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Disney has been the studio to beat at the box office and for the last three years, nobody has been able to do it. In 2018, Disney set a domestic box office record with a take of $3.092 billion, largely thanks to the fact that it had half of the top 10 movies of the year, including Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Incredibles 2, in the top three slots. Of course, it could have been an even bigger year, but not every Disney movie was a massive hit.
The biggest disappointment for Disney in 2018 was, without a doubt, Solo: A Star Wars Story. The film barely broke the $200 million mark domestically and came up just short of $400 million around the world. While those numbers would be solid, even great, for most movies, they're a franchise low for the Star Wars brand. While the movie was the tenth highest grossing movie of the year domestically, when you're talking about Star Wars, that's low.
On top of the lower than usual box office take, you have the fact that Solo was an incredibly expensive movie to make. The hiring of a new director in the middle of production, and the fact that the transition led to a longer than planned shooting schedule, certainly increased Solo's cost, to the point that not only did the movie not make normal Star Wars money, it probably wasn't profitable at all for Disney.
However, that's not the only movie that didn't work out for Disney. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms was Disney's most unusual movie of the year, in that the film barely seemed to even make much of an impact. It's quite rare that a Disney movie would arrive in theaters without audiences even really noticing. It seems clear that the studio knew that Nutcracker was unlikely to be very successful, and so the decision was made to save money on marketing. The movie only grossed $54 million domestically and didn't break $170 million across the world.
Apparently, simply opening a movie with Nutcracker in the title around the holidays doesn't guarantee ticket sales. The movie was clearly having some difficulties early on as the film has two credited directors. After the original director, Lasse Hallstrom, was unavailable to direct unscheduled reshoots, Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston was brought in.
The other big letdown of 2018 was A Wrinkle in Time. The adaptation of the popular novel was highly anticipated. It was the first time a female African-American director helmed a movie with a budget over $100 million. While the film cast numerous fresh faces, it also included major stars like Oprah Winfrey in key roles. In the end, however, the audience just didn't show up. The film made $100 million in North America and while it could have been saved by overseas numbers, they just didn't happen. It only saw $32 million total from all other countries.
While production budgets are never public, and industry accounting is always a black box, it seems those are probably the three Disney films from 2018 that actually lost money for the studio. Other films, like Christopher Robin, were not smash hits, but between respectable box office numbers, and modest budgets, were likely still financial successes.
One piece of trivia which can give a bit of perspective on all this. Nutcracker, A Wrinkle in Time and Christopher Robin all made less money domestically in 2018 than Star Wars: The Last Jedi did. Even if we only look at the money the film made starting from January 1, it still out performed those three movies in their entire runs.
One movie that the jury is still out on is Mary Poppins Returns. The movie just barely broke the $100 million mark before the new year started, and while the film's run is far from over, it's been competing with Aquaman and Bumblebee in theaters and has been losing to the former. While the movie will likely be profitable when it's all said and done, the movie has a reported budget of $130 million, and has made an additional $100 million overseas, one certainly has to wonder if expectations were higher considering the name recognition of the title.
By comparison, in 2017 Disney made about $600 million less in domestic box office totals, but its lowest grossing film of the year was Cars 3, which earned $152 million domestically and $383 million globally, so nothing that came out lost the studio money. 2018 may have brought Disney more income, but it might not have been as profitable.
One thing Disney's box office total shows is the increasing way that all studios have begun to put all their eggs in fewer baskets. Disney's record total, as reported by EW, saw almost two-thirds of it come from those top three films. After Incredibles 2's $600 million take, the number four movie for Disney was Ant-Man and the Wasp which only brought in $216 million. That's a huge gap, to say the least. If any of those top three films had faltered, even a little, Disney wouldn't be having quite the same celebration that the studio is currently having.
The growing focus on blockbuster and franchise filmmaking is great when it works, bigger success means you can make fewer films and risk less, but if and when a shift occurs and those films begin to falter, it's going to hurt that much more because there won't be other films to cushion the fall.
Alternatively, One could only imagine what kind of totals Disney could put up if Solo: A Star Wars Story had been as successful as Rogue One or if A Wrinkle in Time had been the breakout hit many were expecting. We could be talking an additional $300 million or more on top of what all the other movies did.
It will be interesting to see what 2019 brings for the House of Mouse, with two big finale movies set, with Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars Episode IX, this record-setting year might not be a record for very long.