How Disney keeps churning out billion dollar hits like Beauty and the Beast

Is there simply no stopping Disney? Probably not.

The studio's live-action version of Beauty and the Beast has just opened in the United States with a massive $US170 million ($220 million), the biggest March opening weekend ever and the seventh-biggest opening of all time.

In foreign markets it took a further $US180 million ($233 million), to give it a global tally just north of $A450 million so far. And with it yet to open in several strong territories - including Australia, this week, and Japan - the film looks set to continue a run of $1 billion-plus box office monsters.

Disney last year became the first Hollywood studio to pass the $7 billion mark at the global box office, despite releasing fewer movies than any of its major studio rivals. Four of its pictures (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War and Zootopia) topped $US1 billion ($1.3 billion) globally, while a fifth, The Jungle Book, fell just short of that mark.

In all, the studio released 13 movies in 2016, for a 26.3 per cent share of the US box office. By comparison, its closest rival, Warner Bros, released 23 titles for a 16.7 per cent share. According to a recent report by market analysts Cowen and Co, more than half the profits (57 per cent) made in the motion picture business globally last year went to Disney.

It's an astonishing performance, but it's no fluke. With fresh instalments in the Pirates of the Caribbean, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor and Star Wars franchises in the pipeline, 2017 promises to be another big year. The Mouse has become a monster by becoming the most adept franchiser in the business.

In essence, Disney is now effectively a franchiser of franchises. The parent company, Walt Disney Studios, is an umbrella beneath which sits a cluster of very productive - and, crucially, very focused - mini-studios (though given their size, mini hardly seems the right word).

There's Pixar, turning out high-end animated comedies such as Finding Dory. There's Marvel, churning out superhero movies. There's Lucasfilm, home to the Star Wars empire. There's Walt Disney Animation, whose work - such as the recent Moana - most closely resembles the kind of film the studio originally made, albeit with computer animation largely replacing drawing by hand. And there's the slate of films released under the Disney banner, including Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, films that have re-animated the company's back catalogue of cartoon fairytales through a powerful blend of CGI and live action.

A decade ago, Disney released the same number of movies as it did last year - 13 in 2007. Only two of them - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and National Treasure: Book of Secrets - were franchises.

Last year, six of the movies it released were franchises, sequels or remakes of earlier Disney titles (a seventh, the live-action The BFG, was a remake of an earlier non-Disney animated picture).

Each of Disney's strands presents a clearly defined product, one that instantly takes its place among other similarly defined products. We know what to expect of a Marvel movie because it sits within a defined universe; we know that when a Star Wars movie comes with a roman numeral in the title it sits within a particular lineage, and when it doesn't it sits slightly outside it.

Audiences crave the new, of course, but they also love the familiar. Bring them together in a big-budget spectacle that demands to be seen on a big screen in the company of like-minded fans, and it's a winning package.

A decade ago, the six major Hollywood studios were tightly packed. Paramount had the winning share, with $1.5 billion and a 15.5 per cent share of the US total; in sixth place, 20th Century Fox still had 10.5 per cent of receipts.

The BFG was a remake of a non-Disney animated film released in 1989.

The BFG was a remake of a non-Disney animated film released in 1989.

In 2016, though, Paramount - a studio that has struggled to identify a franchise to replace its ageing Star Trek and Mission: Impossible product lines - could manage only slightly more than a quarter of Disney's grosses as it finished sixth, with a 7.7 per cent share.

The gap between the top and bottom studios has never been greater, and it has never owed so much to the power of the franchise.

That's not good news for anyone who wants to see the Hollywood studios backing more adventurous fare. It's not great news either for those studios without the clout to buy up already powerful brands, the way Disney did with Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel, to guarantee a pipeline of production.

But for Disney, for now and the foreseeable future, it's a beautiful thing.

Karl Quinn is on facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin

This story How Disney keeps churning out billion dollar hits like Beauty and the Beast first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.