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Universal made more money than any movie studio ever this year — without a superhero movie

Straight Outta Compton proved a massive hit — just the latest in a long string of them for its studio, Universal.
Straight Outta Compton proved a massive hit — just the latest in a long string of them for its studio, Universal.
Universal

The $60.2 million that Straight Outta Compton made in its first weekend in the US and Canada was the kind of opening that turns Hollywood conventional wisdom on its ear.

Sure, Compton, a biopic of influential gangsta rap group N.W.A., was likely to win the weekend. But every single number that rolled in proved better than expected — its $60 million result is the seventh biggest R-rated opening ever. And as Forbes's Scott Mendelson points out, it's bigger than the recent opening weekends for Ant-Man and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

What's more interesting about Straight Outta Compton isn't that it's just the umpteenth piece of evidence that movies about black people can make major box office or that summer audiences don't need big explosions or that "based on a true story" still carries cachet.

It's how it speaks to how its studio, Universal1, has put together a record-breaking year by targeting underserved demographics — and without a single superhero.

NBC-Universal, of which Universal Studios is a division, is an investor in Vox Media, which publishes Vox.com.

Universal will likely end up the biggest studio of the year

Fifty shades

Universal's great year began with the February release of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Universal

Universal hit the $5.53 billion mark in early August 2015. That number was significant because it topped the all-time record for most money made in one year, set in 2014 by 20th Century Fox. What's most notable, however, is that Universal topped Fox's figure in August, with roughly a third of the year still to go. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)

Universal's success this year has been built atop six releases. They are (numbers current as of August 20 and movies are listed in order of release date):

And that's to say nothing of solid midlevel performers, like the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck or the creepy horror film Unfriended.

That list of big six films, though, were so strong that Universal could withstand a few disappointments and misfires. Comedy Ted 2 came and went with $174 million worldwide — not bad, but a pale imitation of the first film's $549 million worldwide total. And January hacker drama Blackhat (though a very good movie) only squeaked its way to $18 million worldwide.

Universal still has a handful of high-profile films to come, including the spooky ghost story Crimson Peak, timed for a Halloween release, and the Oscar hopeful Steve Jobs, also arriving in October.

Universal's success is different from that of other studios

So many Minions, so little time.

Nobody would suggest the movie Minions was wildly original. But it still targeted family audiences at a time when most other movies were going for a more adult crowd.

Universal

Universal's big six contains neither superhero movies or young adult novel adaptations, both of which are current Hollywood sensations. To be sure, three are straight sequels, while Minions is a spinoff of the successful Despicable Me series. And neither Fifty Shades nor Compton — a novel adaptation and a biopic, respectively — are going to win awards for cutting-edge originality.

But keep in mind that one of those sequels is to a movie about an all-female a cappella group, while still another is part of perhaps the most racially diverse Hollywood franchise going, and you start to see how Universal's counter-programming is paying dividends. When everybody else in Hollywood is going after white guys in their 20s, Universal is going after everybody else (and, okay, dinosaur fans).

And it worked. That suggests, at the very least, that counter-programming is alive and well as a Hollywood business strategy. And taken with a few other signs, it just might suggest that superhero fatigue is settling in.

Disney was supposed to be 2015's big champion

The Millennium Falcon in the new Star Wars.

The new Star Wars movie should still pull in massive box office.

Lucasfilm/Disney

Disney had both a new Avengers movie and a new Star Wars movie arriving in 2015, along with two new Pixar films (Inside Out and the upcoming Good Dinosaur), Marvel's Ant-Man, and the hugely successful Cinderella live-action adaptation.

And to be sure, Disney has had an excellent year. Age of Ultron pulled in north of $1 billion worldwide. Ant-Man is toward the lower end of Marvel releases but still a respectable performer, while Inside Out and Cinderella were both smashes with the family crowd. If Star Wars is as big as it should be, Disney still stands a chance at posting its own best-ever year.

But it'll be tough to catch Universal. Look at how huge it is compared with other studios at this point in time.

Universal dominance of 2015 box office graphic

Javier Zarracina/Vox

All movie studios have overriding business strategies that you can see by looking at their movies. Warner Brothers, for instance, just makes a whole mess of movies at a variety of budgets and lets the public sort them out. Disney, meanwhile, is in the franchise business, building much of its strategy around releases from Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm (Star Wars and Indiana Jones), and its own animation studio.

Universal's strategy seems to be finding underserved segments of the marketplace and then aggressively courting them at times in the year when audiences don't have a lot of other options. Certainly Straight Outta Compton appeals to more than just black audiences, but it doesn't hurt that it's been the only major release about black characters in months. Similarly, opening the female-friendly Pitch Perfect 2 at the early height of male-centric summer movie season proved to be a counter-programming masterstroke. Release schedules still matter, and so far, Universal has scheduled its films better than any other studio in 2015.

Universal has also exceeded expectations for its films

The dinosaurs in Jurassic World mix a lot of sounds

Jurassic World was a beneficiary of reduced expectations.

Universal

How people talk about box office is built atop expectations. Look at Ted 2, for instance. It's made more, worldwide, than Trainwreck. But because Ted 2 was a sequel to a huge hit, while Trainwreck starred Schumer, a woman headlining her very first film, the former is perceived as a disappointment and the latter as a hit. Expectations matter.

Thus, another reason Universal's success feels so notable is because its releases so often blew by expectations set for them — either by independent observers or by Universal itself. Indeed, the studio's initial estimate for the opening weekend of Jurassic World had the film falling just short of setting the all-time record. When the dust cleared and the final total came in, however, Jurassic was the new record-holder, with just under $209 million in a single weekend.

And that opening weekend success came after tracking numbers (meaning early projections of what films stand to make) had suggested the movie would make only $100 to $130 million in its opening weekend. By blowing past that number, Jurassic World created even more excitement and sense of being a must-see.

And that's happened with almost every single one of Universal's big six releases, save Minions (which didn't end up setting the opening weekend record for an animated film). Some of this is just pure, dumb luck, but just as much is canny management of expectations.

Upcoming superhero movies should be a tiny bit nervous

Fantastic Four was so bad

Will superhero movies of the future be doomed to Fantastic Four's fate? Not all of them, of course. But more of them? Almost certainly.

20th Century Fox

There's a flip side to Universal's non-superhero success. To be sure, it's still a superhero movie's world. But it has to be a bit disquieting to Disney, Warner Brothers, and Fox — three studios that have bet big on superheroes going forward — that all three superhero releases in 2015 performed below expectations.

Now, when you're Age of Ultron and "below expectations" is just under $1.4 billion worldwide, that's not such a big deal. But for Ant-Man, which should finish somewhere between $350 and $400 million worldwide (toward the bottom end of Marvel movie releases), that could be the difference between getting a sequel and not.

And then there's Fantastic Four, which might not get to $150 million worldwide. Yes, the movie is awful. But bad buzz didn't stop, say, 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand from landing near $500 million worldwide.

The further we get from 2012's monster hit Avengers, the more it feels like an anomaly, something that felt like nothing else in film history to that point and, thus, pulled in a bunch of curious viewers who otherwise wouldn't regularly see superhero films.

But that movie's massive box office caused every studio to try to come up with its own. In 2016, seven superhero movies will hit theaters, the most ever. Sure, some of them will succeed. It seems hard to imagine Batman v Superman or Captain America: Civil War flopping. But it's also hard to believe all of these movies will be hits. That might leave studios that haven't banked much of their future on superheroes sitting pretty.

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