s Be Cops” in August — proved ideal.

The blockbuster-free strategy was to a degree born out of necessity for Universal Pictures and Donna Langley, who took over for Adam Fogelson as chairman last fall. The studio was forced to push the next installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise from the summer when Paul Walker died. Then it shifted its biggest animated entry, “The Minions,” from December 2014 to July 10, 2015.

That meant that Universal would be swinging for singles and doubles, rather than home runs in 2014. And it’s connected more often than not.

“Every studio faces pitfalls in the course of a year, and Universal has done a great job of dealing with a tragic situation and landing on their feet,” Dergarabedian said.

There have been misses like “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “A Walk Among Tombstones” and “Get on Up,” but the Seth MacFarlane comedy was the costliest of those at $40 million. The studio’s most expensive film, “Dracula Untold” at $70 million, has taken in a soft $55 million domestically but has scared up $153 million from abroad.

The strategy has shortcomings — no home runs means no grand slams, as in huge box-office returns and franchise launches. The low-budget teen horror film “Ouija,” for example, was the nation’s top film for two weeks running. But it’s still taken in under $50 million domestically after three weeks; that’s a great return on investment, given its $5 million cost, but not the kind of success that you can anchor your future on.

The highest-grossing of the studio’s films worldwide has been the Luc Besson’s Scarlett Johansson sci-fi saga “Lucy,” which has taken in $459 million. That’s impressive, but nowhere near the return that the studio saw last year with “Despicable Me 2” ($970 million worldwide) or “Fast and Furious 6” ($788 million).

The studio’s last film of the year will be the Angelina Jolie-directed inspirational drama “Unbroken,” the story of Olympic and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, which opens on Christmas Day and is a sure bet to be in the Best Picture discussion for the Academy Awards.

After that, it’s on to 2015 and back to the high-risk, high-reward blockbuster business. Universal will be swinging for the fences again with the tentpoles it pushed this year, as well as “Jurassic World,” “Ted 2,” “Straight Outta Compton” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak.”

But in the meantime, they have plenty to celebrate, even without blockbusters.