With the summer box office season drawn to a close, it's a good time for a little reflection. Overall domestic totals came in well below those from 2013, but there were still standout performers and companies that emerged from the highly important business period as distinct winners. The season saw a number of smaller-budgeted successes including Neighbors and The Fault in Our Stars, but, as usual, it was the performance of blockbusters that mattered most. Disney (NYSE:DIS), 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX), and Viacom (NASDAQ:VIA) all carved out large shares of the cinematic money pool and delivered films with significant franchise and brand-boosting potential.
Box Office Mojo tracked 217 movies released during the summer season running from the first Friday in May through Labor Day weekend. The top five in terms of their domestic gross are Guardians of the Galaxy ($297 million), Transformers: Age of Extinction ($245 million), Maleficent ($239 million), X-Men: Days of Future Past ($234 million), and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ($206 million).
Let's dig in on the five biggest winners of 2014's summer box office stretch.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians was once pegged as a potential underperformer for Disney and Marvel, but the film now stands as one of the dynamic production duo's biggest successes. Based on a comic book property that general audiences knew little if anything about, the film has become perhaps the ultimate validation of the Marvel Studios model and stands as a clear indication that the value of the brand is rising steadily.
Guardians brought in approximately $94 million in its opening domestic weekend, and has gone on to earn approximately $297 million at North American cinemas, thanks to fantastic audience reception and word of mouth. The film's global total has surpassed $588 million, good enough to make it Disney and Marvel's largest ever introduction of a new comic-to-film property. In addition to virtually guaranteeing a sequel, the film has strengthened the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Disney's Maleficent is the second in a series of live-action reimaginings of the company's animated features that kicked off with 2010's Alice in Wonderland. This year's updated take on the "Sleeping Beauty" story didn't match Wonderland's more than $1 billion in global take, but the film's approximately $754 million in global box office revenue is a massive win for Disney. Maleficent's laudable success bodes well for the company's upcoming updates of animated classics including Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book. Like Maleficent, these upcoming projects possess value that extends beyond the box office, offering merchandizing opportunities and strengthening the draw of Disney's theme parks. What's more, the House of Mouse looks to have a lucrative ongoing series in Maleficent if it can get Angelina Jolie to return to the titular role.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The X-Men film franchise had been on somewhat shaky ground after its third installment, but Fox's Days of Future Past, released Memorial Day weekend, brought Professor X and his mutant pals back into contention in the battle for superhero supremacy. Debuting to near-unanimous critical praise, the movie has earned approximately $746 million worldwide, and also restored some much-needed credibility to Fox's superhero efforts. In addition to setting up 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse for box office success, the movie also improved the viability of spinoff films built around characters not named Wolverine. Future Past was a make-or-break moment for Fox's chief superhero property, and the studio delivered in a big way.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Fox's other big box office win this summer came courtesy of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The sequel to a 2011 Apes reboot, Dawn made good on an increased production and marketing budget to deliver substantial series growth at the box office. With a domestic gross of approximately $206 million and a global haul of about $658 million, the movie was the summer season's fifth-highest earner on each of those fronts . The pic's enviable run sets the stage nicely for a sequel, production of which is already underway.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Viacom scored a win with its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, but the return of Transformers was an even bigger victory. The film received one of the worst critical receptions of any 2014 blockbuster, but that did not stop it from surpassing $1 billion at the global box office. Performance in China was particularly noteworthy, with Extinction marking the first time that a Hollywood blockbuster has done better in a foreign market than at home. It currently stands as the year's top-grossing film.
Age of Extinction was something of a series reset, replacing the principal cast from the original series with a new set of human players. The movie's commercial success is a good sign for Transformers 5, which will once again have new acting talent spearheading the series.
Thanks to the brand and franchise potentials of Maleficent and Guardians of the Galaxy, Disney likely comes out of this year's summer box office season as the biggest winner. That's no reason to downplay the successes achieved by Fox and Viacom, however. All three companies delivered blockbuster box office performances that stood head and shoulders above what was managed by fellow competitors Sony and Time Warner.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.