Last week Exhibitor Relations noted something fairly unusual: Every Disney release in the first half of 2018 has gone on to cross the $100 million domestic box-office mark. That list includes:
- Black Panther ($699m to date)
- A Wrinkle in Time ($100m to date)
- Avengers: Infinity War ($672m to date)
- Solo: A Star Wars Story ($207m to date)
- Incredibles 2 ($440m to date)
The consistent success of Disney releases stands in contrast to, as ER later clarified, the track record of other studios, with Warner Bros. and Universal scoring two such films while Fox, Sony and Paramount notched just one each and Lionsgate had none.
Disney’s place as less a movie studio and more a manager of various brands is the biggest, most easily identifiable reason behind the imbalance. Most of the other major studios have released roughly the same number of movies this year, but to much less success. Each of Disney’s releases was tied in some way to either an existing franchise or was based on other media, giving them more or less instant audience awareness, but each one also came with its own unique, core value proposition in its campaign:
- Black Panther: Come see the first black super hero to lead a major studio release in a story tinged with Afrofuturism elements from a well-respected director.
- A Wrinkle In Time: Come see a story based on a beloved book that not only was directed by a woman of color but also finally brings some diversity to the fantasy genre.
- Avengers: Infinity War: Come see the culmination of the story you’ve been following, at least partly, for the last decade.
- Solo: A Star Wars Story: Come see the backstory of a beloved character set in a universe that everyone already loves.
- Incredibles 2: Come see the story you’ve waited 14 years for that finally offers more of everyone’s favorite family of supers.
In all those cases, the studio was offering something *more* of what the audience had previously enjoyed or something wholly *unique* that they hadn’t seen before. Let’s contrast that with the marketing pitches for the top five grossing 2018 releases from the other studios.
- Deadpool 2 ($310m) – Come see even more foul-mouthed antics from the anti-hero you didn’t know you loved until 2016 in a movie that’s very much not family-friendly.
- Maze Runner: The Death Cure ($58m) – Come see the conclusion to a series you weren’t sure still existed but which the studio felt obligated to finish off.
- Red Sparrow ($46m) – Come see Jennifer Lawrence in a spy movie that doesn’t have the pizzaz of Kingsman nor the gravitas of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
- Love, Simon ($40m) – Come see one of the first mainstream films to use an LGBTQ character as the focal point of a coming of age story.
- Super Troopers 2 ($30m) – Come see the sequel to a movie you laughed at while you were high a decade ago in college but which has zero relevance to you now.
In the cases of both Red Sparrow and Love, Simon, Fox tried to do something new (though both were based on books), though audiences didn’t turn out in substantial numbers for either of them. Love, Simon received a substantial publicity campaign that focused on the story and director Greg Berlanti’s connection to it, but it still couldn’t break through.
- Ready Player One ($137m) – Come see director Steven Spielberg throw all your favorite pop culture references against the wall.
- Ocean’s 8 ($115m) – Come see a group of elegant lady thieves pick up the baton of a great film franchise and bring their own pop and sizzle to a heist caper.
- Rampage ($98m) – Come see Dwayne Johnson battle giant animals in a movie that literally can’t be explained coherently, even if you know the source game.
- Game Night ($69m) – Come see Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams breeze through a surprisingly dark comedy that allows them to be the stars they really are.
- Tomb Raider ($57m) – Come see us try and reboot the Tomb Raider series in a way that’s in-line with the recent video games.
Game Night has approximately doubled its production budget, which is pretty good and resulted from a lot of critical love upon release. Ocean’s 8 is no slouch, though, with roughly the same box-office take as the last movie in the original trilogy. The Rampage adaptation, though, may have just been too close to the surprisingly strong Jumanji sequel, which also starred Johnson.
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($266m) – Come see what’s essentially our version of Transformers and which we’re not even pretending features human characters you might care about.
- Fifty Shades Freed ($100m) – Come see the BDSM-heavy franchise finale, which is being sold with via a campaign even more weighed down by innuendo than before.
- Insidious: The Last Key ($67m) – Come see this because you saw the previous movies and because it comes from Blumhouse, which wants to be its own brand name studio.
- Blockers ($60m) – Come see a comedy about the fragility and awkwardness of teenage crushes, which is being sold instead as a movie about overbearing parents.
- Pacific Rim Uprising ($59m) – Come see the sequel that retains little of what made the original a surprise and much-beloved hit but which features lots of mech/kaiju fights.
Of particular note here is Blockers. The marketing of that movie, which barely featured the teen characters at all, stood in stark contrast to the publicity efforts, which was all about the teens and their stories. It was helped by great reviews out of early screenings at SXSW and elsewhere, which resulted in critics championing it while pointing out the disconnect between the movie itself and its campaign.
- Peter Rabbit ($115m) – Come see a family movie that’s not Paddington 2 and which adds a lot of slapstick hijinks to a gentle beloved children’s storybook.
- Proud Mary ($21m) – Come see Taraji P. Henson as a kickass hitwoman, or don’t because we’re going to put very little effort into selling this movie at all.
- Sicario: Day of the Soldado ($19m) – Come see what critics are calling the least nuanced take on border patrol this side of a MAGA email campaign.
- Superfly ($18m) – Come see an update on a classic of the Blaxploitation film genre that we’re trying to make relevant by making sure to include mentions of Bitcoin in the trailers.
- Paul, Apostle of Christ ($17m) – Come see a movie you’ve probably only heard of through church outreach campaigns.
The gap between the #1 and #2 releases is notable and shows how Sony seems to be reluctant to put significant marketing resources behind some of its movies. In addition to all that, the sequel Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle continued to rack up over $235m in 2018 on top of the $165m it earned in 2017, making it the studio’s top-grossing film this year.
- A Quiet Place ($187m) – Come see a movie all your friends are talking about and which has been well-praised, even if you’re not usually a horror or thriller fan.
- Book Club ($66m) – Come see a bunch of your mom’s favorite actresses act a little naughty.
- Sherlock Gnomes ($43m) – Come see the sequel to an animated hit you’ve already forgotten came out a couple years ago because there’s nothing else in theaters for kids that’s not a super hero movie right now.
- Annihilation ($33m) – Come see a bold, visually-brilliant and thematically-dense science fiction story, or don’t because we already sold international rights to Netflix.
- Action Point ($5m) – Come see Johnny Knoxville try to do something else before inevitably reviving the “Jackass” franchise.
The studio took a gamble that A Quiet Place would be just as much of a crossover hit as Get Out was last year and it paid off, with the publicity just as focused on director John Krasinski as the previous film’s campaign was on Jordan Peele. The marketing for Annihilation was very strong, but the studio never did figure out how to succinctly sell such a complicated story to an audience more enamored with spectacle and humor in their sci-fi.
- Overboard ($50m) – Come see the gender-swapped remake of a movie your dad watched 58 times in the 80s because it was always on HBO.
- Tyler Perry’s Acrimony ($43m) – No, seriously, what do we have to do to get you to come out and see Taraji P. Henson?
- The Commuter ($36m) – Come see Liam Neeson in a train-based action thriller that’s totally different from his many other recent action thrillers.
- Winchester ($25m) – Come see a horror movie based on the true story of a widow and the really weird house parents made you visit while driving through Northern California.
- Uncle Drew ($15m) – Comes see a movie based on an advertising campaign that actually looks pretty funny and original.
Of all these releases, Uncle Drew received the broadest campaign, aided by the name recognition of the various professional basketball players appearing in it as well as its history as an ad campaign for Pepsi. Overboard and Acrimony both did pretty well and probably didn’t cost much to produce, so while the studio never did break the $100m mark, it’s likely doing just fine with a series of mid-tier releases.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.
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