Social media, upgraded theaters help drive $11 billion box office year

  • This photo provided by Universal Pictures shows, Nick Robinson, left, as Zach, and Ty Simpkins as Gray, in a scene from the film, "Jurassic World," directed by Colin Trevorrow, in Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking "Jurassic Park" series. The Universal Pictures 3D movie released in theaters on June 12, 2015. (ILM/Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment via AP) AP

  • ‘Jurassic World’ was one of the summer’s biggest hits. AP

  • This photo released by Disney shows, George Clooney, as Frank Walker, in a scene from Disney's "Tomorrowland." The film released in U.S. theaters May 22, 2015. (Film Frame/Disney via AP) AP

  • This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Levi Miller, right, and Hugh Jackman in a scene from the film, "Pan." (Laurie Sparham/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) AP

  • This photo provided by Disney shows Daisey Ridley as Rey, left, and John Boyega as Finn, in a scene from the new film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams. The movie released in the U.S. on Dec. 18, 2015. (Film Frame/Disney/Lucasfilm via AP) AP

  • This photo provided by Paramount Pictures shows, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, in "Terminator Genisys," from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures via AP) AP

  • This photo provided by Disney/Marvel shows, Chris Evans, left, as Captain America/Steve Rogers, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, in a scene of the new film, "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." The movie released in the U.S. on May 1, 2015. (Jay Maidment/Disney/Marvel via AP) AP

  • This photo released by Universal Pictures shows, Anna Kendrick as Beca, in a scene from the film, "Pitch Perfect 2." (Richard Cartwright/Universal Pictures via AP) AP

Associated Press
Monday, January 04, 2016
It takes more than Star Wars to make an $11 billion year.

Disney and J.J. Abrams pushed 2015 over the mark days before its conclusion, but many factors helped make the year the biggest of all time – including social media and better theatrical experiences – which helped draw audiences away from their home entertainment centers and into the multiplex.

In 2014, The Interview was released in theaters and online at the same time, and this year saw Netflix enter theatrical feature territory with Beasts of No Nation and The Ridiculous 6, both of which played in theaters and online simultaneously, alarming exhibitors. Yet attendance at the movies was up around four percent for the year, according to Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.’ executive vice president of domestic distribution.

It didn’t hurt that 2015 started off with some significant momentum from American Sniper, had the Jurassic World juggernaut in the summer, and then ended on the enormous high note of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which on Wednesday became Disney’s biggest domestic earner in just 13 days of release.

“It’s like kicking the winning field goal at the end of the game. That’s what Star Wars did,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office tracker Rentrak.

The overall slate didn’t look very different from years past, with 688 new releases. There were the near annual installments of franchises that continue to rake in the money (Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation). And there were properties resurrected from years ago, some of which worked (Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and some that didn’t (Fantastic Four, Terminator Genisys). There were franchise starters that hit (Fifty Shades of Grey) and some that were dead on arrival (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). There were ambitious original ideas that succeeded (Inside Out), while others crashed and burned (Tomorrowland, Crimson Peak, Jupiter Ascending). Live action fairy tales flew (Cinderella) and floundered (Pan). And there were the smaller investments that paid off big (Pitch Perfect 2, Creed, Straight Outta Compton, Trainwreck).

Universal, which ranked fifth in 2014, skyrocketed to become the top studio of 2015, thanks to enormous hits like Jurassic World, Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey, Minions and Pitch Perfect 2.

According to Nick Carpou, Universal’s president of domestic distribution, the studio found success in scattering its diverse offerings throughout the year, finding audiences that might be underserved in certain months and translating that into big returns.

Social media also mattered more in the past year. Carpou, his industry counterparts and various box office analysts agreed that social buzz could make or break a movie almost immediately.

“I think that’s how Jurassic World started the weekend looking like a big success and ended the weekend breaking all records,” Carpou said. “That’s people telling people.”

Disney, which ranked second, followed a very different strategy, focusing on 15 new releases (to Universal’s 26) from their various brands, whether homegrown or acquired, like Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar and live-action reboots of their animated classics.

In third place, despite successes like American Sniper, Warner Bros. struggled a bit more with some higher profile flops, such as Pan.

“It’s all about content. We’ve always known that. If it’s something the public wants to see, they’re going to come out,” Goldstein said.

Fox, with big successes such as The Martian and missteps like Fantastic Four, came in fourth, while Sony, which did well with Spectre and Hotel Transylvania 2, placed fifth. Sony’s smaller labels helped, too, with films like War Room.

Beyond the appeal of individual movies, exhibitors were also wising up to consumer demands. The days of sticky floored venues with small seats and smaller screens may never go away completely, but audiences have more options now in screen size, visual and audio quality, reserved luxury seating, and even gourmet food service, all of which usually means higher ticket prices.

“We’re giving them choices and we’re giving them choices at every price point. It’s like when you buy an airline ticket,” Goldstein said.

And experts say this trend is expected to continue.

“2015 is not the one-hit wonder of box office years,” Dergarabedian said.