Can it be the best of times and the worst of times, all in the same month? If you were running a movie studio, eager to understand what the first 30 or so days of 2009 say about the business at large, you'd be buoyant one day, bitterly depressed the next. The DVD market, which has quietly supplied the biggest pure profits for Hollywood in recent years, is in the doldrums, evidencing little hope of regaining its high-roller status, with Blu-ray looking more and more like a dud while many young consumers experiment with alternative ways of watching movies. On the other hand, in January -- once the dumping ground for new releases -- the theatrical box office was up a remarkable 19% over last year, with moviegoers flocking to see a variety of comedies, thrillers and dramas. It just goes to show that in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. The only thing for sure is that to see where you're going, you have to know where you've been. With that in mind, here's a look at how the major studios performed in 2008.
It's become a tradition at this time of year, first in my column and now in my blog, to grade the major movie studios on their performance over the course of the year. The Studio Report Card started as a way to get a handle on how the business works, but it also serves as a corrective to all those business stories that essentially trumpet how much market share the giant studio conglomerates have without really wrestling with something that matters to us film fanatics: While they were raking in all that cash, did the studios actually make any good movies? That's why I give two grades, one for commerce, one for quality. And trust me, in the quality department, studios rarely get an A.
This year saw even more sweeping consolidation in the movie business. With DreamWorks waiting for a new financing deal, with MGM more of a business strategy than a studio and with New Line Cinema having been absorbed by Warner Bros., there are now essentially six major studios. Trying to figure out their finances is sort of like dissecting one of Congress' bailout bills, since every studio has several ways to finance its slate of films, including deals with outside producers or equity partners. It's enough to make your eyes glaze over. At least when it comes to quality, it's a lot easier to know what movie was loved or loathed. (My box office results, courtesy of Media by Numbers, include grosses through the weekend of Jan. 4.)
It was hardly a shocker to see the news that Universal is keeping its dynamic duo, Marc Shmuger and David Linde, as studio chairmen through 2013. Universal enjoyed one of its best years in 2008, largely thanks to their steady, capable leadership. But what matters most isn't just the raw numbers but that Universal managed to assemble a slate of pictures that was reminiscent of the fabled days in the business when movie studios aimed for class and quality as well as box-office receipts.
Universal's biggest successes of 2008 offered a good indicator of its strengths. The studio's top-grossing film, "Mamma Mia!," made an astounding $430 million overseas, roughly three times what it did in the U.S., thanks to the continuing strength of the studio's international distribution system. In fact, the studio's top three performers from last year ("Mamma Mia!, "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" and "Wanted") all did far more business overseas than in America. "Wanted" was an especially gratifying success, since it was a modestly budgeted ($75 million) summer action extravaganza that created a new franchise -- the studio is already at work on a sequel -- while showcasing the studio's risk-taking by putting the film in the hands of Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian filmmaker who is a brilliant visual stylist but was an unknown commodity, having never enjoyed any commercial success outside his native land.
It wasn't a fluke that Universal embraced Bekmambetov. The studio has been aggressively setting up deals with gifted filmmakers in several countries, including China, Brazil and Mexico. Whether it's simply a shrewd way to expand its presence in growing markets or a way to ally itself with top filmmakers, the strategy is a good example of the studio's aspirations to balance quality with commerce.
Universal still had its share of missteps. It bankrolled a pair of utter flops: a costly George Clooney comedy ("Leatherheads") and "The Express," a drama about football star Ernie Davis. But the studio had solid successes with a string of sharply written comedies, notably "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Role Models," which came out of Universal's relationships with producers Judd Apatow and Scott Stuber, respectively. Universal also is in the thick of the Oscar race, thanks to "Frost/Nixon," from another pair of its top producers, Working Title and Imagine Entertainment.