April 30, 2012

How to Make a Billion Dollars

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While the weather may have its own agenda, summer is almost here — four days away, in fact. No, not because classes end then. And not Slope Day, either, though with all the alcohol and sweat it might as well feel like it.

No, this Friday, May 4, The Avengers will open in theaters across the country, unofficially inaugurating the start of the summer movie season. Marvel is hoping you and I are excited about this movie; in 2010, summer “began” May 7, with Iron Man 2, and last year on May 6, with Thor (at this rate, in 60 years, Hologram Nick Fury vs. The Royale With Cheese will kick off summer on February 19, 2072).

Lots of money is on the table for this one. Consider how each summer for the past four years has featured big-screen advertisements for this very film. They all did well (the weakest was The Incredible Hulk, which earned $263 million worldwide), but so far all of these films have eluded that coveted $1 billion landmark. Disney — who put $4 billion down for its acquisition of Marvel Comics and all its associated properties — does not want to lose any more dough on its films, especially with the colossal failure of John Carter earlier this year.

Will The Avengers cross the totally arbitrary $1 billion worldwide gross threshold, which only 11 other films have passed to date? It seems likely to considering that seven of those billion dollar babies were released in the past four years, with three films alone released last year. The trailer depicts actors we love (veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey Jr., along with rising stars Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth), an actress men love to ogle (Scarlett Johansson, conveniently wearing a skintight costume) and explosions in a metropolitan setting. (Has anyone else noticed how our discomfiting fetish with city destruction has only accelerated post-9/11? Look at every Transformers or Roland Emmerich film we watch). Oh, and the movie is good too, with upwards of 96-percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes. But we are speaking about the bottom line here, so silly things like whether a movie you pay $12 for is “good” or not are kept at the door.

After this weekend, in which The Avengers will undoubtedly deliver a huge turnout upwards of $120-140 million, the box office curve will naturally slope downwards. Last year’s Harry Potter reached $1 billion in 19 days. No matter how much comic book geeks obsess over Hawkeye’s long-awaited inclusion or Captain America’s abdominals, there’s no beating Dumbledore’s Army. It was this similar, though skewed younger, demographic that launched The Hunger Games into stratospheric financial success, with the third best opening weekend of all time at $155 million, the number to beat this summer. But even Games has a long ways to go to hit a billion clams, as the $600 million it has made to date worldwide, after 38 days in theaters (which still slays the rest of the year, by the way), reveals its weak sustainability. Think about how the waves of pre-teens (I will not use the “twe-” word) saw the movie: They screamed at their moms about Katniss and Peeta enough to get them willing to drive to the theater or even hooked themselves. But then it’s back to work and back to school.

So, Marvel’s biggest yet will likely not pull in the explosive first weekend but looks more set to survive. How about the rest of the summer? Expect good showings from Men in Black III (the first real impediment to Avengers, three weeks after), Brave (Pixar’s newest won’t mine the lucrative merchandising goldmine like Cars or Toy Story, but should boast a creative return to form a la Wall-E) and Prometheus (an R rating may hold it back from a few but not from the droves of adults looking for a mature option).

I expect The Bourne Legacy to underperform, because while the original films defied expectations, many still do not know leading man Jeremy Renner and the studios are dumping it off at August, which usually signals hesitance. The Amazing Spider-Man does not have to apologize for the franchise’s awful third movie, for that still accrued nearly $900 million worldwide, and it will fare better than many think (say, $80 million opening, $650 million worldwide finish). Same goes for Ice Age: Continental Drift, which will likely pull in unimpressive domestic sales but skyrocket in the increasingly critical foreign markets. There’s something about animation and mysterious megafauna that turns on those across the pond(s). Ask Kung Fu Panda.

It’s the easy answer, but put your money on The Dark Knight Rises as king of the summer. Its predecessor hit a billion with over 50-percent of its total gross in domestic box office, the only case in the billion dollar movie club. While this film may not have the Heath Ledger scuttlebutt to energize its P.R., its varied cast (read: women) and intriguing art direction (read closer: women in tights) will entice more foreign crowds this time around. If the trailers play up its conclusiveness of the Nolan saga (so they say) and Bane’s bizarre physical presence while hiding the silly American football scenes, Batman can soar all the way to Tokyo … again.

My columns are usually about big ideas and my struggle to comprehend and reconcile them with my daily life. This entry is rather anti-intellectual, not about big ideas but rather big numbers. And when the summer ends and all my above predictions prove wrong, enough time will have passed so that you forget I ever made them. I think this Cornell education might be actually starting to pay off.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos