31 Winners and Losers of 2015: Universal’s Wild Ride, Big China and Star Fails at the Box Office

Raging reptiles, another Johnny Depp downer, “Ultron” slut shaming and a ‘Pitch”-slapped “Mad Max” have made it a fascinating and fun run so far

As 2015 reaches its midpoint, Universal Pictures is the biggest winner at the box office by a dino-sized margin.

With billion-dollar blockbusters “Furious 7” and “Jurassic World” smashing expectations, the studio has performed a spectacular turnaround under Chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Jeff Shell and Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley.

It has gone from next-to-last among the majors last year to the market-share leader among studios this year and its nearly $3.7  billion worldwide haul is the biggest in the company’s 103-year history — with six months to go.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Pitch Perfect 2” were global hits as well and spawned sequels. Even “The Boy Next Door,” a sexy thriller starring Jennifer Lopez that made “just” $50 million at the box office, delivered ten times its Jason Blum-crafted micro-budget.

Still to come are “Ted 2” and Illumination Entertainment’s “Minions,” the Judd Apatow-Amy Schumer comedy “Trainwreck,” Ice Cube’s “Straight Outta Compton,” M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” the Amy Poehler-Tina Fey comedy “Sisters” and the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea.”

The biggest loser is a tougher call. Once-bankable stars Johnny Depp and Vince Vaughn belly-flopped with “Mortdecai” and “Unfinished Business,” the fifth straight dud for both. “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” notwithstanding, Sony still hasn’t recovered from the hacking debacle. Even George Lucas, who’ll bring the first “Star Wars” movie in a decade to theaters in December, had a stinker with the kiddie musical “Strange Magic.”

You’ll probably have your own choices for the best and worst of the box-office year so far, but here are a few possibilities to get the ball rolling:

THE WINNERS

AMERICAN SNIPER“American Sniper,” a One-Very-Big-Gun Salute to the Oscar Noms: On the weekend after the Iraq War drama earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Bradley Cooper) and Adapted Screenplay (Jason Dean Hall) and three others, it exploded for a $90 million wide opening that kicked off the biggest box-office blitz ever seen in January for Warner Bros.

Chris Pratt’s New Agency UTA: It should be fun finding a gig for the actor who has had a bitchin’ summer for two straight years now, with “Jurassic World” as an encore to last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” His next project is Sony and MGM’s “The Magnificent Seven,” and there has been talk of Pratt as the next “Indiana Jones” for Lucasfilm and Disney. But what about a “Jurassic” sequel?

Pixar’s Plucky “Inside Out”: How did writer-director Pete Docter’s tale of what goes on in the mind of a young girl wind up on the winners list when it couldn’t keep Pixar’s 14-film streak of No. 1 openings alive for Disney? By blasting past projections for a $90 million debut, the best ever for an original film and the best ever by a film that didn’t wind up in the top spot.

Colin Trevorrow: The 38-year-old director will be hard-pressed to top landing the “Jurassic World” gig after just one movie, the low-budget indie comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed.” After the stunning success of the dino sequel, where could a similar career leap land him? It probably won’t be a “Jurassic” sequel since he said he’s not interested, but there are now a billion reasons for him to reconsider.

ex machinaAva the Android: Alicia Vikander made for a beautiful bucket of bolts in A24’s indie sci-fi tale “Ex Machina.” Both she and the movie were smarter and sexier than Hugh Jackman’s mechanical sidekick in “Chappie” and nearly as big at the box office. We’ll see her later this year in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” as well as awards hopefuls “Adam Jones” and “The Danish Girl.”

Fox Searchlight, Academy Love and Money: With “Birdman” following “12 Years a Slave,” the Fox niche label claimed Oscar’s Best Picture for the second straight year. With “Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” leading 2015, the Fox niche label could repeat with the top-grossing specialty film too, since “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was last year’s biggest indie hit.

Sex Shop Neophytes, E.L. James and Universal: Bondage buzz around the steamy “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which broke records and spawned three sequels in February, brought a wave of new business to sex shops. “I had a lot of husbands coming in saying, ‘Oh my God, my wife wants me to tie her up, what should I do?'” said one clerk. “First thing I told him is, buy a blindfold, so she can’t see that look on your face.”

Mandarin Translators: Grosses of China’s top ten movies topped those of the U.S. top ten for first time on an early March weekend. “Furious 7” made more behind the Great Wall than in the U.S., IMAX China went public and Beijing investors poured funds into Lionsgate, STX, Michael Bay’s 451 Media Group, Legendary Entertainment and others.

kingsman-feature“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” South Korea and Plated Nuts: The mid-air “nut rage” meltdown of Korean Air’s vice-chairwoman over macadamias served in a plastic bag rather than on a plate triggered middle-class rage toward the rich of that country. Fox’s Tom Oh and his team tapped into it with a series of “news videos” of similar outbursts by the elite. They were soon exposed as fakes, promos for “Kingsman,” but they did the trick. The slick Colin Firth spy saga became the studio’s biggest hit there since “Avatar,” with a $400 million global haul.

IMAX Investors: The giant screen company’s stock skyrocketed after it broadened its audience base with “Game of Thrones” and Disney’s female-friendly “Cinderella,” rose again when it announced an IPO for its Chinese unit, and then again when “Jurassic World” stomped on giant-screen records. Tom Cruise’s “M:I-5,” the next Bond film “Spectre” and “Star Wars” are still in the pipeline. It’s not too late to buy shares.

DreamWorks Animation and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Blood Pressure: The studio annnounced a $247 million fourth-quarter loss in February and cut its 2015 slate to one movie in a survival plan. Voiced by Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence and Jim Parsons, “Home” debuted to $52 million and turned into a hit, keeping DWA in the black — and allowing its chief executive to exhale.

mad max splitGeorge Miller and Sand-Blasted Budgets: The “Mad Max” director waited 33 years to make the sequel his way, then knocked it out of the park with his 3D road rage masterpiece “Fury Road.” The raucous shoot maxed out the budget but the box office has it heading for the black, so stop your whining or we’ll lash you to the grill and punch it.

Nia Vardalos (see “George Miller”): Her “Big Fat Wedding” sequel deal is finally sealed, 13 years after the original film became highest-grossing indie in history with $369 million on a $5 million budget for IFC Films.

Niche Marketing for Wide Releases: Art  house and specialty films have for years scored by targeting specific and limited audiences exclusively, but only recently have the studios used “single quadrant” strategy on costlier films. High school girls made a hit of CBS Films’ “The Duff,” Fox’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was nearly all male and “Age of Adaline” was all but ladies only. 

paddington“Paddington,” Terror Bear: Some were shocked by the sinister themes and dark sides exposed in writer-director Paul King’s live action-CGI family film “Paddington,” about the cuddly bear beloved by Brit kids. Nicole Kidman stars as a seductive taxidermist with Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abby” in the film from “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman released in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company in March. Its frightening tone freaked some parents and inspired memes and several websites along the lines of “creepy-paddington.tumblr.com.” In the U.K. there was an outcry over the teddy toys’ voice-activated digital recorder that anti-stalking groups said could be used to spy on children. With press like that, who needs a marketing campaign? “Paddington,” made for $55 million, has taken in $260 million globally, $76 million in the U.S. for TWC.

LOSERS

Marvel “Avengers: Age of Ultron”: How can Disney’s Marvel superhero sequel be the year’s highest-grossing movie, top $1 billion worldwide and still be a loser? By having its shot at the record for the biggest opening in history knocked out by a pay-per-view TV boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather that had to be the most boring “fight of the century” in years.

That Oscar Bump Is Hardly Showing: The eight Best Picture movies had earned a combined $203 million prior to the nominations. That’s roughly equivalent to what the top 10 films make on a good weekend, and by far the lowest total since the field was expanded by the Academy. “Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood” were already out on DVD and got no box-office boost, and eventual winner “Birdman” was among the lowest-grossing winners ever. Not surprisingly, TV ratings for the Academy Awards were dismal.

Falling Stars: Johnny Depp’s “Mortdecai,” Chris Hemsworth’s “Blackhat,” Jeff Bridges’ “Seventh Son,” Vince Vaughn’s “Unfinished Business” and Sean Penn’s “Gunman”all bombed, while giant lizards drove the year’s breakout hit.

Off the Rails Tracking: Traditional pre-release marketing data — used by studios and pundits to help project box-office openings — has been off more often than it’s been on this year. The complaints would be louder, but it has repeatedly missed with projections that are low, so most movies “beat expectations” — by $75 million in the case of “Jurassic World” — and nobody complains.

Guardians of the Gallantry? – “Avengers” stars Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner apologized during the “Age of Ultron” press tour, after calling Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character “a slut.”

spy-satMelissa McCarthy, Paul Feig and “Spy”: The R-rated comedy has made $75 million domestically, but the well-reviewed and truly funny Fox film looks like it won’t match the grosses of “Bridesmaids” or “The Heat,” the star and director’s previous collaborations, Blame Indominus Rex and the “Jurassic” gang. Even a great performance against-type from tough guy Jason Statham couldn’t turn the tide.

Amy Pascal and Not Hitting “Delete”: The former Sony co-chair drew heat after her leaked emails called the rom-com “Aloha” a mess during the shoot and said writer-director Cameron Crowe wasn’t making the changes the film needed to connect with moviegoers. That didn’t help the movie any, but that wasn’t why it opened weakly. Calling it doesn’t make Pascal a winner, but she was right.

Summer Screams: Closer-to-Halloween fall release dates are traditional for horror films, but Focus Features tried a summer launch with “Insidious: Chapter 3,” which it inherited from Film District. It cost $10 million to make and has taken in around $45 million, so no one is crying. But it’s fading after three weeks against tough competition and has grossed a little over half of what the previous “Insidious” film did and serves as cautionary note on chillers in summer.

secondbest1Indies and Ideas: Of course it was engaging and your parents loved it, but “Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has been the year’s top earner at the specialty box office. Maybe it’s just us and we love Maggie Smith as much as the next guy, but we hope for more — like fresh, bold ideas — from the independents.

“Tomorrowland” and the Not-So-Great Unknown: Brad Bird’s sci-fi adventure drew its name from the Disney attraction, but proved more “Country Bear Jamboree” than “Pirates of the Caribbean” at the box office. Disney marketers’ kept the George Clooney sci-fi adventure’s plot under wraps in a clever campaign based on a mysterious box supposedly discovered in a Disney back room. The campaign piqued interest and worked, but the film didn’t, in part because moviegoers didn’t know what the $150 million tale was about.

Thomas Tull and Legendary BYOB: “Blackhat” and “Seventh Son,” the two films that the company brought over when it moved its deal from Warner Bros. to Universal, bombed spectacularly. Having a stake in “Jurassic World” eased the pain, however.

Warner Bros.

Andy and Lana Wachowski: Their pricey Channing Tatum-Mila Kunis space fantasy “Jupiter Ascending” descended quickly at the box office, but the sci-fi siblings’ fourth straight pricey flop brought into focus one of the universe’s most profound unsolved mysteries: How do they keep getting movies bankrolled?

Faith-Based Films, Oh Ye of Little Grosses: Last year, religiously-themed films “Noah,” “Heaven Is for Real,” “God’s Not Dead,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and Mark Burnett’s “Son of God” combined for nearly $400 million at the domestic box office. This year, “Do You Believe,” an inspirational drama from Pure Flix executive-produced by Burnett is the top grossing faith-based film with a sad $13 million.

kevin james little boyCritics, Kevin James and Taste: Kevin James and the low-brow comedy “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” were eviscerated by critics, but it opened to a surprisingly strong $24 million and second place for Sony in mid-April. A week later,  James’ turn as a sensitive physician in the indie war drama “Little Boy” draws nearly universal praise, but the film barely made a ripple at the box office. Insert own punch line.

Paramount: The studio showed its president Adam Goodman the door, then forgot to release any movies except for “SpongeBob Squarepants: Sponge Out of Water,” which ended the No. 1 run of “American Sniper” and became a global hit. Wait, you say it did release two others ? “Project Almanac”? “Hot Tub Time Machine 2”?

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Chemistry Experiments: The “American Sniper” star and the “Hunger Games” and “X-Men” heroine know blockbusters, and their films have brought in more than $9 billion. As a couple in “Silver Linings Playbook,” they were dynamite, but the Depresssion-era drama “Serena” was just a bomb for Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures in March.