Summer box office: Universal, Disney beat the competition

August 8, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Chuck Zlotnick — Universal Pictures

Labor Day weekend, the end of Hollywood’s summer season, may be another month away, but Universal and Disney have already staked their claims as the undisputed summer box office champs.

Universal, owned by Comcast (CMCSA), is the big winner at the summer box office with $1.3 billion in North American ticket receipts since the beginning of the season (which starts the first weekend of May), according to entertainment researcher Rentrak (RENT). Universal’s hot summer has been led by a record-setting haul from dinosaur thriller Jurassic World, which had the highest-grossing global opening weekend ever, as well as the success of animated spin-off Minions. Walt Disney (DIS) is right behind at $1.04 billion through three months, having been paced by Avengers: Age of Ultron, as well as a massive return from the Pixar animated film Inside Out.

No other major studio even comes close to those two market leaders, with Time Warner’s (TWX) studios pulling in around $537 million so far and last year’s summer box office champ, 21st Century Fox (FOX) so far grossing about a quarter of the $884 million it made in summer ticket sales last year. And, Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak, admits it is unlikely that any other studio will catapult ahead of either Disney or Universal before the end of summer, as August is usually a relatively slow month in the summer season and only a spare few films — Warner Bros.’ The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Universal’s N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, among them — are expected to make much of a splash in the coming weeks.

“It almost feels like this is the spiritual end of the summer this weekend,” Dergarabedian said.

While other major studios have lagged behind, Universal and Disney have steered this year’s summer season to a box office haul of nearly $3.7 billion so far, a 11.8% increase compared with the industry’s roughly $3.3 billion during the same period last year. Granted, last summer saw an industry-wide downturn in ticket sales for the film industry, with a lack of successful action blockbusters contributing to more than a 16% decline in summer box office returns in 2014 compared to the year prior.

Considering 2014, topping last year’s disappointing summer movie season isn’t a huge feat, and this year’s summer numbers still trail 2013, which was the highest-grossing summer ever, by about 8%. But 2015, in general, has been a gangbusters year for movie studios and the $6.9 billion raked in so far this year by Hollywood films in the U.S. outpaces the haul from last year at this point by better than 7.5% and is even slightly more than the industry’s year-to-date grosses in both 2013 and 2012, which are the two highest-grossing box office years of all time (not accounting for inflation).

And, again, Comcast’s Universal and Disney have been leading the pack, with a combined 64% share of the market for domestic ticket sales in 2015 between them. Those two companies are behind eight of the year’s 10 biggest films to date, including three of the highest-grossing films globally of all time: Universal’s Jurassic World and Furious 7 and Disney’s Avengers sequel. Upon its April release, Furious 7 set a record as the fastest film to reach $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales — doing it in 17 days — only to see Jurassic World break its record by four days and two months later. (Avengers: Age of Ultron crossed that worldwide sales threshold in 24 days.)

With those three giant films — all released in the first half of the year — as its foundation, 2015 could become the highest-grossing year for Hollywood ever, particularly if the upcoming slate of fall and winter releases is as chock full of money-making blockbusters as the industry expects. (Dergarabedian believes the industry could top $11 billion in total domestic gross for the first time ever, while a record $40 billion in worldwide sales isn’t out of the question either.) Big films coming out later this year include Disney’s highly-anticipated Star Wars reboot, as well as another Pixar film (November’s The Good Dinosaur), Sony’s (SNE) James Bond sequel (Spectre), and the final Hunger Games installment from Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF).

Dergarabedian believes that Universal and Disney appear to have the inside track on this year’s crown for the highest-grossing film studio, with Star Wars giving Disney an opportunity to make a push for the top spot when it is released at the end of December. “In any other year, Disney [and its current film revenue] would be the clear leader,” Dergarabedian said. “But, Universal is having a watershed, hundred-year flood kind of year where everything is just coming together for them.” He notes that Universal’s success started early in the year with the surprise bounty from the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation and has also included very successful comedies such as Pitch Perfect 2 and the more recent Trainwreck.

Of course, this year’s box office boom comes at an interesting time for Comcast and Disney (and for rivals like Time Warner), as the media giants grapple with declining revenue from their respective cable television businesses. Earlier this week, Disney reported a healthy overall revenue bump that was helped by higher movie revenue, but the company also lowered the full-year forecast for its cable business, which includes ESPN, due to a drop-off in subscribers that follows the trend of consumers “cutting the cord” in favor of online video content. Disney’s stock is down 10% since that earnings report and Comcast’s has dropped 9% since last month, when it reported sluggish growth in its flagship cable subscription business along with declining second-quarter revenue for NBCUniversal’s cable and broadcast TV businesses. At the same time, revenue for the company’s filmed entertainment division is up 47% so far this year, though that business generates only a fraction of the company’s overall revenue.

This is all to say that, while 2015’s box office success is a well-timed revenue boost for media companies, the bigger picture for their investors certainly seems to be the small screen and concern over the changing landscape of television.