A Tough, But Still a Profitable Year for Universal

Studio scorecard: the year was not as bad as it seemed, despite revenue down about $800M

“We got the crap kicked out of us in the press, and to a large extent we deserved it,” Universal Chairman Adam Fogelson told TheWrap about the studio’s much-derided 2009. “That having been said, we will still be profitable this year.”

Indeed, the year probably was not as bad as was vigorously reported in some media-on-media circles, despite global theatrical revenue that was down about $800 million from 2008’s studio-record $2.834 billion haul — give or take this weekend’s performance of the romantic comedy “It’s Complicated.”

As far as Universal was concerned during this tumultuous year, it was the money-losers that commanded all of the attention — even though there were, in fact, a number of winners on the slate.

Of course, in Hollywood, bad news can quickly overshadow good news — or news that hasn’t even happened yet.

The bulk of the trailers and other marketing collateral for 2010 tentpoles “The Wolfman” and “Robin Hood” haven’t even surfaced yet, but they’ve already been “speculatively beaten on,” based on the studio’s 2009 performance, Fogelson said.

Promoted into the chairmanship in early October — following the ouster of co-chairs Marc Shmuger and David Linde but before the sale of the studio to Comcast — Fogelson is hardly unaware that this year wasn’t his studio’s best.

First among worst, of course, was “Land of the Lost,” the $100 million Will Ferrell adventure comedy that Universal got caught leading with its chin on.

Grossing just $65.2 million globally, the floundering of “Lost” cast a pall that, ultimately, not only took down Shmuger and Linde, but also made everything else seem much worse than it probably was.

Universal was copiously second-guessed for releasing Michael Mann’s $100 million “Public Enemies” right in the heart of the summer popcorn-movie season. But the Johnny Depp starrer, which took in $206 million globally, probably didn’t lose any money.

Any adult drama grossing that much during Academy season, Universal officials are quick to note, would be deemed successful.

Then came the public hammering of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno,” a $40 million acquisition from Media Rights Capital that went on to gross $137.4 million globally on some pretty bad word of mouth.

“True, it wasn’t what ‘Borat’ was, but it was still profitable,” Fogelson noted.

For its part, the next movie to come out of the studio’s summer miss parade, Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” was, in fact, a money-loser — making $61.5 million on a reported budget of $75 million – but you’d think the filmmaker had wrought “Heaven’s Gate” if you’d listened to movie-business banter at the time.

By the time the Weinstein Company released Quentin Tarantino’s highly successful “Inglourious Basterds” domestically at the end of the summer, everyone seemed to dismiss the fact that Universal owned the upside on the international – a $191.2 million haul.

Also flying under the radar was “Couples Retreat,” a $70 million ensemble comedy toplined by Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, which has grossed $154 million to date.

And earlier this year, in April, Universal made $343 million worldwide off of part-four sequel “Fast & Furious” without a ton of fanfare, either.

Looking forward to 2010, Fogelson said he sees a slate “that looks much more like the kind of slate Universal has thrived on in the past,” with more franchise-based events punctuating the schedule.

On Feb. 12, for example, the 98-year-old studio will exploit a venerable monster franchise that helped, to a large extent, build it, with Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt starring in “The Wolfman.”

In May, Universal will debut a remake of “Robin Hood” starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.

Also on the way in late July is a third “Fockers” comedy installment — the first two
“Fockers” movies, which star Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, grossed a combined $847 million worldwide.

Other 2010 highlights include thriller “The Green Zone" starring Matt Damon and the animated “Despicable Me,” with voice star Steve Carell, produced by Chris Meledandri (the guy behind Fox mega-franchise “Ice Age”).

“We’re all excited that all the changes that were going to happen have happened, and all the conversation and speculation as to whether there will be a new owner is over,” Fogelson said. “It feels like the ground is stable as we move on.”