Has Universal proven that studios don’t need blockbusters?

Universal Pictures has not a single blockbuster movie on its 2014 slate. So why is it posting some of its most impressive numbers for years?

Once upon a time, Universal Pictures had its slate for 2014 pretty much sorted. It was to base it around two massive blockbuster sequels, a pair of tentpole pictures that were of sufficient size for others studios to steer clear of them. And that would then give the studio the latitude to place a few other, cheaper bets around the board.

But then, last year, there was a change of plan. Jurassic Park 4 became Jurassic World, and more worryingly for Universal, it bounced from the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2015. That meant that Universal’s blockbuster strategy hung on Fast & Furious 7, a sequel that the studio had fasttracked – at the cost of director Justin Lin – so that it followed Fast & Furious 6 by a mere year.

When tragedy struck at the end of November last year, with the sudden and awful death of Paul Walker, one of the consequences (although not the biggest in the grand scheme of things) was the delaying of Fast & Furious 7. It took a while, but Universal eventually announced that it was putting the film back to April 2015.

And that left Universal in an almost-unheard of position in modern cinema: a major studio was heading into a year without a single blockbuster movie on its schedule. Disaster was foretold. Yet, against general odds, Universal is having a really successful year.

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For a long time, Universal struggled with blockbusters, with the likes of Bourne movies and its partnership with Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me, The Lorax, Hop) finally seeing it enjoy a lot more success. In recent times, films such as the revived Fast & Furious franchise, Despicable Me 2, Identity Thief, Bridesmaids and Ted have gone on to be sizeable earners. By mixing R-rated comedies, animation and sequels – and ideally, at least two of those – Universal had happened upon its formula.

So what’s gone right in 2014, without those big movies? Thus far in the US, Universal has released four films. Three of them have hit. Furthermore, the ones that have hit have all been relatively economical, two of them have sequel potential, and all of them are very profitable. Ride Along was the one that got things started. Grossing $134m in the US in January, against a budget of $25m, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ride Along 2 has already been announced.

It’s not been an absolute success story: for all its US success, Ride Along pretty much plummeted elsewhere, grossing just $19m outside the States. But Universal nonetheless got a lot of profit and a new franchise from a film where it probably expected neither.

Next up? It smartly invested in the latest Euro-thriller, Non-Stop (and it’s bought up some distribution rights to another, Lucy, due later this year). Reuniting Liam Neeson with his Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s a movie that also proved to be something of a sleeper hit. Universal had the US rights for this one (Studio Canal distributed the film in the UK), but still managed to get $91m in the coffers just from the movie’s theatrical release.

And then there’s arguably the biggest of the lot to date: Neighbors, or Bad Neighbours if you live in Blighty. Crucially, this one hasn’t just hit in the US – its gross there is $118m and counting – but it’s also generating success elsewhere. The film could and should reach $250m worldwide by the end of its run, off the back of an $18m budget. Don’t be surprised if a sequel follows.

This weekend, Universal launches its latest Seth MacFarlane collaboration too, A Million Ways To Die In The West. If that does anywhere near close to Ted numbers, then the studio stands on the verge of its best ever annual take at the US box office – and that’s with The Purge: Anarchy and the promising-looking Lucy both due before the end of July.

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Even beyond that, Universal’s slate for the rest of the year is peppered with potential hits. It’s gambled on Dumb And Dumber To for a start (a belated sequel that Warner Bros passed on), but thriller As Above So Below has potential, The Loft – starring Karl Urban and Wentworth Miller – should earn a few dollars at the end of August, horror movie Ouija won’t have to do much to make back its tiny budget, and don’t rule out autumn comedy Search Party either. Throw in Dracula Untold – which has been upgraded to an IMAX release, and is one of the first fruits of Universal’s tie-up with Legendary Pictures – and the lack of a bona fide blockbuster looks less of a problem.

Perhaps the classiest release of the year from the studio is Scott Franks’ upcoming A Walk Among The Tombstones, although given its September release, it’s going to have to do something to earn and sustain Oscar buzz. In truth, it’s not looking like a candidate anyway, but it does seem an intriguing movie.

2015? That’s when lots of Universal big guns are already primed and loaded. As well as those Jurassic Park and Fast & Furious sequels, Minions could well break $1bn worldwide, whilst sequels such as Pitch Perfect 2 and Bourne 5 should be reliable. Projects such as Everest and Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak also look promising. As things stand looking ahead, 2014 is a blip in Universal’s strategy.

But hopefully some broader lessons can be learned from it anyway. What initially looked quite bleak for Universal has proven anything but, and if it steers studios away from the tentpole model towards spreading their bets on a series of smaller, potentially more interesting projects, then that’s got to be a good thing.

The obvious caveat, of course, is that some of these Universal projects have just been cheaper takes on blockbusters, and there’s not enough genuine ambition in the slate. Furthermore, the hits that Universal has enjoyed in 2014 to date haven’t travelled anywhere near as well as a massive franchise would, and given that the big films now make anywhere up to 75% of their money outside of America, that’s not something that can be ignored.

Yet if the movie studio business can get away from laying out two or three nine figure bets every year, and then going low cost on pretty much everything else, then we might at least win back the old mid-budget fare that the studio system has been squeezing out for some time. It’s a long shot certainly, but Universal has at least accidentally proven that a year without expensive blockbusters on your slate can still be a hugely successful one – and a very profitable one at that. Might it put a few more $20m-40m movies into production off the back of that? We can but hope, and we can but also hope others follow suit. The signs aren’t positive looking at the release lists for 2015 and 2016. But the numbers for 2014 surely can’t be entirely ignored.

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