The original movies of 2019 that won at Disney blockbuster-dominated box office

Key Points
  • Disney has six blockbuster films raking in over $1 billion each in 2019. The latest: "Frozen 2."
  • It is on pace to smash its previous record of $7.6 billion at the global box office, set in 2016.
  • But 2019 was a good year for original movies, led by Jordan Peele's "Us" and Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood."
(L-R) Director/writer Jordan Peele, actress Lupita Nyong'o, and actor Winston Duke arrive for the New York premiere of "Us" at the Museum of Modern Art on March 19, 2019 in New York City.

In 2019 six Disney movies have made more than a billion dollars, Martin Scorsese dissed the Marvel Cinematic Universe as being beneath the level of "cinema," Netflix sparred with theater owners over theatrical releases, and unconventional superhero blockbusters, like "Joker," brought in huge money despite controversy. All of these Hollywood headlines were a direct result of a movie slate dominated by sequels and franchises, but original movies had a surprisingly good year.

Disney will break its own box-office record — set in 2016 with $7.6 billion in global box-office receipts — with roughly $10 billion in box office so far this year, but it wasn't just superhero movies that saw success at the box office. Original movies, like Jordan Peele's "Us" and Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood," pulled in big money at the domestic box office.

Rian Johnson's new whodunnit "Knives Out" had an impressive Thanksgiving opening weekend, bringing in over $41 million, making back its budget in one week — it is up to $67 million now. The film was also nominated for three Golden Globes, including Best Musical or Comedy.

The top 10 highest domestic-grossing original movies in 2019 out-earned the top 10 in 2018 by roughly $50 million.

In a year where esteemed members of the film industry like Scorsese have raised concern over the dominance of franchises, original movies have been thrust to the forefront of conversation. Non-franchise movies still have an uphill battle compared to their IP-based counterparts, but box office analysts do see in this year's success stories some signs of what it takes for original movies to succeed financially.

Original movies have to be really good

Without the built-in marketing of a sequel, or a larger character universe, word of mouth is incredibly important for original movies. And in the age of social media, that is becoming easier as a marketing strategy, but only if the movie deserves the hype.

Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice Media, said that good reviews of original movies can move faster than ever.

"In the era of Rotten Tomatoes and social media especially, word of mouth is much more important now," Robbins said. "It also spreads faster, and I think that's why it's more important, because you don't have to wait three or four weeks now to hear what your friends or people in your generation think of a movie."

Robbins noted average moviegoers who aren't tuning in to "film Twitter" everyday do often go to the site to gauge whether a movie is worth their time and money.

All of the top 10 original movies besides one — "Escape Room" — received a fresh score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

Top 10 original movies by domestic gross

  1. Us ($175 million)
  2. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood ($141 million)
  3. Hustlers ($105 million)
  4. Rocketman ($96 million)
  5. Ford v. Ferrari ($93 million)
  6. Good Boys ($83 million)
  7. Yesterday ($73 million)
  8. Knives Out ($67 million)
  9. Abominable ($60 million)
  10. Escape Room ($57 million)

"Critics are the gatekeepers of quality entertainment," said Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "Now, that doesn't mean their rating automatically equates to a film becoming a hit or flop at the box office, but for an original film to break through to multiplex masses, having a high score is a valuable component. If a film is low-rated, especially an adult drama, common conception is that audiences can wait for streaming or rental, or even more-so, skip entirely."

Audiences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association seemed to agree: the top 10 original movie list of 2019 at the box office has garnered 13 Golden Globe nominations. Tarantino's newest film "Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood" received five nominations, including Best Musical or Comedy.

A-list Hollywood stars still sell

The top 10 domestic-selling original movies of 2019 are riddled with stars.

Big name directors like Peele, Tarantino and Johnson helmed successful projects this year. Stars like Jennifer Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Chris Evans, Margot Robbie, Jamie Lee Curtis, Matt Damon and Christian Bale headline a star-studded list of movies.

In the world of franchise films, it can be hard to tell if a star like Robert Downey Jr. is selling a movie, or if Iron Man is. According to both Robbins and Bock, having stars is more important for original films, but can't sell the movie on its own.

Christian Bale (L) and Matt Damon arrive at the premiere of Fox's "Ford V Ferrari" at the TCL Chinese Theatre on November 04, 2019 in Hollywood, California.
Kevin Winter | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

"A lot of these original movies have big stars in them, and it's hard to boil it down and say they were successful just because they had stars, but I think there is a strong argument for saying they were a big part of the recipe," Robbins said. "I mean, Matt Damon and Christian Bale in 'Ford v. Ferrari' are a duo that people really wanted to see. You have star filmmakers like Tarantino and Peele, too."

There is no exact science to the combination of star and original movie material. Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart" was a critical darling in the U.S., but lacked an A-list star and performed poorly at the box office. At the peak of his powers, The Rock made original movies like "Central Intelligence" and "San Andreas" — $100 million dollar films.

"Dwayne Johnson has made a career of it," Bock said. "Making films in Hollywood is like putting together a 10,000 piece puzzle sometimes, and having a name to sell, and gain investor interest is still a huge component of getting a movie made."

Johnson starred in the No. 1 movie at this past weekend's U.S. box office, "Jumanji: The Next Level," which followed his summer hit "Hobbs & Shaw. But Johnson hasn't found the same level of success outside of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise in recent years, with domestic flops like "Skyscraper" and "Rampage" in 2018.

How China is changing Hollywood

Both "Rampage" and "Skyscraper" made over 75% of their total gross internationally. This year, all 10 of the highest-grossing films made over 50% of their money overseas, and all of them are sequels or based on established IP.

The international market is a growing one for Hollywood movies, and Robbins says that attaching star to a project is a good way to sell a movie abroad.

"There are stars that can really sell a movie outside of America almost better they can sell it in America," Robbins said.

2019's "Gemini Man" is an example of that. The Will Smith-led action-thriller bombed in the U.S., making just over $48 million on a $138 million budget. Overseas, it made over $124 million, helping the movie make its money back. Robbins says Smith is a major reason that the film was able to succeed.

Advertising boosts original movies like 'Us'

It's not just enough to have big names and a good product — you need to be able to sell it.

Advertising is crucial to a film's success, and perhaps no movie had a better ad campaign than Peele's "Us," the highest- grossing original movie of the year.

"To put that trailer out on Christmas Day, and just get this wave of buzz going like they did a year ago, I mean once that happened, a big opening weekend was pretty much guaranteed," Robbins said.

After his successful directorial debut in 2017 with "Get Out," Peele's next film was eagerly anticipated by fans. The first trailer, including a spooky version of the Luniz track "I got 5 on it," became a viral sensation. Speculation over the movie's secrets and themes flooded the internet. The film's rendition of "I got 5 on it" even became a meme on various social media sites, including Tik Tok.

Robbins says this type of marketing campaign that can create a cult following before a movie's release, while rare, can elevate a movie past expectations.

Streaming is loaded with original content, so if original movies want to peacock, they need to be brighter than ever.
Jeff Bock
senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations

Hollywood is just a decade removed from an original movie, James Cameron's "Avatar," breaking box office records. While Robbins said it's hard to predict if that will ever happen again, demand for good original content is on the rise, and that is a step in the right direction.

Streaming services like Netflix have made a big push in acquiring movies for their platform, most of them being originals like "Dolemite Is My Name." Because of that, the stakes have risen for studios to produce top tier original content to compete.

"Original content is everywhere; more so now than ever before," Bock said. "Streaming is loaded with original content, so if original movies want to peacock, they need to be brighter than ever."

As for 2020, there aren't a lot of massive franchise blockbusters to anticipate. Disney's Marvel Studios' MCU only has two films, "Black Widow" and "Eternals," neither of which are event-level movies like 2019's "Avengers: Endgame."

AT&T-owned Warner Bros. has two movies based on DC Comic characters, "Birds of Prey" and "Wonder Woman 1984."

Sony will have a sequel to "Venom" and another Spider-Man villain origin story in "Morbius."

Other than that, a new "Fast and the Furious" movie from Comcast's Universal Studios, and some horror sequels ("Halloween Kills", "A Quiet Place II" from Viacom's Paramount Pictures, and "The Conjuring 3") seem to be the big draws. That leaves room for big original movies to step up.

Robbins pointed to films from esteemed filmmakers like Christopher Nolan's "Tenet," and Edgar Wright's "Last Night in Soho" as movies that could be big hits in the coming year. But even in the 2020 original film slate, Disney looms large: Pixar will have two original animated movies in "Onward" and "Soul" as well as Disney Animation's "Raya and the Last Dragon."

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.