Universal's "100-Year Flood": What's Behind the Historic 2015 at the Box Office?

100 Year Flood Comp - H 2015

100 Year Flood Comp - H 2015

'Straight Outta Compton' is just the latest bonanza for a studio riding high on a diverse slate, savvy marketing, "and then it's just luck."

A version of this version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Straight Outta Compton's huge $60.2 million domestic debut marks the latest win for Universal in a historic year. In July, the studio hit the $5 billion mark in global box office faster than any studio has. Only three other studios ever have reached so high — Paramount set the bar with $5.17 billion for all of 2011, Warner Bros. collected $5.04 billion in 2013, and Fox hit $5.52 billion in 2014. But Universal, once derided for a lack of franchises, already has blown past them all — its tally as of Aug. 17 stood at $5.77 billion — and the year has four months remaining.

"This is the box-office equivalent of the 100-year flood," says Paul Dergarabedian, analyst at Rentrak. "To get to this level, you have to have everything firing on all cylinders. Every movie is overperforming." Laughs an exec at another studio: "Look, it's karma. Aren't a lot of those movies Adam's?" — referring to STX film chief Adam Fogelson, who was ousted as Universal chairman in 2013 after greenlighting Jurassic World, Furious 7 and Pitch Perfect 2. But Universal's current chairman Donna Langley also gets plenty of credit — she brought Fifty Shades of Grey to the studio and guided all of this year's films, including $962 million grosser Minions. "It starts with a slate of films, provided by our production and business affairs teams," says Universal domestic distribution president Nick Carpou. "It's our marketing department that has driven the right kind of interest. Our dates on the release schedule. And then it's just luck."

Domestically, Universal is dominating with a huge 28 percent of market share at $2.04 billion. While 2015 still has to play out, no studio has ended a year with more than 20 percent of the domestic market since 1997, when, according to Rentrak, Sony amassed 20.51 percent.

Other studios have had strong runs at both the global and domestic box office — though none quite like Universal's current victory march. The closest historical comparison to Universal's domination arguably is Warner Bros.' three-year run starting in 2008, which included The Dark Knight and Harry Potter films, along with Inception and Sex and the City. But it also relied on volume — in 2009, it released a whopping 28 movies — and that meant it also saw its share of flops like Speed Racer and Jonah Hex. "We've seen studios have big years with a couple of big hits, but then they'll have a big write-off, too," says Eric Handler, managing director of MKM Partners. "Universal's consistency — and putting up the numbers that they are — is something we haven't seen before."

What sets Universal’s year apart from other studios’ past accomplishments is that almost every one of its films, which have covered a wide range of genres and have been aimed at a variety of audiences, has been exceeding expectations. “You have to give their marketing department credit, they laid out a plan and executed magnificently,” says one rival distributor, noting while the industry expected big business from Jurassic World (competitors all steered clear of its June 12 opening), Furious 7 and Minions, no one saw breakout hits like Pitch Perfect 2 and Compton coming. “The hardest thing to do,” he adds, “is to keep focus on three big films like that and still keep focus on all the other films, but they did it.”
The studio did stumble out of the gate at the start of the year, distributing the Legendary productions Black Hat (a measly $17.8 million) and Seventh Son ($110.6 million). But it found its footing with the February release of Fifty Shades ($569.6 million). While the franchise has been steadily growing since it was re-energized with its fourth installment in 2009, Furious 7 then set a new benchmark by grossing $1.5 billion worldwide, and Jurassic World, reviving a franchise that had been dormant since 2001, leapfrogged over that to $1.6 billion. Illumination’s Minions ($961.2 million) is close to surpassing its predecessor, 2013’s Despicable Me 2. And modestly budgeted comedies Pitch Perfect 2 ($284.8 million) and Trainwreck ($111.4 million to date) proved the value of programming to female-moviegoers. Ted 2 — its worldwide gross of $174 million lags far behind Ted’s $549 million — is one of the few blemishes on an otherwise impeccable record.

The question now is whether the studio can keep it going: Universal has nine more releases in 2015: M. Night Shymalan’s horror flick The Visit (Sept. 11); the 3-D adventure thriller Everest (Sept. 18); Legend (Oct. 2), starring Tom Hardy as twin British gangsters; Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s take on the computer genius Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs (Oct. 9);  Guillermo del Toro’s spooky Crimson Peak (Oct. 16), Blumhouse’s Jem and the Holograms (Oct. 23); Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s marital drama By the Sea (Nov. 13), Christmas horror film Krampus (Dec. 4) and Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy Sisters (Dec. 18). But even if the momentum starts to fade, Universal is already guaranteed a place in the 2015 record books.