Heading into the start of the summer box office, it seemed quite likely that Disney (NYSE:DIS) would emerge as the season's biggest winner. Its blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed poised to be the highest-grossing movie in 2015, and Inside Out and Tomorrowland looked to fill out a solid lineup.
Now, Pixar's Inside Out has landed as a hit, but Ultron won't be the year's biggest picture, and Disney isn't the summer's biggest winner. That title already belongs to Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and its Universal Pictures subsidiary.
Is this the first crack in the Avengers armor?
Before getting into the details of Comcast's box office coup, it's worth establishing why conventional wisdom suggested Disney would rule the roost. The House of Mouse's Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most powerful force at multiplexes, and looking at the history of the franchise leading up to Ultron could easily give the impression that the series' growth would be unending.
Every sequel in the smaller franchises that make up the broader Avengers universe delivered massive growth over its predecessor. Thor: The Dark World's gross of $645 million represented roughly 44% growth from the first Thor; Captain America: The Winter Soldier grew sales nearly 93% over its predecessor to land at roughly $715 million; and Iron Man 3 grew roughly 95% over Iron Man 2's haul to reach $1.215 billion. What's more, the massive $774 million win delivered with relatively unknown characters in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy suggested the Marvel brand was at peak strength.
Matching the original Avengers box office haul of $1.518 billion would have been a solid performance. But with a box office gross of approximately $1.37 billion, it looks like Ultron won't get there. Major growth is out of the question.
It feels a bit odd to the classify a picture that will cross $1.4 billion in box office as a disappointment, but the case can be made with Ultron. Throw in an estimated $140 million loss on Tomorrowland, and Disney isn't having the perfect summer many had expected. Inside Out had a great domestic opening weekend at $90 million, and strong audience reception and word of mouth should grant it legs at the box office, but a small stumble with the MCU and the Tomorrowland disappointment put extra pressure on Ant-Man in July. That might not be a good thing.
Comcast and its Universal Pictures division have scored major victories this season. Furious 7, which was released in most major territories by mid-April, kicked off the blockbuster season ahead of the official May start date, and Jurassic World is a breakout hit. The performance of the latest Fast and Furious sequel caught many box-office watchers by surprise. Prior to release, the picture seemed primed to do big numbers, but there wasn't much expectation that it could match Age of Ultron in ticket sales. As of June 24, the picture had grossed $1.52 billion, surpassing 2012's The Avengers to become the third-highest-grossing movie in history. Turning to the land of dinosaurs, Jurassic World crossed the $1 billion mark less than two weeks after its June 12 U.S. release and still has plenty of life remaining. These are huge, franchise-building wins for Comcast, and their value extends beyond ticket sales.
Comcast's big movies open up potential beyond the box office
Like Disney, the large majority of Comcast's revenue does not come from the box office. Filmed entertainment accounted for about 7% of the company's top line in the last fiscal year, compared to 15% for Disney, while theme park revenue represented about 4% of the company's total sales. Combined revenue of Comcast's filmed entertainment and theme park segment came to about $7.6 billion in fiscal 2014, while Disney's studio entertainment and parks combined for about $22.4 billion in sales in its last fiscal year.
Comcast has growth opportunities in these spheres of entertainment, and strong properties like Fast and the Furious and Jurassic World have the potential to be appreciating assets that propel gains. A Fast and Furious-themed ride recently opened , and further utilization of the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World property would seem to be a natural fit.
What does this year's summer box office race mean for the long-term picture?
While Disney's box office performance is probably coming in a bit below expectations, it's not particularly worrying from a long-term perspective. Ultron was still very profitable, and the re-emergence of the Star Wars franchise provides plenty of opportunity for growth. The upcoming Ant-Man is the last big piece of the company's summer box office puzzle, and it has had a somewhat troubled production. If the picture does below $400 million, it would be cause for a more cautious outlook on films in the MCU, but for now, Disney's wealth of franchises looks to continue delivering big wins across its segments.
For Comcast, the summer's results bode very well for its future in movie and theme park entertainment. Fast and Furious has emerged as one of the biggest entertainment properties in the world, and the successful resurrection of the Jurassic brand paves the way for billion-dollar sequels and tie-ins. Summer is still young, but at this point, any company emerging from it a bigger winner than Comcast would be more shocking than Furious 7 outgrossing Age of Ultron.
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.