My Take On… #271: Is Universal Really Disney’s Biggest Competitor?

For the longest time, Disney’s biggest competitor was always Warner Bros., from its’ classic battle between cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to today’s battles between Marvel and DC, Disney and Warner Bros. have always been competition to one another for many decades.

But what about right now? I know that Disney and WB still have this competitive edge to one another but there’s another studio out there that’s right on the coattails of Disney in terms of how they do business and that’s Universal Pictures.

One of the oldest movie studios ever, Universal Pictures has always been one of the signature studios in Hollywood. But more recently, if you compare most of what Universal and Disney have put out recently, you can definitely see a lot of similarities to each studio.

So that begs the question if Universal is really Disney’s biggest competitor nowadays than Warner Bros. is?

When you really think about, the rivalry between these two studios began way back in the 1920s. Most people forget that Walt Disney actually worked for Universal in their animation department as the creator of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit.

Universal owned the rights to the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” character, although Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks had created Oswald, and their films had enjoyed a successful theatrical run. After Charles Mintz had unsuccessfully demanded that Disney accept a lower fee for producing the property, Mintz produced the films with his own group of animators. Instead, Disney and Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, who in 1928 starred in the first “sync” sound animated short, Steamboat Willie. This moment effectively launched Walt Disney Studios’ foothold, while Universal became a minor player in film animation. Universal subsequently severed its link to Mintz and formed its own in-house animation studio to produce Oswald cartoons headed by Walter Lantz.

In 2006, after almost 80 years, NBC Universal sold all Walt Disney-produced Oswald cartoons, along with the rights to the character himself, back to Disney. In return, Disney released ABC sportscaster Al Michaels from his contract so he could work on NBC’s Sunday night NFL football package. However, Universal retained ownership of Oswald cartoons produced for them by Walter Lantz from 1929 to 1943.

So, yeah, Universal kind of started the rivalry with Disney way back in 1928 but it wasn’t until we got to around the 2010s where the most recent comparisons to Universal and Disney start to come into play.

For the longest time, Disney’s animation department was the gold standard for animation studios and for the longest time, Warner Bros.’ animation studio had always been their biggest competitor until around the 1980s when you had all these different animation studios coming in to try to get into Disney’s money. Don Bluth, ironically a former Disney animator, and his production company opened the door for new competition to come in in the 1980s, then in the 1990s, Warner Bros. attempted to jump into Disney’s pool when the reinvention of their studio took place but it would be a mix of two former Disney employees in John Lasseter’s Pixar and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks who would reinvent the animated movie game by creating the first computer animated movies.

In the 2000s, Pixar and DreamWorks continue to improve and suddenly, they became the biggest blockbusters movie companies out there as their CG animated features kept making more money at the box office. After a few stumbles trying to create their own CG animated features, Disney made Lasseter their chief creative officer at their animation studios and suddenly, they were back in the fold at the end of the decade.

2010, however, saw Universal trying to have their own Pixar studio with Illumination Entertainment and the release of Despicable Me, which was an unexpected success in a summer that also had Pixar release Toy Story 3. And while Toy Story 3 was obviously the bigger success, Despicable Me’s surprising $546 million worldwide gross proved that there was some new competition in the computer animation genre.

And thus, that’s where the similarities between Universal and Disney’s recent feature films come into play.

Both Disney and Universal have each had equal success with their animated features. With both Disney & Pixar having major success and Universal with Illumination and Laika having major success, many of their films have been critically and financially successful features. And in fact, Universal has one upper hand over Disney because now they’ve acquired DreamWorks Animation too so that’s three animated studios under one company. But then again, Disney is in the process of buying 20th Century Fox too so that means they would own their own animation studios, Pixar, Blue Sky Studios, and 20th Century Fox Animation. See, even today they are still very competitive.

But it’s not just their animation department, each studio’s roster of live-action movies seem to be very similar. You’ve got your fair share of animated movies each year along with several live-action blockbusters.

Disney has the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Pirates Of The Caribbean, their recent live-action adaptations of their classic animated features, and will soon have Indiana Jones to their live-action roster. When it comes to trying to create other live-action blockbusters, they’re more 50-50, sometimes you get something good like Oz: The Great & Powerful or Into The Woods but then you get stuff like John Carter, The Lone Ranger, A Wrinkle In Time. But with Disney, they usually can get away with some of these misfires because there’s always a Marvel or Disney animated feature to make a ton of money to ease the failure of their last movie.

With Universal, they have a ton of franchises to their roster that make them a ton of money with each new film, Jurassic Park, The Fast & The Furious, the Bourne movies, the Blumhouse Productions library, and so much more and because Universal isn’t restricted to mostly G, PG, & PG-13 rated fare and can release R rated stuff too like some of their successful comedies recently like Girls Trip and Blockers, they have more range to make more money with movies aimed at wider audiences.

That being said, Universal isn’t so lucky with getting away from wasting tons of money on live-action misfires, this studio has had a big collection of big budget failures with stuff such as The Wolfman ($150 million budget), Robin Hood ($200 million budget), Cowboys vs. Aliens ($163 million), Battleship ($220 million), Oblivion ($160 million), R.I.P.D. ($130 million), 47 Ronin ($175 million), Seventh Son ($95 million), The Huntsman: Winter’s War ($110 million), Warcraft ($160 million), The Great Wall ($150 million), The Mummy ($195 million) and most recently Pacific Rim: Uprising ($176 million), all these massive misfires from this one studio over the last 8 years, you would think somebody at Universal would look at the results and say “maybe we should stop making these movies that are obviously not making money and quit wasting money like Granny throwing money to burn in a fire like in the Looney Tunes cartoons.” That’s pretty much what’s going on here.

By far, the biggest sign that Universal is Disney’s biggest competitor is its’ theme parks, Disney has so many properties to it that it can turn into attractions in their theme parks and has so many theme parks and resorts all over the world that it can keep growing and growing as it has and there’s never really an end to the possibilities that can come from this.

While Universal definitely has properties of their own such as Despicable Me, Fast & The Furious, Jurassic Park, King Kong, and E.T. to promote in their parks, they also have the benefit of bringing in other franchises from other companies like NBC with The Tonight Show and NBC Sports, Fox with The Simpsons, Nintendo with the forthcoming Mario and Pokémon attractions, DreamWorks with Transformers and their animation properties, Warner Bros. with both Harry Potter and Terminator, Marvel, Dr. Seuss, Nickelodeon, PBS with Barney & Friends, even when Universal in Orlando first opened in 1990, they brought in Hanna Barbera, Paramount Pictures with I Love Lucy & Star Trek, Sony with Ghostbusters, and many others.

Universal is also expanding fast especially in Orlando with the recently opened Volcano Bay and the just revealed rumor of a fourth theme park in Orlando in the works and more hotels and the purchase of more land to bring more guests in, Universal Orlando Resort is slowly but surely building into a massive competitor to Disney World

So, there are definitely a ton of reasons to believe that Universal is today’s real competitor for Disney nowadays and not their long time rivals at Warner Bros., even with WB’s recent successes with Warner Animation Group and some of their successful franchises, Universal really is making a strong case for being the biggest competition for Disney right now on all fronts, their movie department and their theme park department along with other aspects such as their number of franchises, numerous TV channels owned by each studio, and merchandising all over the world.

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