Warner Bros. goes feast or famine, Universal navigates a year without top tentpoles, and Paramount is once again in trouble
If two other studios in Hollywood had even half the success that Disney had this year, the 2019 box office would have broken last year’s record $11.8 billion take, and may have even topped the $12 billion mark in North America. Instead, 2019 was a year where a single studio stoked fears of a monopoly over the entertainment industry while the rest were left fighting for a distant second.
For the first time in Hollywood history, the five highest-grossing films of the year all came from one studio, with Disney striking gold over and over with “Frozen II,” “Captain Marvel,” “Toy Story 4,” ” The Lion King” and the film that became an unprecedented global phenomenon and the new all-time box office record holder, “Avengers: Endgame.”
Meanwhile, only four non-Disney films from two studios have managed to gross more than $200 million, leaving Disney to take eight of the top 10 slots. As noted back in November, it was the inability of Disney’s competition to match their strong 2018 results that ended up being the main reason why 2019 failed to match last year’s sky-high expectations.
But even in a lopsided market, some studios managed to find success on their own terms, either by repurposing old IP in creative new ways or by working with proven directors with their own original ideas. One studio, however, found itself back in an ugly yet familiar situation. Read on to see the 2019 highlights and lowlights for each of Hollywood’s top studios.
DISNEY: $3.69 billion domestic market share, 34% market share ($4.23 billion, 37% share including Fox)
Highlights: “Avengers: Endgame” ($858 million dom./$2.79 billion WW); “The Lion King ($543 million dom./$1.65 billion WW)
Lowlights: “Dark Phoenix” ($65.8 million dom./$252 million WW)
On top of the jaw-dropping domination of the box office charts mentioned above, Disney released an unprecedented six $1 billion global hits this year — soon to be seven with “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” — and became the first studio ever to gross more than $8 billion worldwide. Then $9 billion. Then $10 billion. All-in-all, roughly one in every three movie tickets sold in North America was for a Disney release.
So complete was Disney’s domination of the movie landscape that even the big stumbles of its latest acquisition, 20th Century Fox, look like mere speed bumps in hindsight. Bob Iger changed Hollywood for good by completing the purchase of one of Disney’s main competitors this spring, only for Fox to take a $171 million operating loss in its first financial quarter under Disney’s portfolio. That’s thanks in large part to “Dark Phoenix” ending the “X-Men” series with a bomb, and other than the decent success of James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” Fox did little to contribute to Disney’s unprecedented market share.
But Disney knew that Fox’s 2019 theatrical slate wasn’t going to be big. They wanted the company to give the recently launched Disney+ a wider range of titles to stream. On their own, Disney had more than enough highly-anticipated films to pull the box office out of slumps on more than one occasion. With no “Avengers” or “Star Wars,” Disney is unlikely to replicate this year’s riches in 2020, but three original animated films, a “Mulan” remake, the long-awaited arrival of “Black Widow,” and Steven Spielberg’s new take on “West Side Story” via Fox should be more than enough to make it the top moneymaker in town yet again.
WARNER BROS.: $1.54 billion domestic market share, 14% market share
Highlights: “Joker” ($333 million dom./$1.06 billion WW); “It: Chapter Two” ($211 million dom./$470 million WW)
Lowlights: “Doctor Sleep” ($31 million dom./$71 million WW); “The Goldfinch” ($5.3 million dom./$9.4 million WW)
WB’s 2019 can best be described as “feast or famine.” Its biggest feast came in the form of “Joker,” a polarizing take on Batman’s nemesis that captured the zeitgeist in a way no other non-Disney release did this year. It became the first comic book movie to take home the Golden Lion and the first R-rated film to earn $1 billion worldwide. A Best Actor Oscar nomination for Joaquin Phoenix and a possible Best Picture nom might be in its future.
Joining “Joker” at the feast was “It: Chapter Two,” a sequel that didn’t reach the heights of its horror record-breaking 2017 predecessor but still found a strong return on investment. Two new franchises were also started with the modest successes of “Detective Pikachu” and “Shazam!” in Q2.
But on the famine side were a slew of poorly reviewed adult dramas that bombed one after another in the second half of 2019. At this year’s Produced By Conference, studio head Toby Emmerich said that those adult dramas were their attempt to fill in audience demand for more mature fare that Disney’s event release strategy would not cover.
Instead, films like “The Kitchen,” “The Goldfinch,” and “Motherless Brooklyn” all crashed out with both critics and audiences. But perhaps the biggest bust was “Doctor Sleep,” a sequel to “The Shining” that was well-received by critics and audiences but overestimated the interest among wider moviegoers in a Stephen King novel that doesn’t have an easy hook like an evil clown or a graveyard that breeds zombies.
Next year will be an extremely interesting year for Warner Bros. “Birds of Prey” will give audiences a different kind of R-rated DC action, while “Wonder Woman 1984” and “In the Heights” could give the studio a summer that could rival Disney. WB also has one of the biggest gambles of the year: “Dune,” an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel at a time when audiences have been rejecting hard sci-fi films like “Blade Runner 2049” and “Annihilation.”
UNIVERSAL: $1.28 billion domestic market share, 11.7% market share
Highlights: “Us” ($175 million dom./$256 million WW); “Hobbs & Shaw” ($173 million dom./$760 million WW)
Lowlights: “Cats” ($17.8 million dom./$34.8 million WW through 10 days)
When you hit lots of home runs, a bunch of singles and doubles feel like a letdown on in comparison…even if you’re still getting on base. While Universal had no $1 billion hits or any films in the annual top 10, they still managed to get to $1 billion in domestic grosses through a mix of smaller but still potent tentpoles and original titles.
Leading the way for the studio was Jordan Peele’s “Us,” an original horror film that not only solidified the Oscar winner’s spot as a can’t-miss filmmaker but also proves that Universal’s first-look deal with his Monkeypaw production banner will be a source for original and intriguing films that the studio can put out on an annual basis. And while the “Fast & Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” and “Secret Life of Pets 2” didn’t yield summertime bucks as big as their predecessors, they were still strong tentpoles that helped Universal cross $1 billion yet again.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that “Cats” ended Universal’s year on a sour note. While distribution execs who spoke with TheWrap remained confident in the musical even after the release of its dunked-on trailer, the CGI humanoid felines alienated audiences and turned “Cats” into a bomb of colossal proportions. Universal will try to quickly rebound with the wide release of “1917” to kick off 2020, followed by sequels to “Trolls,” “Minions,” “Halloween” and the big tentpole, “Fast & Furious 9.”
SONY: $1.26 billion domestic market share, 11.5% market share
Highlights: “Spider-Man: Far From Home” ($390.5 million dom./$1.13 billion WW); “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” ($141 million dom./$370 million WW)
Lowlights: “Charlie’s Angels” ($17.7 million dom./$57.5 million WW); “Men In Black International” ($80 million dom./$253 million WW)
Sony had a high profile bomb with “Charlie’s Angels” in November, but it was still able to increase its annual grosses thanks in large part to “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” a film that absorbed the excitement from “Avengers: Endgame” and gave Sony their second $1 billion hit in studio history. That MCU gravy train was nearly derailed when Sony and Disney broke off their partnership on “Spider-Man” films, but a new round of negotiations led the two sides to agree to make one more movie together.
But Sony’s proudest accomplishment is likely “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” the result of Quentin Tarantino looking for a new studio to make his ninth film after the downfall of longtime producer Harvey Weinstein. Sony won the bidding war for his next project, giving them an original awards contender to add to their slate.
2020 will see Sony get a good head start with holdover grosses from “Jumanji: The Next Level” before rolling the dice on several attempts to build more name brand blockbusters that will hopefully do better than the ill-fated “Men In Black: International.” These include the Spidey spinoff “Morbius” and another attempt to drum up interest in “Ghostbusters” with Jason Reitman’s “Afterlife.” But one 2020 film that might get kicked down the road is the planned adaptation of the “Uncharted” video game series, which hit another snag this week after director Travis Knight stepped down from the project.
LIONSGATE: $768 million domestic market share, 7% market share
Highlights: “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” ($171 million dom./$325 million WW); “Knives Out” ($112 million dom./$217 million WW after five weekends)
Lowlights: “Hellboy” ($21.9 million dom./$40 million WW)
Lionsgate isn’t entirely out of the hole it fell into in 2018, but it has gone a long way in getting back out. After a year in which its top domestic grosser made just $53 million, this studio found two $100 million-plus grossers, one from the still-rising “John Wick” series and another from an original story by Rian Johnson. The latter will be particularly noteworthy looking forward as “Knives Out” was heavily promoted by Lionsgate as a sign of their new identity: a place where auteur-driven films can thrive.
But whether the momentum can continue next year remains to be seen. The creator-driven approach will continue with films like Janelle Monae’s horror film “Antebellum” and “The Organ Donor,” a reboot of the “Saw ” franchise based on a story idea from lead star Chris Rock. Lionsgate will also kick off the launch of faith-based Kingdom Studios with “I Still Believe.”
There’s also a lot of predictions that Lionsgate will be bought out by Apple, WarnerMedia, or one of the many other companies entering the streaming space next year in an attempt to acquire more content, but we will cross that bridge if we come to it.
PARAMOUNT: $537 million domestic market share, 4.8% market share
Highlights: “Rocketman” ($96 million dom./$189 million WW)
Lowlights: “Terminator: Dark Fate” ($62 million dom./$250 million WW); “Gemini Man” ($48 million dom./$166 million WW)
In 2018, it felt like Paramount had started to turn things around under new head Jim Gianopulos. So much for that. The Viacom-owned studio now finds itself in the same situation Lionsgate was in last year, with no $100 million-plus domestic releases and murmurs of sales to a streaming company swirling around it.
While Universal was able to navigate a year without its biggest tentpoles on the slate, Paramount found itself struggling to gain traction without Tom Cruise making a movie for them. Their highest-grossing film, “Rocketman,” turned a decent profit but was well short of the dizzying heights of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” another biopic about an English rock icon directed by Dexter Fletcher. Meanwhile, the studio put blockbuster-sized investments in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” and a recognized name in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” only to see both films flop hard.
2020 should be a better year, if for no better reason than Cruise returning to the slate with “Top Gun: Maverick.” A sequel to Paramount’s big self-grown box office hit, “A Quiet Place,” will also be on the slate, as will a new “Spongebob Squarepants” movie. But Paramount still needs to figure out how to expand their stable of reliable hits, or more years like this one will be coming.