Overall, 2019 was a disappointing year for movie studios, as box office grosses dipped modestly following an excellent 2018 performance. However, by mid-year, it was already clear that Walt Disney (DIS 1.15%) was on track for an incredible performance, both in the U.S. and globally.
Now, the final numbers are in. While the House of Mouse's recent releases haven't all lived up to their full potential, Disney still ended the year with a record box office tally. In fact, its domestic gross of $3.76 billion accounted for fully a third of domestic box office receipts in 2019, surpassing its two closest rivals combined. It also smashed the record Disney set just a year earlier with a 2018 domestic box office gross of $3.09 billion. Let's take a closer look at how the entertainment titan achieved this remarkable year of dominance.
Audiences craved franchise films
One of Disney's biggest competitive advantages is its huge back catalog of popular films and franchises. In recent years, the company has focused on mining that back catalog for sequels, reboots, and spinoffs that represented high-percentage bets. That strategy has paid off in spades, as it has become increasingly difficult for original films to succeed at the box office.
In 2019, the top 11 films at the domestic box office, and 16 of the top 17, were sequels, spinoffs, or reboots. Those 11 films combined to capture more than 40% of all domestic box office grosses -- nearly $4.6 billion.
Even among the films based on existing intellectual property, Disney was far more successful than rival studios in 2019. The top six releases of the year in the domestic market -- Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Frozen II, Captain Marvel, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker -- were all Disney films. (So was No. 8 Aladdin.) The two Marvel films combined for nearly $1.3 billion at the domestic box office. "Live action" remakes of animated classics Aladdin and The Lion King brought in close to $900 million. Disney's two animated sequels also combined for nearly $900 million. Finally, the new Star Wars film grossed more than $390 million domestically in 2019 despite being open in theaters for just the last 12 days of the year.
All told, these seven Disney hits grossed more than $3.4 billion at the domestic box office, more than 90% of Disney's 2019 domestic haul. Indeed, excluding the Fox studio that was acquired during 2019, Disney released only nine major films last year, so it had an extraordinary rate of success. The two relative flops were Dumbo and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, both of which still surpassed $100 million domestically.
Ample success abroad
Disney's franchises have a more mixed track record outside the U.S. and Canada. Some, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are just as popular abroad as in the domestic market. Others, like the Star Wars franchise, haven't caught on in quite the same way. Yet on the whole, Disney had an excellent year at the international box office.
Avengers: Endgame led the way in foreign markets, just as it did domestically. Globally, the film grossed $2.8 billion, just edging past Avatar for a new record. Of that total, $1.94 billion came from the international box office. The Lion King was the only other film to surpass $1 billion at the international box office during 2019, bringing in $1.11 billion outside the domestic market.
These two films and several other 2019 Disney releases got roughly two-thirds of their global box office receipts in international markets. By contrast, Toy Story 4 earned more than 40% of its global haul at the domestic box office, and the latest Star Wars installment has gotten half of its global box office revenue in the U.S. and Canada.
Nevertheless, Disney's top seven films grossed $6.3 billion internationally in 2019. Furthermore, while Maleficent: Mistress of Evil underperformed domestically, it still grossed $376.7 million abroad, 77% of its global total. With strong results both at home and abroad, Disney's final global box office total for the year (excluding the Fox studios) surpassed $11 billion.
Disney's excellent 2019 could have been even better
As spectacular as Disney's year was, during the summer, it seemed as if it could turn out even better. Back in July, I projected that Disney would surpass the $4 billion mark domestically in 2019. It fell short of that milestone, although its $3.76 billion domestic haul still set a new record by a wide margin.
The poor performance of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in the U.S. was the biggest reason $4 billion wasn't achievable. The original Maleficent grossed $241.4 million domestically in 2013, but the sequel failed to muster even half that amount.
In addition, the final film in the trilogy of Star Wars trilogies wasn't quite as big a box office smash as it might have been. Audience interest appears to have cooled slightly following some controversial choices in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Whereas The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi reeled in $600.9 million and $423.4 million, respectively, at the domestic box office in their first 12 days, The Rise of Skywalker came in lower at $390.7 million over the same period. In the previous two trilogies, the third movie ranked in between the first two installments at the domestic box office.
Despite these bumps near the end of the year, Disney had an incredible 2019. And with the addition of the Fox studio and its intellectual property, the House of Mouse now has more franchises than ever to lean on in its quest for long-term box office domination.