Box Office Round Up – March 25-27, 2016

Stumped-magazine-batman-vs-superman

Get behind the numbers of the last weekend’s box office! This week, Chris Neumer ponders how you can call Batman vs. Superman a flop or a success if you don’t know how much it cost to make or market and how its performance will impact Warner Bros. future DC Comic Universe.

by Chris Neumer

Journalists who cover the Hollywood box office have a dirty secret: there are so few accurate numbers available to us that it’s often a fool’s errand to try to write something knowledgeable and informed about a given movie’s weekend receipts.

When you read that such-and-such a movie was a huge winner, that just means that it finished first at the box office over the weekend.* There are often times that the media will designated movies as successes even when they are, in actuality, abysmal failures. Case in point: The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It opened with $92 million its first weekend in theaters with The Hollywood Reporter stating that it “kicked off the summer box office in style,” and Forbes deeming this total “spectacular”. The truth was that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a huge failure! Enough so that Sony actually pulled the plug on making The Amazing Spider-Man 3 in spite of the fact that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 made more than $700 million worldwide.

* “Weekend”, of course, now meaning from Thursday to Sunday. Only in Hollywood is the weekend longer than the actual week.

Those two facts simply cannot be reconciled. The movie was a huge success AND a huge failure?   Nonsense.

It gets even weirder when you consider a movie like Steve Jobs (the one with Michael Fassbender, not Ashton Kutcher). In limited release, Steve Jobs performed fantastically well, with CNN trumpeting it as “another example of Universal’s marketing prowess.” By way of explanation, BoxOffice.com’s chief box office analyst, Phil Contrino stated, “This is the time of year when adult audience are looking for prestige films… They’re taking a subject matter that isn’t the sexiest, and pumping some adrenaline into it.”

A Variety journalist, Brent Lang, wrote that Steve Jobs’ success “could presage a healthy commercial run” in wide release.  Two weeks later, Lang wrote an article titled: ‘Steve Jobs’ Bombs: What Went Wrong With the Apple Drama.  It’s not simply that box office pundits are arguing that movies are successful when they’re failures, box office pundits are now also arguing that movies are both successes AND failures at different times in their life.

All of which brings us to the hardest-to-make-sense-of release in cinema history: Batman vs. Superman.

I’ve never been a fan of the way that Batman vs. Superman came about. From a strictly business standpoint, it seems like Warner Bros. is doing everything ass backwards.

After Man of Steel came out in 2013, Warner Bros. knew that they couldn’t generate enough money/interest in a stand-alone Superman franchise to make it worthwhile. They had two series reboots in seven years and collectively, Superman Returns and Man of Steel cost $495 million to make and brought in $491 million domestically. Math like that scares studio executives. (For perspective, consider that director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy cost $585 million to make and brought in $1.2 billion domestically).

At this point, Warner Bros. knew they weren’t going to go ahead with Man of Steel 2. This gave them a choice: they could scrap Superman or they could get creative/desperate. Rebooting the series a third time in ten years was just not an option. Seeing how well The Avengers worked out for Disney, Warner Bros. decided to try to half-ass their way to a similar product with the DC Comic characters that they held the rights to.

The problem with this was one fold: Marvel’s cinematic universe was released from a position of strength. Each of the four major characters in the film had been in their own successful, stand-alone film; Iron Man had done it twice. When The Avengers came out, audiences were clamoring for it.

The same can’t be said for Warner Bros.’ Batman vs. Superman. This is the new Ben Affleck Batman’s first film. Same with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and the extremely short appearances of Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash. The only character who had an introductory film so far is Superman… and that film’s failure is the reason that Batman vs. Superman came about in the first place.

If you doubt this is true, consider the (2005) words of Batman vs. Superman screenwriter, David S. Goyer in an LA Times interview, “Batman vs. Superman is where you go when you admit to yourself that you’ve exhausted all possibilities… It’s somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.”

All of this brings us back to this weekend’s $170 million opening for the box office hit (?), Batman vs. Superman. $170 million is a lot of more to be sure, but what does it mean? And here’s the wholly unsatisfying answer: we have no idea.

The estimates are that Warner Bros. spent $250 million making Batman vs. Superman and another $150 million marketing it. That said, there are a lot of rumors out there that the actual cost of the film was closer to $400 million and studios are notoriously bad estimators of things like this. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is commonly known as the most expensive movie in history, with a budget in the $400 million range. The official total according to UK financial documents was $410 million, but because of a tax credit, Disney only paid $378 million and change. Still, despite the fact that the $410 million figure is as official as it gets, the commonly held wisdom is that On Stranger Tides only cost $250 million to make.

Working off of the $250 million budget figure, Variety is reporting that Batman vs. Superman will have to make $800 million worldwide to break even and that anything under $1 billion worldwide will be a huge disappointment. In short, Batman vs. Superman needs to be one of the ten biggest films in history to have people at Warner Bros. keep their jobs. It needs to vault into the top five of all time to be considered a huge success… and that’s not going to happen. Not unless you’re hoping against hope that Batman vs. Superman will have some kind of amazing legs and will out do The Avengers (which it won’t).

In light of not knowing the budget—though if you want a good rule of thumb in this arena, always listen to the highest numbers floating around—or the marketing costs, or whether the critical beat down that Batman vs. Superman took (The Avengers got a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Batman vs. Superman is at 29% fresh and falling; it was at 32% fresh the day it opened) will influence the way things play out for Warner Bros.’ DC Comic universe going forward.

One thing is for sure though, Warner Bros. path forward is a rocky one. It could turn out okay, but right now, it doesn’t look like it will. Batman vs. Superman made a lot of money this weekend, but only time is going to tell if its as huge a success as everyone is stating it is.

 

 

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