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Disney surrendered its box office crown in 2023... but why?

Did Disney have a bad year, or does Universal have a better way to hit the top?

Disney and Universal Studio Logos
Image credit: The Walt Disney Company/Universal Pictures

For the first time since 2016, 2023 was a year in which the Walt Disney Company didn’t reign supreme at the box office, with Universal earning more money both domestically and internationally in 2023 than the House of Mouse. It’s a surprising upset after seven years of unparalleled success for Disney, but the real question is: is this a show of strength for Universal, or a sign of weakness for Disney?

Disney's bad year

Movie still from Indiana Jones
Image credit: Disney

There’s no escaping that Disney didn’t have a great 2023. Putting the highpoint of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 aside, Marvel — traditionally the most reliable of the company’s studios — had a terrible year, with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania critically savaged and The Marvels significantly underperforming at the box office, resurrecting talk of “superhero fatigue” as a potential concern for audiences and movie studios alike. Away from theaters, Marvel didn’t do that much better on the small screen; Secret Invasion was such a flop with fans that it likely flattened interest in The Marvels, somewhat unfairly. “Superhero fatigue” may or may not be real, but Marvel fatigue definitely seemed to be setting in by the end of the year, leading Disney CEO Bob Iger to publicly discuss the ways in which the studio had failed.

It’s not as if Disney’s other studios fared significantly better, with Disney Animation’s Wish similarly collapsing in terms of box office, while Lucasfilm’s much-hyped Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny proved to be a significant disappointment on… well, almost all fronts. (And the less said about The Little Mermaid and The Haunted Mansion, the better.) It wasn’t all bad — Pixar’s Elemental was well-received and generally successful at the box office, albeit in an under the radar fashion, and 20th Century Studios and Searchlight did relatively well in terms of critical and commercial successes. (Not that I’m biased because Searchlight was responsible for Poor Things, or anything.)

Overall, despite its disappointments, Disney still managed to release four of the top 10 grossing movies of the year globally, and three of the top 10 domestically. (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Little Mermaid, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania appear on both lists; Elemental is the additional movie on the international list.) Overall, the company brought in $1.9 billion domestically, and $2.92 billion internationally.

Universal finds success

Five Nights at Freddy's
Image credit: Blumhouse

Those numbers were just topped by Universal, which landed $1.94 billion domestically, and $2.97 billion internationally. (Like I said; just topped by Universal.) In large part, that’s because Universal had both the massively successful Super Mario Movie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer in its portfolio, which brought in #1.36 billion and $952 million internationally respectively, with Fast X — a movie that arguably disappointed in terms of domestic take — also bringing in $704.9 million domestically. But there’s more to it than that, of course.

Look at the statement Universal Pictures president of domestic distribution Jim Orr gave to the the Hollywood Reporter for clues: “In 2023, Universal once again found success at the box office with our eclectic slate of films. Our slate featured blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s epic Oppenheimer and Illumination’s record-breaking The Super Mario Bros. Movie, horror hits including Blumhouse’s breakout hit M3GAN, comedies, dramas, and family films from two of the biggest names in animation, Illumination and DreamWorks Animation.”

What we can learn

Universal didn’t get where it was without M3GAN and, for that matter, Five Nights at Freddy’s — a movie that made more than ten times its budget when released last Halloween — or, for that matter, Cocaine Bear, or Knock at the Door, or even Trolls Band Together. Universal clearly has the big hits when it needs them (again: Super Mario and Oppenheimer), but it’s also got a respectable band of smaller scale successes and, bluntly, weirder movies that stand the chance to become breakout hits with very little investment.

Comparing Universal’s slate to Disney’s, it’s clear that the “small stuff” is increasingly important not just for critical clout, but for the bottom line. Disney has clearly found success in the last few years banking on its big bets, but when those fail to pan out… well, you get Indiana Jones. Or The Marvels. Or Wish. You get Disney’s 2023. In comparison, Universal’s partnership with Blumhouse hit big twice in the past 12 months, creating potential new franchises as a result. Is this changing audience tastes, or simply lightning striking twice?

We’ll likely find out at the end of the next 12 months. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for where the next big thing is coming from… and how big the budget was in the first place.

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