“Box Office Numbers Reveal The DCU’s True Rival, And Why It’s Now Or Never”
By Aaron Virola (@StartingSith)
In the world of comics, the war between comic book publishing houses is one that has been fought for ages and while the landscape had included the likes of Image Comics, Mirage Studios and others, the bigger battles have- and will ALWAYS- boil down to Marvel vs DC. But that war doesn’t necessarily translate in Hollywood and, in fact, the Marvel vs DC fight isn’t as relevant as you might think when it comes to comic book movies and the money they make. Let me explain.
As fanboys and fangirls, we come from all walks of life and fandoms. Some of us love Star Wars (this guy right here), some of us love Doctor Who (nudge, nudge wink, wink), some of us are die-hard Marvel or DC fans and some of us sit right down the middle or could care less. But one thing we have in common regardless of our entertainment tastes is in watching our favorite characters come to life on the big screen. So, it should be no surprise to you when I say that every major studio, be it Disney, Warner Bros, and Fox, have a major stake in the game when it comes to their respective comic book franchises and every single one of those studios is fighting hard for your $15 or so dollars at the movies.
Now regardless of your preference (Marvel Studios or DC Entertainment), your dollars, your cash money, your moolah is how they measure success. It’s what goes into their virtual piggy bank called the “Box Office” and usually what makes or breaks a potential sequel and/or the continuation of a comic book movie franchise. And while this should all be common knowledge to all of you rabid Revenger fans, what’s fascinating to me is how these studios have approached their continued building of their franchises despite some serious missteps along the way, where they stand in comparison with one another, and most importantly, who’s really competing with who.
The inception for my fascination began in 2016, when all three studios released the next installments to their respective comic book movie franchises. In a span of five months, WB released Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, Disney released Captain America: Civil War and Fox released X-Men: Apocalypse. Those five months don’t even include Deadpool, which launched earlier that year. Wow, what a year to be a lover of comic book movies!
But something interesting happened in 2016, DC’s BvS seemed to be at the tip of everyone’s tongues and multiple conversations began to swirl around its success or lack thereof as a second installment in WB’s DCU franchise. Many have argued that while the movie made upwards of $800mil at the box office, BvS was still viewed as a failure given the critical response by fans and critics alike, the movie’s inability to reach the billion-dollar club like previous DC films (i.e. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) and ultimately, the total sum of production and marketing costs grossly outweighed the film’s box office results diminishing its return on investment.
Similarly, Fox’s latest X-Men movie at the time, Apocalypse, fell flat with both critics and audiences alike. Meanwhile, Disney’s third Captain America movie or as we call it in fanboy circles, Avengers 2.5, smashed the box office becoming the third MCU movie to hit the billion-dollar mark. WB’s third installment to their DCU franchise, Suicide Squad, was released in August of 2016 and marched quietly out of the summer and fall months becoming one of the studio’s most successful movies.
With all that said, I continued to wonder what truly makes for a successful movie, how studios reconcile their Return On Investment (ROI) and who was “winning” this crazy comic book movie race.
This fascination of mine with box office performances among comic book movies hit an all-time high recently, in fact, it was after the release of WB’s Justice League (now noted as WB’s lowest performing DC film). For several long months (maybe for even over a year), I watched what was meant to be Warner Bro’s epic movie moment implode through its production and finally drag its feet through the box office garnering dismal returns.
Once the dust had somewhat settled, I was left wondering “What’s going to happen to the DCU? Will they completely reboot? Is this the end of the franchise as we know it?” And before you guys try to peg me as a Snyder Hater or broader DC hater, which I’m not, let me briefly explain where I’m coming from. I grew up with Superman and Batman – Let’s be real, if you’re a kid of the 80’s like I am, those were the only real superheroes we had in cinema. Looking at WB’s attempts at kicking off their larger universe of DC heroes, I realized that most of their films were misses for me and I was getting salty about it. I was done with walking out of the theaters upset with how my beloved characters were treated so the angry fanboy in me screamed, “Screw It! Blow the whole thing up and let’s start over!”
But as folks like our Editor-in-Chief, MFR, reported here on Revenge of the Fans and on the El Fanboy Podcast, WB took its Justice League knocks but was going double down and keep building out their DCU with launch of Aquaman, Wonder Woman 2 and Shazam!.
“WAIT, WHAT?!” – yea that was my reaction and still kind of is. I was thoroughly convinced the studio was tired of not seeing their ROI on their movies and would start fresh; abandoning the rubble of what I viewed to be a failed franchise.
But I wasn’t looking at the full picture and based my opinion off my comic book READING experience. Like many, I thought this was a Marvel vs DC battle but as I went to the box office numbers to prove my point, I discovered something entirely different that changed my perspective.
Box Office Rain Man
Before I get into my findings, let me tell you what I did. Using Box Office Mojo as my main source for data, I created a spreadsheet to track all comic movies from 2013 (the year the DCU started with Man of Steel) to today; capturing their budgets, global box office results, and the difference between the two numbers (money spent vs money earned). I rounded all numbers up/down to keep things neat so there will be minor discrepancies. I also segmented all movies by studio and tallied their cumulative box office hull across their franchises. Marketing and ad spend is something I couldn’t capture so it’s not reflected in my data or spreadsheet.
Here’s what it looks like:
Since 2013 or the release of Man of Steel, there have been 20 comic book movies to date (21 if you include MoS). If you recall, DC was starting fresh after Nolan’s Batman Trilogy and was looking to roll out the big gun aka Superman to launch the DCU. At this point, DC was ultimately positioning itself to compete with Disney, who was sitting pretty having already moved into Phase 2 of their Marvel franchise post-The Avengers. Fox on the other hand, having rebooted their X-Men franchise in 2011, mixed things up with the release of The Wolverine – a soft precursor to X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Fanboy Findings and Observations
Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s dig in. With all the data laid out, there are lots of interesting insights that have revealed themselves and paint a pretty clear picture of the comic book movie landscape within the time frame we’re looking at. I’ll only highlight a couple observations that I think are the most compelling to discuss in this article.
The Number of Movies
As I mentioned before, there have been a total of 21 comic book movies between 2013 and now. What’s shocking to discover is that Disney released 11 of those 21 movies; more than doubling that of both WB and Fox.
For the sake of perspective, let’s look at another five-year period between 2008 and 2013. During that time, Disney was competing with likes of WB, which was about to hit its greatest CBM achievements in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Sony was rebooting its Spider-Man franchise (I’ll just leave it at that) while Fox had successfully relaunched the younger X-Men in First Class. Meanwhile Disney was full steam ahead with its cohesive MCU franchise and began building its foundation. Between the launch of Iron Man and the start of the MCU in 2008 to the release of Iron Man 3 in 2013, Disney managed to establish and course set its Marvel franchise in a direction that would make it BILLIONS upon billions of dollars with just seven movies.
The next five years after 2013, has demonstrated Disney’s aggressive approach or up-tick in the number of movies they’re able to churn out. And if we examine the data further, what it also demonstrates is that Disney has a very clear model when it comes to their productions and how much money they’re willing to spend on their movies.
A Tale of THREE Studios
As I culled through the data around production costs, I noticed certain patterns that aligned to three very distinct approaches to how each studio makes movies or rather how much money they spend to make movies.
Going from the top down, it is crystal clear that WB knows no limits when it comes to spending money. The studio is rumored to have spent upwards of $300mil on Justice League (the largest production budget on the list), though with reshoots, this number may be inflated. However, what’s insightful in all of this sits within the comparison between the highest and lowest production budgets and what that means for the studio from an ROI perspective.
For example, Justice League, with its $300mil+ budget had the lowest ROI in terms of box office pull while Wonder Woman, which had less than half the budget of Justice League, made the most at the box office demonstrating the greatest ROI in money spent vs money earned. If anything can be gleamed from this, it’s that sometimes spending lots of money on a CBM doesn’t really matter. Obviously!
Once again, as our very own MFR reported, capping production budgets will likely be one of the first actions from the new regime over at WBs; controlling the studio’s spend therefore increasing their ROI. I’d like to think they’re going to trim some of the fat of CGI porn and focus on storytelling and dare I say – GOOD ACTING.
If ever there was a good example of lowballing production budgets to maximize ROI, just look at Fox and what they’ve managed to do with Deadpool and most recently Logan. In looking at the studio’s data, we can see a very clear shift in their approach to dramatically trim production budgets and it’s paid off for them tremendously. Having been around the CBM block for close to 20 years, Fox had to quickly pivot after the lackluster performance of X-Men: Apocalypse, its second lowest performing movie since 2013 with The Wolverine. It’s interesting to note that since the release of X-Men: DoFP, the studio has been a bit more conservative with its production budgets; especially when it comes to their solo movies. We’ll see what that means for some of their movies they have queued on their slate as well as what the potential merger with Disney.
Speaking of the Mouse-House, their data is astounding! It’s the perfect demonstration of patience and control. Without a doubt, the folks over at Disney run a very tight ship and keep their production budgets fairly consistent. Their weakest links are to be expected but what’s really interesting is to see where and when they’ve throw additional production dollars and what the end result was at the box office. Of course, I’m speaking of Avengers: Age of Ultron or the best example of lightening striking twice because both Avenger movies are in the billion-dollar club. The first Avengers movie had a production budget of $220mil where as AoU was only slightly increased to $250mil. AoU would go on to only make $100mil less than the first Avengers movie. Nevertheless, it crushed at the box office. Another, more recent example is Black Panther, which had a production budget of $200mil and is the only solo MCU movie to hit the billion-dollar mark and then some. All of this is to say, that when Disney sees an opportunity to spend a little more they will and when they do it pays off…BIG TIME.
Again, looking at the numbers from 2013 to today, Disney is outpacing the competition by more than $3billion…with a “B”!
Now, remember how I said that the age old Marvel vs DC battle isn’t really relevant in Hollywood, this is what I mean…
Who’s Competing with Who
Given the current landscape of comic book movie franchises, I want you all to look at and digest the below chart:
This chart represents the cumulative box office pull across studios and compared to one another. The results of this chart are telling and should really be no surprise though I don’t think many of us have looked at it through this lens. So what’s it saying? Disney’s MCU franchise makes up more than half of the cumulative box office of all comic book movies – a whopping 56% of roughly $11.5Billion and this only represents money pooled in the past five years. THIS is what printing your own money looks like.
This kind of success and money puts the MCU franchise in a league of its own, without ANY real competition. Ask me one day to tell you about the short standoff between Captain America: Civil War and BvS. Disney has the management of its MCU down to a science and it’s a blueprint I expect we’ll see used for the Star War franchise if not already. But I digress.
Disney’s unbridled success with the MCU has dramatically reshaped the comic book movie landscape and forced WB and Fox to be in each other’s crosshairs as it relates to their CBM franchises. Approximately $215mil separates the DCU and XCU from each other. That’s basically a VERY low impact movie release and if we think about what’s around the corner Fox isn’t going down without a fight.
Putting this into perspective, Fox is already in a vulnerable situation given the soft belly flop of its latest X-Men movie but I suspect that the studio will dig in and overtake WB with the sequel to Fox’s most successful movie to date in Deadpool 2 coming May of this year. That said, WB’s Aquaman is hitting around the holidays and could make bank, if executed correctly, forcing both studios to play a bit of ping pong for the long haul. But DC is the studio with more to lose in this dog fight.
Since the release of the studio’s less than successful Justice League movie, WB is looking to make a hard turn to course correct the direction AND execution of its DCU. When you couple the budget spends of the studio on their CBMs to date, the underperformance of BvS and Justice League and the misaligned connection to audiences, the need for the studio to get it right is direr than we originally expected; especially as the Disney/Fox merger looms in the distance.
In this landscape, WB has to reset the foundation of their franchise from a business perspective (and for the fans) immediately and is primed to do so with the release of Aquaman in December. If the rumors we’ve heard are true, WB might have a gem to sit next to Wonder Woman in Aquaman; potentially giving the studio the boost it needs to create even more distance from Fox. Once WB nails down it’s blueprint for producing highly successful CBMs, I expect to hear confirmations (from the studio) regarding some of the films they have in what I call their “fantasy slate.” And let’s be real that aside from Shazam! and Suicide Squad – WBs cannot do this without their Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman characters in the fold.
In the next couple of years, WB has their work cut out as they’ll launch this new iteration of the DCU. The studio will need to do the Trinity justice (pun intended) because despite their action and change in approach, the potential Disney/Fox merger would put DCU in DIRECT competition with the MCU.
I know people are super excited at the prospect of seeing Wolverine mix it up with Spider-Man or having the Fantastic Four team up with the Guardians of the Galaxy but imagine what the business implications of Fox’s XCU folding into the MCU. Go back to the chart above and notice that Disney will have roughly 80% market share of ALL comic book movies. That’s not an ideal scenario for WB and their DCU and if the latest MCU movies most recently released by Disney are any indication in terms of their artistic/directorial direction, I think it’s pretty clear there’s been a seismic shift in the way Marvel is approaching their movies. This shift is pertinent to the franchise’s longevity as a box office powerhouse.
It’ll only be a matter of time before we all see how the pieces on the board play out. I for one am excited and scared, but that’s a separate article for a later date.
Tata for now, Revengers!