What We’ve Learned From This Year’s Blockbusters

christian-grey-helicopter-fifty-shades-of-grey-3The summer movie season is ALMOST OVER everybody so if there’s a movie you want to support, or a studio for that matter, you gotta get on that. Pundits are already scrolling through the totals and drawing conclusions. For example, Todd VanDerWerff, who is one of my favorite commentators on this subject, has drawn the conclusion that Universal ran over the competition like a Zamboni.

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.)

It was supposed to be Disney’s year. Disney’s doing fine! Don’t cry for Disney: it’s in 2nd place, Inside Out is doing great, Cinderella was a knock-out, the Avengers smashed through records and all that. More promising still, the new Star Wars supernova is due to explode all over everything in a matter of months.

But Universal is in first place and is likely to stay that way. Here’s what it did right that’s pretty impressive:

Fifty Shades of Grey ($166 million domestic; $570 million worldwide)

Furious 7 ($351 million domestic; $1.16 billion worldwide)

Pitch Perfect 2 ($184 million domestic; $285 million worldwide)

Jurassic World ($638 million domestic; $1.61 billion worldwide)

Minions ($315 million domestic; $963 million worldwide)

Straight Outta Compton ($75 million domestic; no worldwide release to speak of yet)

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

In other words, while the other studios bet the farm on superhero movies and YA adaptations, they embraced “counter programming,” to very successful effect:

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).

I am not ashamed to admit that I have supported some of these efforts. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey — I mean, on DVD, but I watched it — and I even kind of enjoyed it! The contract negotiation scene was one of my cinematic highlights of the year. I also really enjoyed Trainwreck, which made me laugh so hard I nearly pulled something.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that Trainwreck, Pitch Perfect 2, and Fifty Shades of Grey are not merely movies starring and targeted at women. Two of the three were directed by women and all three were written by women. Likewise, Straight Outta Compton and Furious 7 put people of color front and center and were financially rewarded for it.

That’s important, because money is the only language Hollywood understands (though it has Junior High-school level fluency in Awards*). The fact that Universal has risen to the top thanks in part to the power of ladies and people of color as creators and consumers has real impact on the kinds of movies that will get made going forward.


*Want proof? Check out this list of the highest earning actresses from 2014-2015. #1 is box office champion Jennifer Lawrence, who made $52,000,000, thanks in part to the Sony hack which allowed her to realize she was being shortchanged and negotiate for salary parity with her male costars.

Way further down the list: the always-nominated, always-worthy grande dame of American cinema, Meryl Streep, who made $8,000,000, the same as Amanda Seyfried.



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