Mighty mouse: how Disney has dominated the 2016 box office

Walt Disney Statue Michael Sult

So far this year, Disney’s releases have racked up nearly $2bn in domestic grosses, twice those of its closest competitor, 20th Century Fox, according to data from BoxOffice Mojo.

(Those figures include ticket sales from films that opened in 2015 but were still playing in theaters into this year.)

Underscoring its dominance, Disney boasts four out of the five top-grossing films to date this year, in Finding Dory ($426m), Captain America: Civil War ($406m), The Jungle Book ($360m) and Zootopia ($341m). That’s just in the US; worldwide, those four films together have taken in more than $3.75bn.

Disney’s hot streak could be chalked up to the random nature of the movie business, in which studios’ fortunes tend to rise and fall from year to year. Consider that last year Universal dominated the scene mainly on the strength of a surprise mega-movie – Jurassic World, which grossed $1.7bn globally.

Without a Jurassic sequel due until 2018, Universal is now languishing behind Disney, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros, with $603m in domestic ticket sales. That accounts for about 10% market share this year compared with almost a third for Disney. But with The Secret Life of Pets grossing more than $100m in its opening weekend, Universal looks to be back in the game.

There’s more to Disney’s surge this year, however, than just a fortuitous run. Its impressive box office performance is the culmination of its three big film acquisitions over the last decade: Pixar, Marvel and, most recently, Lucasfilm.

With the successful reboot of the Star Wars franchise last December, Disney now has all three of its key theatrical properties – animated features, Marvel and Star Wars – going full throttle at the same time. Call it the company’s version of Murderers’ Row.

“[Disney’s] acquisitions in the last couple of years have really panned out for them –Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar – and that’s why we’re seeing such strong numbers,” said Daniel Loría, editorial director for Boxoffice Media. “Any studio in town would be happy to have just one of them.”

The studio-owning conglomerates competing with Disney aren’t just in awe. Comcast’s NBCUniversal division in April acquired DreamWorks Animation, best known for movies like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, for $3.8bn.

“Competitors recognize that content is crucial in order to operate,” noted Michael Mazzeo, an associate professor of strategy at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management who has studied Disney. “But other companies have to be careful of not just getting the leftovers.”

Blue-chip franchises don’t come cheap. Disney bought Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm for a combined total of about $15.5bn. “They paid really high price tags for those studios,” said Mazzeo, noting it will still be years before Disney fully recoups its investment.

That payoff comes not just in the form of box office receipts, of course, but through the full range of Disney’s business operations – DVD sales, merchandising, theme parks, resorts and the like, stemming from its movies, characters and other content.

“Similar to the animated franchises, Disney arranged the Marvel Universe to create a series of interconnected films and product tie-ins. With the acquisition of Lucasfilm, Disney appears to be positioning the Star Wars franchise in the same manner,” wrote Morningstar equity analyst Neil Macker, in a May research note.

That isn’t to say every Disney movie is a revenue gusher. Alice Through the Looking Glass, the follow-up to the 2010 hit Alice in Wonderland, flopped, taking in just over $76m to date against a production budget of $170m. The Steven Spielberg-directed BFG, which opened this month, has also disappointed. Last year’s The Good Dinosaur was a rare dud for Pixar.

But the overall depth of Disney’s lineup more than makes up for the misfires. “Once you have that portfolio, as with finances, you have that balance, so that when one is up and the other is down, that reduces the variance you get,” said Mazzeo.

Within animated features, for example, the rejuvenation of Walt Disney Animated Studios in recent years that’s led to huge hits such as Frozen and Zootopia can help offset the occasional Good Dinosaur.

But given Disney’s increasing reliance on franchise properties, one potential pitfall is that of sequel fatigue. Will audiences simply grow numb to yet another Marvel superheroes-save-the-world extravaganza?

Loría argues that as long as quality remains consistent across sequels, people will continue to show up. “If a film is able to connect with an audience, whether it’s a sequel or not, the audience will turn out,” he said.

Keep in mind, the next Star Wars film, Rogue One, isn’t strictly a sequel but the first standalone entry in the series. Whether audiences find it an intriguing variation on a theme or a B-version of the real thing won’t be known until its scheduled opening in November. But if the response is anything like that to The Force Awakens, it could cap a blowout box office year for Disney.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Mark Walsh, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th July 2016 20.41 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010