Monday, July 25, 2011

The movie or the marketing? Will going from Paramount to Disney help or hurt Marvel Studios' upcoming films?

It is a clear case of quitting while you're ahead.  Paramount pulled off another $65 million+ opening weekend for another Marvel property, this time with the somewhat more questionable Captain America.  Despite opening in the middle of summer and without the IMAX advantage, Captain America still opened with almost identical numbers to Thor's debut last May ($100,000 more as of this writing).  And that's all she wrote for the three-year long distribution relationship between Marvel Studios and Paramount.  Thanks to a deal whereby Paramount basically sold the distribution rights to any Marvel characters they had dibs on (The Avengers, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, etc) to Disney for $115 million late last year, the fate of the ongoing Marvel movie mythology rests with The Mouse House.  As you recall, Disney bought Marvel Studios for $4 billion just under two years ago, but many of the most popular Marvel properties (X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, etc) belonged to other studios.  Disney grabbing back Paramount's key properties was a major step in bringing the Marvel universe under one studio roof (and likely the last step for awhile, as I imagine that Fox and Sony will keep rebooting or remaking their respective properties until doomsday).  But for now the question is simply: Will the Marvel Studios film universe suffer without the seemingly unbeatable Paramount marketing team?

Paramount's marketing, when it comes to major tentpole pictures, has been quite simply the best out there for at least the last four years.  Every new property they have tried to launch has been met with general success in relation to expectations and cost.  Sure The Last Airbender was terrible, but Paramount still opened the picture to a nearly-$70 million five-day gross and carried to to $300 million worldwide (had the film been better received, we'd likely be seeing a sequel).  Sure GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra wasn't even screened for critics and was relatively trashed when critics did see it, but the film still opened with $55 million in early August and ended up with $300 million worldwide (that the film cost $175 million due to production hassles is the reason we're getting a revamped and cheaper sequel).  Yes we all whined when Shrek: The Final Chapter opened to 'just' $70 million in May 2010.  But the film eventually grossed $752 million worldwide off a $165 million production budget.  And those are the 'questionable' successes.

Paramount took Paranormal Activity and turned it from a direct-to-DVD cult item into a massive mainstream success, making it the second-highest grossing R-rated horror film of the last decade (behind Hannibal) and spawning the first new horror franchise of this current decade.  They took Transformers, a project that seemed like a bad joke at the time (a Michael Bay film based on those robots that turn into trucks?) and made it into one of the most popular franchises of the last ten years.  They opened the star-less and comparatively FX-free Super 8 to over $35 million by convincing audiences that the relatively cut-and-dry 80s Spielberg homage had some massive plot twist or major third act reveal.  They opened Cloverfield to $40 million in January with a six-month long campaign that didn't even reveal the primary antagonist.  Oh and they made me look like a complete idiot (not hard, I know...) by returning Star Trek to the top of the franchise film heap with a $79 million 3.5 day opening weekend and a $250 million domestic gross.  If they even actually make Star Trek 2, it's sure to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest-type upswing with an opening weekend that is sure to be among the biggest ever.

And of course, they have had unquestionable success with the Marvel universe thus far.  It was Paramount's shrewd marketing that pushed Iron Man to a $102 million 3.5 day opening weekend, which is still the third-biggest opening for a non-sequel on record.  And while I whined about Thor's Comic-Con footage and various previews for nearly a year, Paramount knew what it was doing.  The kid-centric marketing campaign won out and still opened with $65 million and had enough legs to cross $180 million just this weekend.  And just this weekend, despite being the fourth superhero comic book adaptation of the summer, and despite serious concerns about the reception of such a patriotic super hero ("He's not patriotic ENOUGH!" screams the idiot Right, "He's Tea Party propaganda!" screams the idiot Left), the film had the biggest superhero comic book opening of 2011.  Paramount isn't perfect of course.  They couldn't beat the anti-Tom Cruise sentiment in May 2006 and now have to reignite the Mission: Impossible franchise.  And The Spiderwick Chronicles is just one of several post- Harry Potter/Frodo Baggins attempts to create and ongoing kid-lit fantasy franchise that didn't take (albeit a pretty good one).  But when it comes to the major tentpoles, especially during the summer, Paramount has been basically batting 1.000 since 2006.

Disney on the other hand, while no slouch itself, has struggled of late, especially in the arena of live-action franchises.  Alice In Wonderland was a knock-out success on every commercial level, and Disney shouldn't be penalized because it was a one-shot deal.  But they haven't launched a genuinely successful franchise since Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl back in 2003.  The closest they've come is with the moderately successful (and responsibly budgeted) Step Up series which has had three entries since 2006.  Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time came and went ($335 million on a $200 million budget). The Sorcerer's Apprentice was a fun and enjoyable film, but it was a disastrously marketed picture  as it sold the film as explicitly non-essential viewing.  Off-the-cuff pleasures are great, but not when they cost $150 million (it grossed $215 million worldwide).  They may or may not see a future in continuing Tron, and Disney deserves much credit for almost turning that piece of garbage into a major sci-fi franchise.  But Disney's biggest live-action hit this year outside of Pirates of the Caribbean: Voyage of the God-Awful is I Am Number Four, a would-be Twilight/Roswell rip-off that wasn't quite a flop ($144 million on a $60 million budget) but will likely not spawn I Am Number Six.

Point being, Disney bought Marvel precisely because they were lacking in franchises, especially boy-friendly tentpole pictures that weren't animated.  But the question now becomes, will Disney's marketing keep the Marvel Studios productions at or above their current success levels, or was the Paramount marketing machine the unsung hero of the last three years?  Would Transformers have been less successful at Disney?  Conversely, would the terrific but expensive Rango been slightly more successful under the Pixar brand?  I've written before about certain studios (namely smaller ones like Lionsgate and Summit) not quite being able to open films as large as similar fare at different studios.  It's a question of credit and blame.  Are Marvel Studios and the name brands of properties such as Transformers, GI Joe, and Avatar: The Last Airbender responsible for the hit streak at Paramount, or was Paramount's marketing strength responsible for creating the boffo opening weekends that gave those franchises life?  If the answer is the latter, just how will the House of Ideas fare under the marketing team over at The Mouse House?

Scott Mendelson

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