UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Lobbed between four owners over the last 15 years, Universal Pictures has lately had a reputation in Hollywood as a reliable also-ran.
Each of the six major studios has had a turn as the domestic box-office champion over that period — except for Universal. Last year, each of the six major studios had at least one movie rank among the top 15 ticket-sellers — except for Universal.
But while the movie industry was focused on difficulties at Warner Bros. and upheaval at Sony Pictures, Universal quietly put together a 2015 slate that finally brings an echo of the studio’s 1980s heyday, when it ruled the film world with hits like “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Back to the Future.” Analysts say the lineup could make Universal the year’s No. 1 studio, at least as measured by ticket sales, a matter of industry pride if not a direct translation to profitability.
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” an adaptation of E.L. James’s kinky sex novel that opens Friday, could take in as much as $90 million at North American theaters over the four-day weekend, according to tracking services. (The studio is projecting “more than” $50 million.) The movie cost $40 million to make. Two sequels are expected.
Then comes a parade of potentially lucrative sequels. “Furious 7,” the delayed continuation of the blockbuster “Fast & Furious” car-racing series, arrives in April. The musical comedy “Pitch Perfect 2” rolls into theaters in May. June brings Seth MacFarlane’s raunchy “Ted 2” and “Jurassic World,” the long-awaited return of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur series.
“Minions,” an animated prequel to the popular “Despicable Me” movies, and “Trainwreck,” a sassy romantic comedy from Judd Apatow, both arrive in July. The final part of the year brings a pair of low-cost, perhaps high-reward horror movies; two prestige dramas, including a Steve Jobs biopic; and “Sisters,” a Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy.
“It’s a prime example that you don’t have to rely on superheroes to power a schedule, and that speaks volumes about the work Universal has done,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
Universal executives declined to be interviewed. Comcast, which took over the studio in 2011, frowns on public chest-thumping. But Universal’s coming roll is undeniable, revealing the results of a solidifying management team, smart marketing and a few competitor stumbles.
It also reflects the serendipitous nature of the movie business. The studio’s philosophy is to release two to three event films a year, but “Jurassic World” was delayed to allow more time for development. “Minions,” which Mr. Contrino estimates will generate $1 billion in global ticket sales, was moved from last year in part to give consumer-products executives more time to expand a merchandising plan.
And the studio pulled “Furious 7” from last year’s schedule following the death of Paul Walker, one of the movie’s better-known stars.
Like any other studio, Universal has challenges. A new deal with Legendary Entertainment has gotten off to a slow start, with “Seventh Son” and “Blackhat” flopping badly. Universal, however, did not invest in either picture, which required $160 million in combined write-downs.
Legendary, which is a financial partner with Universal on “Jurassic World,” came to the studio last year after parting ways with Warner, which was undergoing a messy management transition. In general, Universal has benefited from upheaval at competing studios. “Ride Along,” starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, was passed over by New Line, a Warner division. Universal made it for $25 million and the movie took in $154 million worldwide. The coming Steve Jobs film, a potential Oscar contender, came to Universal in November after dithering by Sony.
Marketing has emerged as one of Universal’s major strengths, Mr. Contrino noted. Despite an established fan base created by Ms. James’s best-selling book, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” for instance, was anything but a sure thing.
American moviegoers have a history of shying away from multiplex movies that are too erotic, so Universal worked diligently to make a private experience (reading a sexually explicit book) feel comfortable as a communal one (sitting elbow to elbow in a theater). To make “Fifty Shades of Grey” feel sexy yet safely mainstream, for instance, Universal got Beyoncé to rerecord her hit “Crazy in Love.”
Universal also spread the word about strong advance ticket sales for the R-rated romance — offering safety in numbers.
Universal’s run actually started in 2014, albeit in a quiet way. With no big-budget sequel or summer action-extravaganza, the studio put on its generalist hat and leaned into riskier moderately budgeted movies like “Lone Survivor,” “Ride Along,” “Neighbors,” “Lucy” and Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.”
All were surprise successes except one (“A Million Ways to Die in the West,” which bombed), leaving the studio with its most profitable year ever, according to remarks in December by Michael J. Angelakis, Comcast’s chief financial officer. For the first nine months of 2014, Universal reported operating cash flow of $634 million, up from $291 million a year earlier.
Comcast will publicly report full-year earnings for the studio on Feb. 24.
Many studios suffer from a type of “Hunger Games” competition among senior executives: turf wars, politicking, credit-grabbing. Universal until recently was no exception. But that behavior appears to have stopped when Comcast, in a surprise move, installed Jeff Shell as chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment in 2013.
What Mr. Shell lacked in movie experience — his background was mostly in television — he made up for in strong ties to Comcast bosses at corporate headquarters in Philadelphia. Universal insiders say he has helped the cable giant understand the whip and whirl of the movie business in a way the studio’s previous owner, General Electric, never fully grasped, or at least never embraced.
While G.E. often tried to smooth financial turbulence by holding back budgets, Comcast has shown a willingness to give Universal enough money to make really big bets. “Furious 7” and “Jurassic World” both have production costs in excess of $150 million, for instance.
At the same time, Mr. Shell retained most of Universal’s core team, in particular giving Donna Langley, chairwoman of Universal Pictures, an expanded portfolio. Comcast also retained Universal’s former president, Ron Meyer, in a steadying statesman role, promoting him to vice chairman of NBCUniversal, with oversight of the studio’s physical lot and sibling theme parks and a continued role in the daily film business.
The lack of energy-draining jockeying “really makes the wheels hum,” said Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse production company, which specializes in microbudget horror films, is now based at Universal.
During a visit to Universal’s San Fernando Valley lot on Monday there was a palpable bounce, a contrast to the weary uphill battle vibe that has sometimes marked the atmosphere. “We’re having a lot of fun,” said one executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity to conform to the studio’s wishes. “We finally have our moment to really play with the big boys.”