For Comcast's (CMCSA -0.59%) Universal Pictures, 2015 has been a bountiful year at the box office. Now the studio is using its lead to take a chance by screening its newest epic, Everest, in IMAX (IMAX -0.38%) first.
Chasing a "Ghost"
Universal also has plenty of cushion in case Everest peaks too soon. According to Box Office Mojo, Universal's $2,199.8 million in current-year U.S. box office receipts accounted for 28% of the domestic market through Sept. 13. The studio ranked fifth last year with $1,115.3 million and third in 2013 with $1,433.3 million, making this year's tally a likely record no matter what happens with Everest's IMAX-first premiere.
Even so, there's reason to like Universal's strategy. In December 2011, Viacom's (VIAB) Paramount Pictures chose to release Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol on 425 IMAX screens a week ahead of its wide box office debut and earned $13.3 million, or just over $30,000 per screen, for the effort, Box Office Mojo reports. The film went on earn $694.7 million in worldwide box office grosses.
Reaching for the summit from just steps away
Universal also couldn't have picked a better time to take a risk on Everest. Why? September tends to be a low month at the box office, a lull marked by the end of the summer blockbuster season yet too soon for studios to push Oscar candidates. Nabbing premium sales on 545 IMAX screens -- 28% more than what Ghost Protocol enjoyed -- could provide a boon ahead of next week's wide release, when Everest matches up with Hotel Transylvania 2 and The Intern.
In the meantime, investors can take heart knowing that Universal entered the year having already figured out how to squeeze more from its Filmed Entertainment division. Operating profit from the group rose to $711 million last year from $483 million in 2013, S&P Capital IQ reports, and that's despite lower U.S. threatrical grosses.
IMAX, too, is on a roll thanks to strong performances from pictures produced and distributed by Universal and Walt Disney (DIS -0.65%). Furious 7 opened with $20.8 million in IMAX receipts. Avengers: Age of Ultron would top that with a $25.2 million open ahead of the film's release in Chinaonly to be topped by Jurassic World's record-setting $44.1 million IMAX haul. Add it up -- and then mix in forthcoming contributions from the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- and it's no wonder analysts are calling for IMAX to boost per-share earnings 48% in fiscal 2015 and 23.58% annually over the next three-to-five years.
Everest may be a tough climb for the world's best mountaineers. For Comcast and Universal -- already perched at Hollywood's box office summit -- it's just another in what's proving to be a long string of catalysts.