One of the most interesting films of next year is John Carter, the Andrew Stanton-directed film starring Taylor Kitsch and Willem Dafoe. The long-in-gestation project (which has had Harry Knowles, Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau attached at different points) is hoped to be the first in a franchise. Stanton talked to the New Yorker about the film, and told them the film needs to make $700 Million at the box office to generate a sequel. As large a number as that is, we’re moving into a period of very risky projects, including films like The Avengers – where we’re seeing bigger and bigger budgets for films that are not sure things.
That said, the business of writing about numbers is often foolhardy. Though I write about them every week, how much a film actually costs is often downplayed or hidden (Art Buchwald famously sued Paramount for monies owed on the concept for Coming to America and was told that the third most successful film of the year failed to turn a profit). But the hard and fast rule is that a film needs to make two times what it cost to be profitable.
Which would suggest that John Carter cost around – or at least – $350 Million to make. Stanton’s accounting may be slightly different, as to move forward on a sequel it may mean that film has to do better than break even, or it could mean that breaking even or coming close to even with that much gross is good enough for more (now that they’re figured it out and introduced the universe). A good low-ball of the budget would mean $250 Million, which suggests it would need to make half a billion just to be profitable.
Again, when you get into the numbers, they don’t necessarily include things that can make a huge difference, including advertising costs (a blockbuster title often has a marketing budget around $100 Million), advertising tie-ins (say, a McDonald’s happy meal with a John Carter figure), product placement (unlikely for a period and science fiction piece), toys, and ancillary and home video sales, many of which help lower the budget or raise the profitability – and that’s not even talking about the constant stream of tax incentives now thrown at movies to get them to shoot in certain locations. Profitability isn’t always the only goal: A movie can also be about keeping the ancillary money flowing. Cars 2 was not a hit by any stretch, but because the toy sales are so high, the film’s relative success s in keeping that brand current.
Regardless of how much the film cost – which may be more or less than numbers previously listed – Carter is a huge risk, but as we’ve seen a number of recent franchises come to an end (Harry Potter for instance), there has to be fresh blood. The problem is that in making these spectacle pictures, you’re seeing films that cost a lot with no guarantee of breaking even. 2012 will be an interesting year because John Carter has yet to generate a pulse – though we’re a ways out from its March 9 release. But it’s not the only one that should be a little sweaty: 2012′s summer will offer such films as Battleship and The Avengers that will also have to figure out how to get themselves into the ” over $500 Million worldwide” club.
What’s interesting about both these titles is that they have budgets already estimated around $200 Million (with The Avengers being listed at $220 Million in a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story). Both of these are films sold on well-known brands, but neither are the guarantees that one might hope for.
It may seem like I’m beating up on The Avengers – which just had its trailer premiere – for no good reason, but when you look at the math, it’s not that strange. The most successful character in the film is Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark. The Iron Man films have done over $300 domestic and around or over $600 internationally. But after that, the other prominent Marvel characters have not performed as well. Thor did $181 domestic ($448 Worldwide), Captain America did $176 domestic (currently $362 worldwide) while both previous Hulk films did a little more than $130 domestic (and around $250 worldwide) – and both Thor and Captain were in 3-D, which may have inflated their grosses.
And as cool as it might seem to assemble a team, there’s going to be a number of characters in the mix that audiences didn’t take a shine to when their films came out (we are on our third Hulk actor) even if films like Thor and Captain America are considered successful. The bottom line is that people went to see those movies, but the numbers don’t suggest that audiences responded with any great passion – $300 million has become the new $100 Million (twenty years ago $100 meant that a film was a phenomenon). And if both Hulk films are considered misfires, both Captain and Thor are closer to Hulk numbers – especially when you consider 3-D inflation – than they are to Iron Man‘s (though Cap and Thor fared better internationally).
The Avengers is the film Marvel studios has been building to over the last four years – it’s their crown jewel – but there is no guarantee it will do Iron Man numbers, and last I checked Iron Man 2 was not as warmly received as the first film. But watching the trailer, they are selling Iron Man and spectacle more than anything else. It’s just as likely the film will open to $100 million if – by the time May rolls around – the engine of hype is fueled, and word is positive, and it benefits from the “first week of summer” release date. It’s also possible that if Fast Five hadn’t been a spoiler that Thor would have done $200 Million plus. I would never argue The Avengers couldn’t be a massive hit. But where combining Matt Damon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts can make for a sense of greater spectacle by appealing to a broader section of the populace, comic book films play to the same core audience… and then sometimes attract outsiders. Or – that is to say – most of the people who saw Thor also saw Captain America, and those people likely have also seen all the Marvel movies. Bringing this group together doesn’t create a multiplying effect – you’re hitting mostly the same audience with each character.
As for Battleship, it’s a film that speaks to the problems of branding in Hollywood. much like the constant stream of remakes, Battleship stems from the same thought process in that it’s easier to sell something people have already heard of than an entirely new concept. And though that’s a troubling thing to consider in terms of the art of cinema, the problem is that the way box office moves these days, you need that name brand, because most – if not all pictures – decline considerably after the first week. You need to hit fast and hit hard to do over $100 Million. Sure, we’ve seen films as diverse as Taken and The Help play longer than average, but part of their success is due to not being marketed at the 18-24 demographic, and not being released in the most heated of money months. Comedies are the exception to that rule, but those aren’t the films we’re talking about here.
Battleship cost a lot of money based on a premise that is on the surface laughable. The film might work or not, but they’ve got a hurdle in front of them. Sadly, the main reason why the film was greenlit was because they knew they had a name brand, the very thing that works against the film. Everyone knows the board game Battleship, so why not start there? Though it doesn’t reflect on the film (which can be anything as long as it has battleships fighting), the thinking that made this happen is inherently problematic.
It’s possible all of these films could be successful, but as we see more and more inflated budgets, the stakes for blockbusters has become so high that many of the films that are trying to become the next Spider-Man or Star Wars will eventually fail and fail big. And though we saw some of that this year with Green Lantern, Mars Needs Moms and Cowboys and Aliens, it’s possible that the industry could be hit with a number of films that – even if they do $100 Million or more domestic – will be huge money losers.
2012 has franchise continuers/rebooters/starters in films like The Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black III, Dark Shadows, Prometheus and Jack the Giant Killer to name a few. It’s unlikely that any of these (save possibly Dark Shadows) didn’t cost at least $200 Million. The stakes are higher than ever, and it’s hard not to be reminded of the industry in the 1960′s, where bloated musicals started to destroy the studios until the independent and Blaxploitation movement reinvigorated the industry. When – as the makers of John Carter know – your film must make over a half a billion dollars to be successful, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.
Which of these films do you think is most vulnerable?