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Hollywood studios tried to put COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror in 2022, but cinemas in China were shut for part of the year, there were periods with little new product for screens, the global box office rose 28.4 percent to $25.7 billion (below pre-pandemic levels), and ramped up spending on productions and marketing of expanded slates affected some bottom lines. In some cases, a particularly profitable 2021 also made for particularly difficult earnings comparisons last year. Blockbusters helped the likes of Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. and Universal to grow their profits though, as The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual analysis shows. Fueled by Top Gun: Maverick, Paramount saw the biggest year-to-year percentage change in profit.
The studio profit report includes an educative look at Disney, which isn’t reporting figures for its filmed entertainment operations specifically, and streaming giant Netflix, even though its financials are not directly comparable to Hollywood studio units. Also keep in mind that financial disclosures for Hollywood studios remain limited and are not easily comparable. (For instance, Sony’s pictures segment includes TV networks.)
THR crunched figures for the calendar years 2022 and 2021, even though Disney and Sony have fiscal years that don’t align with the calendar year, and their executive teams manage their businesses with an eye on the fiscal year. Caveats aside, here’s a closer look at the bottom line of the film business in a time of fast-paced change.
The streamer ended 2022 with 230.75 million global subscribers, adding 8.9 million for the year. Original movies, such as Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and awards season hit All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as series Wednesday and Stranger Things season four, drove viewership, as did royal docuseries Harry & Meghan. On a Jan. 19 earnings call, co-CEO Ted Sarandos gave shoutouts to Sea Beast, “which is our biggest animated film ever,” as well as Purple Hearts and actioner Gray Man, “two of our most watched films ever on Netflix.” The company’s full-year revenue climbed 6 percent, but operating profit fell 10 percent as operating expenses jumped 11 percent, with leadership citing “increased personnel costs to support our continued improvements in our streaming service and our international expansion.” Question marks regarding the year ahead include how much its ad tier can contribute to the bottom line. Despite a portfolio of 50 games after the acquisition of four game studios, it’s unclear to what extent games retain or grow the company’s subscriber base in 2023. So far, the firm’s biggest gaming launch was tied to unscripted series Too Hot to Handle.
In a year of megamerger transition, Warners had fewer theatrical releases domestically, six, compared to 17 in 2021, but saw stronger box office for those titles. The Batman (worldwide box office: $771 million), Black Adam ($393 million, an underperformer) and Elvis ($287 million) led the way, while Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore ($407 million) underperformed compared to the $800 million-plus that most of the Harry Potter movies grossed. The film division’s full-year revenue fell 8 percent due to lower TV licensing and home entertainment revenue. The bottom line, though, grew 4 percent as selling, general and administrative expenses dropped 13 percent, “primarily attributable to lower marketing expense due to fewer theatrical releases.” One bright spot, in the studio segment’s “other” revenue department (i.e., not content, ads or distribution): The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London and Hollywood and the Harry Potter store in New York fed a 36 percent increase to $702 million. With new film studio leadership (Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy) as well as DC Studios co-leaders James Gunn and Peter Safran, all eyes are now on the next film slate.
Revenue in NBCUniversal’s studios segment, which includes its film and TV production and distribution operations, jumped 23 percent last year. Among the hits for Universal, Focus Features and DreamWorks Animation were Jurassic Park: Dominion ($1 billion), Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru ($940 million), DWA’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish ($454 million) and Nope ($171 million). That boosted theatrical revenue by nearly 133 percent to $1.6 billion, while content licensing revenue rose 15.2 percent to $8.7 billion, including content licensed to other NBCU segments. And home entertainment revenue increased 9.2 percent to $1.3 billion. Studio profit improved less than that, though, amid a nearly 24.7 percent jump in costs and expenses to $10.7 billion. This was driven by a 57.4 percent boost in ad, marketing and promotion spending to $1.7 billion as more titles were released, a 20 percent rise (to $8.2 billion) in programming and production costs as activity accelerated after the pandemic, and a 19.4 percent gain in other costs (to $797 million), including “higher costs associated with live stage plays.” (NBCU is a producer of Broadway staple Wicked.)
Revenue in Sony’s pictures unit dropped slightly during calendar year 2022, but profit halved due to the particularly strong previous year, when it benefited from a gain related to the sale of Game Show Network’s GSN Games business to Scopely, and a big licensing deal for Sony-produced Seinfeld and the hit Spider-Man: No Way Home. (To note: Sony’s fiscal year ends in March rather than December.) Sony’s top theatrical title of 2022 was Uncharted, with a global box office take of $402 million, followed by Bullet Train ($239 million) and Where the Crawdads Sing ($140 million). And within the motion picture segment, home entertainment revenue jumped 53 percent to $889 million, benefiting from strong sales of such releases as Spider-Man: No Way Home. Despite a new season of Netflix series The Crown, TV productions revenue dropped 5 percent to $3.5 billion. In positive trends, the media networks in Sony’s pictures unit climbed 2 percent to $2.6 billion during calendar year 2022. And, after HBO launched its adaptation of Sony game The Last of Us, the studio is hoping to capitalize with future adaptations of Gran Turismo and Ghost of Tsushima this year.
Fueled by Top Gun: Maverick, Paramount saw the biggest year-to-year percentage change in profit. The hits included Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ($406 million) and Smile ($217 million). And then there is Maverick ($1.5 billion). The Tom Cruise film also garnered more than $280 million in global consumer spend across 23 million home entertainment transactions, the company touted. The filmed entertainment unit, which also includes Nickelodeon Studios, saw its biggest revenue source, “licensing and other,” climb 1 percent to $2.5 billion, again driven by Maverick. At the same time, its expenses rose 38 percent to more than $3.4 billion amid higher content and distribution costs tied to the revenue increase. The result was a more than 30 percent improvement in its bottom line, with a caveat that this was “partially offset by lower profits from the licensing of library titles,” given it sold off Coming 2 America and Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse to Amazon in the depths of the pandemic. Now, for Paramount management the focus is on replicating the success in the film division and making the direct-to-consumer streaming division profitable.
For the second year in a row, Disney didn’t report film or studio business-only revenue and earnings due to its reorg for the streaming age. Instead, the company reported figures for its “content sales/licensing and other” segment, which analysts see as not comparable but as a rough equivalent to its former studio unit, housed in the Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution division. (Yes, DMED is the Bob Chapek-created group that returning CEO Bob Iger is effectively dismantling.) It includes the sale of film and episodic television in TV/SVOD and home entertainment (some of which was previously reported as part of the giant’s media networks unit), distribution of films theatrically, licensing of music rights and its stage business. Given that $2.29 billion grosser Avatar: The Way of Water bowed Dec. 18, not all of its success is included in last year’s financials. TV/ SVOD distribution results dropped last year, “reflecting the shift from licensing content to third parties to distributing it on our direct-to-consumer services,” the company noted. Meaning, originals sent to Disney+ and Hulu (instead of being sold to outside buyers) were a drag on the bottom line.
This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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