BOX OFFICE AND THE BEAST

Disney movies are going to be unstoppable in 2019

lion king disney remake
lion king disney remake
Image: Disney
By
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Disney dominated the box office in 2018 even before its big holiday blockbuster, Mary Poppins Returns, hit US theaters on Wednesday (Dec. 19). The mammoth movie studio said on Dec. 9 that its movies had grossed more than $7 billion worldwide year-to-date, or roughly 19% of the global box office at that time, based on ComScore estimates.

Next year could be even bigger. Disney has a US release slate for 2019 that would, for any other company, be about three years of worth of tentpole movies—films with little risk that are designed to prop up a studio’s financial performance. They include new titles like Captain Marvel; sequels to thriving Disney franchises like Avengers, Toy Story, Frozen, and Star Wars; and live-action remakes of classic Disney fare including Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Here’s the current release schedule, per ComScore:

That doesn’t include Fox films slated for 2019, like Dark Phoenix and New Mutants, which will move under the Disney umbrella when the media conglomerate completes its acquisition of many of Fox’s assets next year.

“All of these moving parts are coming together to create, in 2019, what I think for them will be their biggest year,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore, told Quartz. “In the wake of two years of incredible box-office performances, they’re just turning it up to 11.”

Disney’s biggest year at the box office so far was 2016, when films including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Finding Dory, and Captain America: Civil War grossed a record-setting $7.6 billion worldwide. Analysts like Dergarabedian predict 2019 will be even bigger, thanks to Disney’s all-star movie lineup.

Disney, unlike some of its rivals, bets each year on a small batch of mega-movies from its key studios—Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Pictures, and Disney Animation. In 2017, the studio released eight movies in the US. It put out nine films as of Dec. 16 of this year. By contrast, the other six major US studios averaged about 20 releases apiece at that time in 2018, based on Box Office Mojo data.

Not all of Disney’s 2018 movies were box-office blowouts. Releasing fewer, bigger movies risks having a few, bigger flops. A Wrinkle in Time may have lost money, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms didn’t deliver big returns. But, the ones that hit, like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Incredibles 2, really hit. Disney released four of the 10 highest-grossing movies globally through mid-December 2018, based on data from The Numbers. The performances of those films allowed the studio to absorb the losses of the others.

“Disney is the one studio that can still miss and be okay,” Jeff Bock, senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations, told Quartz. 

In North America, the world’s largest movie market, Disney captured 27% of the box office this year, as of Dec. 16, up from 20% during the same period last year, ComScore data shows. The next largest studio, Universal, captured 17% during the same period of 2018.

Disney has been strategic in not only acquiring movie studios like Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, but in building franchises that feed and grow on one another. Marvel Studios’ decade-long plan for its cinematic universe, which culminates in Avengers: Endgame next spring, is a perfect example. Disney’s Lucasfilm is also planning for another 10 years of Star Wars.

At the same time, Disney as a company is going through a huge transition. It will be integrating Fox’s assets, which Disney is acquiring for $71 billion in a deal that will close early next year. And Disney, which owns some of the largest cable-TV networks, is shifting away from traditional TV toward streaming video.

Shares of Disney are virtually flat over the last three years, because of uncertainty surrounding the company’s future in TV.

Disney’s media-networks business—led by cable channels such as ESPN—used to account for more than half of the company’s annual operating income. Last fiscal year, that share was 42%. The studio division, which fluctuates based on movie releases, helped make up the difference with nearly $3 billion, or about 19% of the company’s total operating income, up from 13% in 2015, when the media arm first started to crack.

Disney, which has dominated the box office market share since 2016, wants to keep raising that bar.

Taking a closer look at its release schedule, the company is poised to own some of the biggest moviegoing weekends of the year, starting with Avengers: Endgame in April. That will be the unofficial kickoff of summer movie season in the US. (The US “summer” box office technically begins the first weekend of May.)

Source: Box Office Mojo, as of Dec. 19

Disney’s remake of The Lion King and the sequel to Frozen essentially have their respective July and November release weekends to themselves. These dates can change; studios move release dates to give their films the best odds at the box office. But, as of now, no other studio seems willing to directly challenge those surefire hits. The Lion King, based on the beloved 1990s animated film, boasts megastars Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles in lead roles. And Frozen became a breakout hit and cultural phenomenon for Disney in 2013.

Other Disney movies such as the Avengers finale and Toy Story 4 are up against films with audiences that are very different than Disney’s. They include horror movies, indie flicks, and adult dramas, which pose little threat at the box office. Movie studios tend to counter program against the biggest movies of the year in this way.

“Studios have been scheduling around other studios’ huge blockbusters for years,” said Dergarabedian. “But nowhere is that more apparent than when you look at the calendar and see that when Avengers: Endgame is opening, pretty much everyone wants to stay out of the way.”

Universal’s Cats, based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, is slated for released on the same day as Star Wars: Episode IX—another near-guaranteed blockbuster. There’s little overlap between those opening-weekend crowds. And, even if there is, few Star Wars fans are going to pass on the last of Skywalker saga films.

Meanwhile, Disney’s live-action, Guy Ritchie-directed remake of Aladdin seems to have the most direct competition, with Fox’s sci-fi thriller Ad Astra and Warner Bros.’s Minecraft adaptation hitting US theaters the same weekend in May. Ad Astra could find another date if the conflict threatens either film, given that Disney will own Fox by then. Fox Searchlight recently moved the release of the adult drama The Aftermath, after Disney moved the fourth Avengers film to the same date. As for Minecraft, movies based on video games are rarely good.

That makes the biggest threat to Disney, well, Disney. When you have nine giant movies hitting US theaters in the span of 10 months, audiences have to pick and choose between them. “The quandary for Disney must be,” said Dergarabedian, “how do we strategically place these movies within the calendar, because they don’t want to run over each other.”

Breakout Disney hits like Black Panther, for instance, have had surprisingly long runs in cinemas. The blockbuster, released in the US in February 2018, ran for 25 weeks in US theaters— into August.

Disney has left at least three weeks between each movie release for 2019. But Dumbo, which is sandwiched between Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, and the lesser-known Artemis Fowl, based on the young-adult novels, could repeat the lackluster box-office performances of Christopher Robin and A Wrinkle In Time in 2018. Those movies grossed $197.5 million (against a $75 million production budget) and $133 million worldwide (against a $150 million production and marketing budget), respectively.

Disney seems to have learned from past mistakes with Star Wars, at least. The company is waiting at least 18 months after the last movie to release Episode IXfollowing a tepid performance by Solo: A Star Wars Story in May 2018. The film had weaker reviews than other Star Wars films and came just six months after The Last Jedi. Episode IX will be a barometer for how much runway the Star Wars franchise still has on the big screen—after 40 years, 10 movies, and series like The Mandalorian that Disney is developing for its online platform. Disney has at least one more Star Wars saga series in the works after Episode IX, too.

“It’s a very high class problem to have, if you’re wondering how your big, giant movie that won’t slow down is going to affect you’re next giant movie,” said Dergarabedian. “It shows that not only are you competing with others studios, sometimes when you’re this big or you have have products that are this strong, you’re competing with yourself.”

Starting next year, Disney will have Fox’s movie studios to think about, as well. Fox’s Marvel movies like Deadpool and the X-Men films don’t quite mesh with Disney’s squeaky clean image. And Disney hasn’t had a studio like Fox Searchlight that is focused on edgier, adult fare since Miramax, which it sold in 2010. Will Disney milk as much from those businesses as it has Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar? Elsewhere in Disney, Pixar’s long-time shepherd—co-founder and president Ed Catmull—is retiring in 2019, and creative lead John Lasseter is exiting this year. Eventually, Disney will have to find a replacement for CEO Bob Iger, too. Iger has already stayed beyond his planned retirement, and is supposed to depart the company in 2021.

Disney will dominate the movies in 2019. The question then becomes: how long can Disney keep it up?