Universal Pictures had a terrific January, driving the month’s domestic box office to $892 million — nearly 8 percent over last year and the best since 2010 — with mid-budget movies that over-performed.
That has to be encouraging for studio leadership, because that’s the formula Universal will be working with for the rest of 2014.
With “Fast and Furious 7” moved to 2015 in the wake of Paul Walker‘s death and the “Minions” movie pushed from Christmas to next July, Universal’s slate is devoid of any big-budget tentpole movies this year. Its only sequel is “The Purge 2.”
So far, so good.
The Kevin Hart-Ice Cube comedy “Ride Along,” which just finished No. 1 for the third weekend running, cost $25 million to make and is already at $93 million domestically. The Mark Wahlberg Afghan War drama “Lone Survivor,” which kicked off the studio’s four-week grip on the top box-office spot, had a $40 million production budget and is up to $105 million.
To use a baseball analogy, Universal will try to do its box-office scoring with singles and doubles, rather than home runs.
The studio has some high-profile projects coming, like March’s Seth Rogen-Zac Efron comedy “Neighbors,” Seth MacFarlane’s cowboy comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the West” in May and Angelina Jolie’s war drama “Unbroken,” which comes out at Christmas.
But with its heavyweight franchise plays including “Ted 2” and “Jurassic World” joining “F&F 7” and “Minions” in 2015, none of the studio’s 2014 offerings have production budgets over $100 million, or appear to have the potential to be true global blockbusters.
That’s a major shift from last year, when Universal rode sure-bet megahits “Fast & Furious 6” and “Despicable Me 2” to its biggest year ever at the global box office with $3.7 billion. Universal declined to participate in this story.
Overall, Hollywood’s 2014 is expected to have less box-office firepower than 2015. While this year has big-budget sequels from franchises like “Transformers,” “Captain America” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Hobbit” finale, they aren’t likely to match the grosses of Marvel’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the next James Bond movie, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” and “Star Wars: Episode VII.”
The “more with less” strategy has its limits — and it could be tricky for Universal to keep its films in the spotlight when the competition intensifies.
It’s next release, the romance “Endless Love,” for example, could be overwhelmed by its Valentine’s Day weekend rivals like “About Last Night,” “Robocop” and “Winter’s Tale.” And come summer. “Lucy,” a sci-fi superhero movie from Luc Besson starring Scarlet Johansson and Morgan Freeman sounds intriguing, but it could get lost in the wake of Michael Bay’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and other big-ticket popcorn films.
Of course the goal isn’t to set records, it is to make money. And Universal’s off to a pretty good start on that front.