We’re in the middle of a superhero movie ‘arms race’

Tony Wagner Nov 5, 2014

We’re in the middle of a superhero movie ‘arms race’

Tony Wagner Nov 5, 2014

What’s the point of announcing something five or six years in advance, with little more than a date and a logo?

When you’re making a superhero movie, it’s a savvy business move. Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. both announced that nine movies based on their Marvel and DC franchises, respectively, would be released between now and the end of the decade.

“It’s almost like an arms race, isn’t it?” says Keith Phipps, film critic and editorial director of film website The Dissolve. “Who can announce the most ambitious, far-reaching plan to get the fans excited?”

But most of the movies don’t have scripts, stars or directors attached. Some of the DC movies don’t even have a logo. So why make their intentions known so early? Are we in a superhero movie bubble? Let’s look at the evidence:

There are a lot of superhero movies on the way

Marvel and DC are longtime rivals, and it shows in their film slates. Both will bring out big sequels and debut new franchises, and all of the heroes will eventually team up for massive two-part blockbusters: “Justice League” for DC and “Avengers: Infinity War” for Marvel.

Over the past six years, Marvel Studios has proved audiences would show up for separate but interconnected movies that lead up to a big event like “The Avengers.” It makes sense that the other studios would spend the next six years trying to make up ground.

Sony has Spider-Man and Fox has the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Together, the major studios have scheduled nearly 30 superhero movies for the next six years, with even more rumored to be in the pipeline.

“When I was 15, if you told me that much of entertainment would be based on superheroes and zombies, I would be really, really excited.” Phipps says. But so many studios are set on building a mega-franchise in the Marvel model, “I have a feeling it’s not going to work out for everyone.”

These are some of the only movies making any money

Summer 2014 was a bad one at the movies. Films only grossed about $4 billion worldwide,  a 17-year low when adjusted for inflation.

The one bright spot? Marvel Studios, which scored a hit with “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The latter grossed a summer-high $768 million worldwide.

Superheroes represent maybe the only dependable genre in what’s otherwise a fraught movie industry, says Al Lieberman, who worked in film and television marketing, including on Warner’s Batman movies, before becoming a New York University marketing professor.

The superhero development is the result of several forces coming together. Special effects have improved significantly, stories and characters that used to be on the nerdy fringes of pop culture have become more mainstream, comic books offer a wealth of merchandising opportunities and, maybe most importantly, superhero blockbusters do very well overseas.

“There is nothing that is easier to watch in every country,” Lieberman says. “It’s really the superhero wars, and everyone’s involved.”

Studios want to mark their territory…

Studios target specific big weekends studios to debut their summer tentpole films, says C. Samuel Craig, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Labor Day and the Fourth of July are crucial, for example. Theaters like to spread out the blockbusters, so studios try to claim dates early.

This approach has already led to standoffs. DC’s “Batman v. Superman” was slated to open May 6, 2016, the same day as an untitled Marvel movie. But after Marvel’s strong showing in the summer movie season and announcement of a Captain America sequel for that date, DC blinked, moving its film to earlier in the spring.

“The other thing is a bit of posturing,” Craig says. “Particularly when you’re announcing things out to 2019.”

…And control the conversation

“Teaser marketing” has become the norm, Lieberman says. Those teases, trailers, viral marketing, and piecemeal cast and crew announcements are coming earlier, thanks to the web and the crowded comic-book movie market.

“They’re saying, ‘Look, don’t worry, don’t start shifting allegiances, because we’re coming with these movies every year for the next five-year period,’” Craig says.

And it’s working. Marvel was coming off of a banner summer when Warner announced its long lineup of films during an earnings call last month and scored praise for including diverse heroes like Wonder Woman and Cyborg. But Marvel snatched the conversation back less than two weeks later with a trailer for next summer’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

The trailer “comes out and all the sudden we’re not talking about DC anymore,” says Alex Abad-Santos, a culture writer at Vox. A few days later, Marvel held an Apple-like surprise press event, announcing its first movies led by black and female heroes.

“That was some savvy marketing to get people talking about Marvel again.”

It could be low-risk

Some of these movies are guaranteed hits – who doesn’t want to watch Superman and Batman duke it out? – but it’s not clear what will happen if moviegoers get sick of superheroes. Phipps says Marvel is the one to watch because the studio has invested the most money and hasn’t had a bomb yet.

Box office returns for superhero movies show no signs of slipping, Craig says, but it’s inevitable that one of these movies will underperform. Studios can absorb a blow like that, but too many and they might scale back their ambitions.

Once you’ve announced a potential summer blockbuster, can you take it back without hurting the bottom line? It’s easier when you only have a date and logo, and a fresh announcement for a new and ostensibly better movie to take its place.

The studios could risk losing trust from the big fans that helped hype the movies, according to Phipps. But Craig says audiences also have short memories, and cancelling a film is less embarrassing than a flop — less costly too.

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