Studio-by-Studio Profitability Ranking: Disney Surges, Sony Sputters

6:30 AM 2/20/2017

by Georg Szalai

'Rogue One' and 'Captain America' help Disney CEO Bob Iger score a third straight No. 1 ranking with $2.5 billion in profit in 2016, but others face a brutal year in THR's annual breakdown of money at the six majors.

Rogue One_Ghostbusters_Split - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Lucasfilm; Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Hollywood ended 2016 with big gains in TV and a record-shattering $11.4 billion box-office haul thanks to superheroes, The Force and a string of animated hits.

But not everyone in town is crowing; last year was lopsided when it comes to profitability. The six major studios collectively pocketed $5.2 billion, down 20 percent from 2015. Analysts blame the challenging traditional home entertainment market and a focus on expensive tentpoles, which can mean a huge payday or major headaches in case of a dud. Plus, of course, the size and strength of each studio’s slate and the timing of releases and marketing spend always affect results.

While some studios had record years and succeeded with established box-office franchises, others failed to ignite excitement with known properties. 

Case in point: Two studios posted losses last year for the first time since THR began tracking profitability in 2009. Sony and Viacom's Paramount were the money losers, eclipsed by a record take by industry juggernaut Disney.

And 2017 might be another year of the haves and have-nots: "I see competition in the film landscape increasing," says Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible. "This has made it more difficult for some studios to keep momentum in current franchises and to cultivate others."

The Hollywood Reporter's annual look at studio profits for the latest calendar year follows the release of financials for the fourth quarter of 2016. Figures aren't always directly comparable. After all, several companies have fiscal years that differ from the calendar year, and Time Warner, Fox and Sony include big TV production businesses, which provide a big percentage of their profits, while other companies don't.

The annual figures nonetheless provide insight into how 2016 looked for major studios beyond the traditional Hollywood focus on box office. Here is a closer look at each company.

  • Walt Disney

    The giant led by chairman and CEO Bob Iger finished its third straight year at the top of THR's rankings thanks to Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 billion in worldwide box office), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($1.05 billion) and Finding Dory ($1.03 billion). That trio, among others, pushed Disney's film profits up 4 percent to a staggering $2.53 billion. Also packed into the financial results was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which started its theatrical run at the very end of 2015 and last year hit the home entertainment market. 

  • Time Warner

    The Warner Bros. parent reached its highest profit ever with $1.7 billion thanks to DC superheroes and Harry Potter. The studio's TV production arm remains a key profit driver, and it released three big-box office tentpoles in 2016, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($873 million), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ($811 million) and Suicide Squad ($746 million), along with such smaller breakouts as Sully and The Conjuring 2. New Line's Lights Out was also a strong performer, earning close to $150 million at the global box office with a budget of $5 million. Overall, Warner celebrated its most profitable film slate in nearly a decade. Consumer products are also a growing source of strength. Warner Bros. consumer products revenue increased close to 40 percent last year, helped by the franchise-led slate, and the company expects this to continue. 

  • 21st Century Fox

    Deadpool killed it for Fox. The anti-hero hit helped the studio with a $783 million global box-office haul. Add to that the $544 million that X-Men: Apocalypse brought in (though a disappointment), and a TV production business that is a profit engine, and the studio posted a $1.3 billion profit, up 21 percent from a weak 2015, making for the strongest gain among all majors last year. Strong home entertainment performance from The Martian and a licensing deal with Hulu for the Showtime hit Homeland also helped the unit. Looking at 2017, the overperformance of Hidden Figures will mostly benefit the new calendar year since the wide release of the film (now over $150 million in the U.S.) falls into the year, even though the movie was first released in a limited run in 2016 for awards purposes.

  • NBCUniversal

    Universal faced a tough comparison with its 2015 profit of $1.23 billion, a studio record driven by three billion-dollar grossersJurassic WorldFurious 7 and Minions. Earnings nearly were cut in half in 2016 to $697 million amid a dearth of established mega-franchises, leading to lower theatrical and home entertainment revenue. Its big movies in 2016 were The Secret Life of Pets ($875.5 million) and Sing ($502.3 million). (Television is not included in NBCU's filmed entertainment unit.)

  • Sony

    On the bright side, Sony delivered a $440 million profit for the studio last year — not counting a $962 million impairment charge because of write-downs on the weakened home entertainment market and the 1989 acquisition of Columbia Pictures. The charge led to a loss for 2016 as management continues to look to reinvigorate the studio unit. Its TV production and global networks operations have been strong performers, while film has been more mixed and faced challenges. The highest grossers for the year were The Angry Birds Movie ($350 million) and the rebooted Ghostbusters ($229 million), a disappointment. By comparison, Sony's 2015 James Bond hit Spectre made $855 million worldwide, though Sony's ultimate haul was limited by partners MGM and the Broccoli family. 

  • Viacom

    After recording a $25 million profit for 2015, the company's Paramount Pictures unit last year remained at the bottom of the rankings by posting its first calendar-year loss ($364 million) since THR began its annual calculations. The drop is even steeper if one includes a $115 million impairment charge for Monster Trucks. The studio had a string of disappointments, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the ShadowsZoolander 2 and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. New Viacom CEO Bob Bakish has made the movie studio a key priority in the ambitious turnaround plan he announced Feb. 9. Bakish told THR: "I'm optimistic about the direction of Paramount, but there is a lot of work to do."