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John Scalzi – Seven Studios That Reaped Infinite Rewards From Sci-Fi

Here’s kind of a fun film-nerd question to round out 2010: we all know that science fiction is both popular and productive for film studios, but which film studios have benefited the most from science fiction over the years? Are there some for whom it has done better than others?

There are a number of ways of answering this question, some rather more complicated than others. For this little exercise, I’m going to use one of the simplest: I’m going to look at the ten films of each major studio that have the highest domestic market grosses (as supplied by and use that. There are legitimate issues with this technique — for example, I’ll be using grosses unadjusted for inflation, which favors more recent films, and I’m ignoring the rest of the world outside the U.S. and Canada — but, as a conversation starter, it’s workable enough.

And which movie studios qualify as major? For the purposes of this exercise, they are Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal, Disney, Sony, Paramount, and MGM, although, admittedly, at this stage the latter has a “major” appellation largely for historical and sentimental reasons. By and large subsidiaries of these major studios are included in their box-office numbers, although there are a few exceptions — both Disney and Warner Brothers incorporate box-office numbers from Pixar and New Line Cinema, respectively, only after those respective studios were fully consumed by their larger partners.

So which studios have the highest percentage of science fiction in their top ten films?
1. 20th Century Fox: Eight of Fox’s top ten highest-grossing films are science fiction, a fact that is utterly unsurprising for the studio that either produced or distributed all of the live-action Star Wars films to date. (The animated Clone Wars film was put out through Warner Brothers.) Five of the six Star Wars films are in the top ten (only The Empire Strikes Back is missing), and the rest of the eight slots are filled by Avatar (at number one), Independence Day, and X-Men: The Last Stand, the latter of which also qualifies as a comic-book movie. The two remaining films: Home Alone and Night at the Museum.

2. Sony: Sony (which incorporates Columbia and TriStar) has seven, three of which are Spider-Man movies, which are science-fictional largely as a courtesy — Peter Parker has a quasi-scientific reason for having superpowers, as do most of the villains. But I’m counting them, so there. Three of the others are Will Smith films: the two Men in Black films and Hancock (which teeters on the science-fictional borderline). The final entry: Terminator 2, which back in the day was distributed by TriStar.

3. Paramount: This studio has six science-fiction films in its top roster: the two Transformers films, the two Iron Man films, the most recent Star Trek film (which was the most financially successful of all of the Trek films), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which to be fair is mostly science-fictional as an afterthought, but, hey — aliens. It is what it is, man.

4. Universal: The home of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which after almost 30 years is still the studio’s highest-grossing film. And for that matter two of the three other science-fiction films in this studio’s top ten are directed by Steven Spielberg as well: Jurassic Park and its sequel, The Lost World. Also in the top ten lineup: this year’s animated film Despicable Me. Which, yes, surprises me a bit.

5. Warner Brothers: Only two of this studio’s top ten are science-fiction films: Inception, from this year, and The Matrix Reloaded, from 2003. Some folks would argue to include The Dark Knight, the studio’s highest grosser, but it falls into the “not quite science fiction” category for me. As an aside, six of Warner Brothers’ top ten movies are from the Harry Potter series; it is for Warner what the Star Wars series is for Fox.

6. Disney: Has no science fiction in its top ten; its highest-grossing science-fictional film would be The Incredibles, which, at $260 million domestic, is $30 million below Disney’s tenth film (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The rest of the top ten are the Pirates of the Caribbean films, three Pixar flicks, The Sixth Sense, and The Lion King.

7. MGM: No science-fiction films here, either, and it’s telling, regarding the current state of the studio, that its highest grosser is now 70 years old (Gone With the Wind), and only two of its top ten were released in the last decade. This was once the largest movie studio in Hollywood; how the mighty have fallen.

All told, out of 70 available top-ten slots for the major studios, science fiction fills 27 — nearly one out of every four. That’s a pretty impressive number for any single genre.

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