In 2016, Disney owned the box office. A media company formerly best known for children’s entertainment has rapidly grown into a media juggernaut. This isn’t a coincidence; it’s the culmination of more than a decade of meticulous strategizing, bold investing, and franchise-building unlike anything that preceded it. And this is just the beginning, if the past year of cinema is any indication of future trends.
First, the numbers. Midway through December, just after the huge opening weekend for Rogue One, the House of Mouse announced it had become the first movie studio in history to bring home more than $7 billion in a single calendar year, a number that has continued to grow in recent weeks.
For context, the previous box-office record was set by Universal, which brought in $6.89 billion last year on the backs of franchises like Furious 7, Jurassic World, and Minions. Compare that to Disney's 2016, where the company ruled the international box office with the top four slots: Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Zootopia, and The Jungle Book. And while Rogue One has only been in theaters for a comparatively short amount of time, it's on track to easily join Disney's other properties at the top of the list.
What’s notable about Disney’s 2016 hits is that every major Disney division performed this year: there was a Marvel film, a Pixar movie, an original Walt Disney Animation Studios property, a live-action remake of a Disney classic, and a Star Wars film. 2016 was the year Disney's long-term strategy — the acquisition of major franchises, the delivery of yearly iterations, the powerful grip on animated films, the exploitable back catalog — came together into a cohesive whole.
That dominance will likely extend far beyond 2016: these five groups are essentially easy returns for Disney for the foreseeable future. Disney's 2017 slate includes two Pixar projects: a Cars sequel (one of the studio’s most lucrative properties) and the original film Coco. There's Star Wars Episode VIII. And on the live-action front is the Emma Watson-helmed Beauty and the Beast; the trailer is currently the most viewed movie trailer of all time. The second most viewed trailer? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, one of the three Marvel movies Disney plans to release next year. And while the original animation studio is taking the year off after the doubleheader of Zootopia and Moana in 2016, it will be busy producing a sequel to the critically acclaimed (and financially successful) Wreck-It Ralph.
It's hard to see any one studio beating Disney at this point. Warner Bros. has the opposing superheroes of DC Comics, but can't seem to reach the levels of commercial or critical success in the same way Disney has with Marvel. Universal has DreamWorks and its own CGI movies, but Pixar remains the go-to champion of that form. And no other movie studio has managed to summon a level of nostalgia comparable to Disney's live-action remakes and Star Wars films.
Eventually, it feels like the strategy will have to fail — as the Marvel movies and Star Wars stories pile up, people may eventually stop turning out for them in their current numbers. But for now, Disney is the standard to beat when it comes to commercial cinema. Disney owned 2016, thanks to years of careful planning. Other studios may find a way to compete, but this type of success doesn’t take luck. It takes time.