How Universal Mined Sequels and Flexibility on Streaming to Survive at 2021 Box Office

·6-min read

After breaking the traditional 90-day theatrical window in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, Universal powered a series of high-profile sequels to box office success in 2021 that benefited from its new agreement with AMC Theatres and Cinemark.

Some of those sequels, like last August’s “F9,” were theatrical exclusives, while October’s “Halloween Kills” opened day-and-date in cinemas and on NBCUniversal’s upstart streaming service, Peacock. But both films ended up leading the studio’s 2021 domestic ticket sales which finished at $657 million, with $624 million coming from 10 new releases, according to data from box office site The Numbers. (This story will be updated with totals from Comscore when end-of-year data is published.)

“Halloween Kills” was one of the better performing day-and-date releases in 2021, grossing $92 million in domestic theaters and standing third among all Universal new films — despite the streaming option. That’s likely because hardcore horror fans value seeing the genre in a theater, especially during the Halloween season.

But that box office total was well below the $159 million grossed by the 2018 “Halloween,” a drop that can be likely attributed to weaker word-of-mouth, a crowded October slate and yes, the availability of the film on streaming that shaved off theatrical turnout from casual audiences. Insiders at Universal said at the time of the move that they anticipated that “Kills” would lean more heavily on hardcore fans for ticket sales.

The animated portion of Universal’s slate also saw a split between day-and-date and theatrical only, and like Warner Bros., the experiment was a double-edged sword. DreamWorks Animation’s “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” released in July, was one of many family films that hedged its bets with parents not comfortable yet with taking their kids to theaters at a time when COVID-19 vaccines were not yet available to minors under 12.

The film performed tepidly in theaters even by COVID standards, with $57.5 million domestic, roughly a third of the $175 million that the first “Boss Baby” grossed in 2017 — and even less than the $70.5 million that Warner Bros.’ “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” another day-and-date family film, made from in theaters after a release that same month.

On the flip side, Universal scored the year’s best-performing animated release with Illumination’s “Sing 2,” which has grossed $90 million domestic so far despite landing in theaters as the Omicron surge began. Universal also has the option to release “Sing 2” on digital rental as early as 17 days after its theatrical opening, per its 2020 agreement with AMC and Cinemark.

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“F9” (Universal)

But depending on how this first weekend of January goes, it’s possible that Universal may not exercise that option. Despite the Omicron variant, “Sing 2” is set to become the first animated film to cross the $100 million mark in the pandemic era, showing that while COVID-19 is still keeping many families away — the first “Sing” grossed $270 million domestically — there are signs they may show up again for theater-only films in greater numbers whenever the pandemic ends.

Of course, Universal’s biggest success came from its tried and true tentpole franchise, “Fast & Furious.” After being delayed for a year by the pandemic, “F9” grossed $173 million domestic and $721 million worldwide, a result roughly on par with the franchise’s 2019 spinoff entry “Hobbs & Shaw.” Part of the reason why “F9” was able to do so well is because it was one of the very few Hollywood blockbusters to score a release in China, hitting theaters there weeks before the U.S. and grossing just under $217 million, the best for any Hollywood release in the country last year.

Universal also played a role in the success of the next Hollywood film in 2021 after “F9” to cross $700 million worldwide: the James Bond thriller “No Time to Die.” While MGM handled the theatrical release in the United States, Universal distributed the sequel in most international territories and helped steer the film to an overseas cume of $613 million, the highest for any Hollywood film until the release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Jurassic World Dominion (1)
“Jurassic World: Dominion” (Universal)

Forecast for 2022

The three pillars of Universal’s pre-pandemic box office success — and the box office overall — will be present in 2022 with franchise tentpoles, low-budget horror and animated family films. “Jurassic World: Dominion” will be the blockbuster centerpiece, DreamWorks Animation and Illumination will each release a pair of films, and Blumhouse’s “Halloween Ends” will try to do better than its predecessor while Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone” (June 24) and Jordan Peele’s “Nope” (July 22) will try to win over horror fans with some original material.

What’s interesting, though, is that Universal is also pushing forward with more mature offerings at a time when the struggles of the 2021 box office have cast doubt on whether asult audiences are still interested in going out to theaters to see such films. This autumn, the studio will release “Ticket to Paradise,” a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney, as well as “She Said,” a true-story drama about the New York Times investigation that brought down Harvey Weinstein.

“We are proud of how our franchises have done, but we know that to get the most out of the partnerships we have made with our production studios and the filmmakers that work with us, we have to keep original films as a key part of our theatrical slate,” Universal’s domestic distribution head Jim Orr told TheWrap.

Depending on the state of the pandemic, those films could serve as a litmus test for long-term changes in what audiences feel are films worth seeing in a theater. After Twentieth Century’s “West Side Story” flopped at the box office, will Steven Spielberg’s followup “The Fabelmans” do any better when Universal releases it this Thanksgiving — or will older moviegoers just wait to stream it?

And speaking of streaming, it is still unclear how much of a factor day-and-date releases on Peacock will have on Universal’s slate. While most of its films will debut on Peacock 45 days after theatrical release, Universal has already removed theatrical exclusivity on “Marry Me,” a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez set for release in theaters and on Peacock on Valentine’s Day. Universal execs have kept mum on if or when other films might see a similar release shift; and while it’s unlikely that would happen to “Jurassic World,” it may happen with some of the smaller-budgeted films on the film’s slate depending on what lies ahead with COVID-19.

TheWrap’s 2021 Studio Box Office Report Cards

Monday: How Warner Bros.’ HBO Max Experiment Led to Mixed Box Office Results
Tuesday: Universal Mined Sequels and Flexibility on Streaming to Survive at 2021 Box Office
Wednesday: Inside Paramount’s Quiet Place at the Box Office, Sidelined in Hopes of a 2022 Rebound
Thursday: Sony Pictures
Friday: Disney

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