Comcast's movie unit to offer sequels and more sequels

Three stars of "Fast & Furious 6": (from left)Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, and Paul Walker.
Three stars of "Fast & Furious 6": (from left)Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, and Paul Walker. (Universal Pictures)
Posted: March 17, 2014

As Comcast Corp. seeks to tame the financially unpredictable Hollywood movie business at Universal Pictures, it has hit on a plan: sequels.

But, industry analysts ask, can so much of a good thing still be a good thing?

Next year, Universal Pictures will release six sequels in an approach to movie-making being replicated by other major Hollywood studios reluctant to finance unproven big-budget concepts after megaflops John Carter and The Lone Ranger.

Universal's sequel-rich slate, anchored by a seventh Fast & Furious and a fourth Jurassic Park, will open at the nation's theaters in a year when rival studios plan to release big-budget sequels of their own, including the next installments of The Hunger Games, Terminator, Mad Max, Kung Fu Panda, and The Avengers.

"It's pretty crazy. It seems like every studio is going all-in with their biggest franchise," Paul Dergarabedian, longtime Hollywood

box office tracker and senior media analyst with Rentrak Corp., said.

"Will it be a competitive bloodbath?" he asked. "Or will it be the biggest box office year of all time? Probably a little of both."

Movie studios, Dergarabedian said, "will keep making movies they think will bring them the biggest bang for the buck with the least risk."

Sequels - at least to this point - rarely flop because of their built-in audience. But a bumper crop of sequels also may leave moviegoers with the sort of deja vu Bill Murray's character experienced in Groundhog Day, when he relived the same day over and over.

"Blockbuster fatigue" is one danger of so many sequels in one year, Dergarabedian said.

Comcast, the cable-TV and Internet giant, acquired Universal Pictures as part of the deal for NBCUniversal that closed in early 2011. The Philadelphia company consolidated control over the studio in 2013 by appointing Jeff Shell, a former top Comcast executive, to its top job.

Universal Pictures had its best year ever in 2013 - $5.5 billion in revenue and $483 million in operating cash flow. The studio's two biggest movies in 2013, moreover, were the sequels Despicable Me 2 and Fast & Furious 6.

Comcast executives have said 2014 will be an investment year at Universal Pictures as the studio prepares for the big releases of 2015. Yet it scheduled two sequels this year, as well: The Purge: Anarchy and Dumb and Dumber Too.

Other movies on Universal's 2014 slate include the already released Lone Survivor, Ride Along, Endless Love, and Non-Stop. Still to come are Neighbors, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Get on Up, Lucy, As Above So Below, The Loft, Search Party, A Walk Among Tombstones, Dracula Untold, Ouija, and Unbroken.

Originally, Universal planned to release the next Fast & Furious in 2014. But the death of one of the film's stars, Paul Walker, in a Los Angeles car crash in November pushed back the release to 2015.

In addition to Fast & Furious 7 and Jurassic World, Universal will release Pitch Perfect 2, Ted 2, Minions (a spinoff of Despicable Me), and an as-yet untitled new Bourne thriller in 2015.

"It's all safe bets," Dergarabedian said.

Charles Moul, an associate professor of economics at Miami University in Ohio and editor of 2005's A Concise Handbook of Movie Economics, said, "Like all publicly traded companies, the major studios seem to have shorter-term horizons than they used to."

The success of sequels will likely continue "until it blows up in somebody's face," Moul said.

"At some point, people are going to get fed up seeing the same thing again and again," he said. "The only way I have been able to make sense of it is that the moviegoing public has no memory. And that's true for teenagers."


Universal's Movie Take

Universal Pictures' profits soared in 2013 with two sequels on its slate of movie releases: Despicable Me 2 and Fast & Furious 6.

             Revenue             Operating Cash Flow

2011         $4.6 billion         $24 million

2012         $5.2 billion          $79 million

2013         $5.5 billion         $483 million

SOURCE: Comcast Corp.


bfernandez@phillynews.com

215-854-5897

@bobfernandez1

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