July 19, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY’s State of the Studio: Universal


We’ve reached the last of our major studio midsummer surveys (we’ll take a look at mini-majors and indie distributors next week), having tackled Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Sony,and 20th Century Fox.  Our final target is Universal Pictures.

It was all going so well for Universal–until this weekend.  After going a remarkable 3 for 3 with summer releases, this week’s seemingly inevitable failure of R.I.P.D. isn’t going to be a small one, but it won’t dent the profits earned over the last few months too badly.  And in addition to its success at the box office, last week Universal successfully captured co-financier Legendary Entertainment from Warners, giving it an aggressive (maybe too aggressive, but that’s another story) partner for many big-budget movies to come.

GRADE:  A-minus



Estimated Cost (Including Worldwide Marketing):  $300M

US Box Office Thru 7/14:  $237M

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/14:  $468M

Box Office Total Thru 7/14:  $705,000,000

Fast & Furious isn’t exactly a textbook franchise–it’s hopscotched among genres with wild abandon, from cop drama to heist movie to war epic, adding and replacing (and then restoring) stars–but it’s become one of the most profitable in the world.  FF6 outgrossed Fast Five both in the US and overseas, and that’s without the crutch of 3D ticket prices.  In addition, as giant-scale action franchises go, the $150M production cost of FF6 is quite reasonable.  The 7th installment is already being prepared for release next year, and with the addition of Jason Statham as the new Big Bad, there’s every reason to believe the franchise hasn’t yet reached its ceiling.


Estimated Cost (inc Worldwide Marketing):  $50M

US Box Office Thru 7/14:  $64M

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/14:  $12M

Box Office Total Thru 7/14:  $76,000,000

The key to the success of The Purge (which will be more pronounced once international release is complete) isn’t so much its bare-bones production cost of $3M, but Universal’s willingness and ability to gut the usual big-studio marketing strategy and spend just $25M or so on release, one-third of what most summer movies cost to launch.  It’s a paradigm that more studios should embrace, particularly because clearly it can work.  Despite a relative lack of TV bombardment, Purge had a tremendous $34.1M opening weekend (almost as big as Pacific Rim‘s, which had a gargantuan campaign behind it), proving that audiences don’t need an ad flashing on their screens ever 7 minutes to remind them a movie is opening.


Estimated Cost (inc Worldwide Marketing):  $225M

US Box Office Thru 7/14:  $251M

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/14:  $267M

Box Office Total Thru 7/14:  $518,000,000

When Hollywood executives close their eyes and dream about paradise, the Despicable Me franchise is what’s in their thoughts.  An almost crazily low production budget ($75M, half of what Pixar and DreamWorks spend on their cartoons), no giant back-ends to be paid to directors or stars, genuine worldwide appeal, endless ability to spin off characters (a minion movie is scheduled for next year) and merchandising–it just doesn’t get better than this.  If Universal doesn’t do something stupid, the Despicable Me franchise will still be printing money a decade from now, and maybe longer.


Estimated Cost (inc Worldwide Marketing):  $250M

US Box Office Thru 7/18:  $773,000

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/18:  n/a

Box Office Total Thru 7/18:  $773,000

It’ll be a few more hours before the dismal failure of R.I.P.D. becomes official, but all indications are that it’ll be lucky to get beyond $60M at the US box office, and even if it triples that overseas (not likely), it’ll still be a loss.  This was simply a movie that should never have been green-lit, a low-rent rip-off of a franchise (Men in Black) that’s itself past its prime, with no real movie stars in the leads.  At least it cost less than Battleship.


2 GUNS (8/2)

Denzel Washington is about as reliable a star as there is today (his last 8 action movies have all made at least $150M at the worldwide box office), and Mark Wahlberg is no slouch either.  The trailers look fun, especially in the context of the heavy-going superhero mythologies that have been piling up since May, and its only competition on opening weekend is The Smurfs 2.  Unless it turns out to be terrible, this should be a no-brainer hit.

KICK-ASS 2 (8/16)

Something of a wild card.  The original Kick-Ass made only $96M worldwide, but it developed a following after initial release.  The new installment adds Jim Carrey to the mix (although he’s already condemning the movie for its violence, apparently just now realizing what movie he was in), and was presumably made on a budget.  It could disappear almost instantly or turn out to be a late-summer sleeper.


RIDDICK (9/27)

There are no clear standouts on Universal’s fall slate, which kicks off with this quasi-sequel.  After he returned to the Fast & Furious franchise, setting it on its high-speed road to riches, Universal owed Vin Diesel, and he wanted to return to the would-be franchise that died with The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004.  (This one, though, returns the series to its original writer/director David Twohy.)  It’s opening at a quiet time of the year, and if the studio is smart, it has only moderate costs. A risk, but probably not a huge one.

RUSH (9/27)

Ron Howard’s biography of 1970s race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda will need strong reviews to avoid going splat, since contemporary audiences know little about the subject matter.  It’ll be interesting to see whether the film shows up at any of the late-summer/early-fall film festivals to generate some heat.


A gentle British time travel romance (although Rachel McAdams is in the cast) that will try to make a few bucks in the weeks before the holiday heavyweights come to town.


Sequel to the well-liked 1999 comedy that will target fans of the original movie and hang on through Thanksgiving weekend, for a likely moderate return on low costs.

47 RONIN (12/25)

Beware:  a long (long) delayed, very expensive 3D action movie with Keanu Reeves, who isn’t really a movie star anymore.  Unless it can grab onto the audience that showed up for Django Unchained last Christmas, this has the potential to be an even worse disaster than R.I.P.D.


The studio’s Oscar play, opening in limited release just in time for awards consideration, with national expansion scheduled for early 2014.  It represents Peter Berg and Taylor Kitsch’s attempt to dig themselves out of their Battleship hole, with a gritty true-life war story that stars Mark Wahlberg.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."