"5 Things That Fans Think Are True, But Are Not" (Part 5 of 5) Author: Sean Gerber
July 14, 2013
PART 5: "It's the comic book fans who make studios hundreds of millions of dollars on superhero films."
The dedicated, hardcore superhero fans are an enthusiastic bunch. I know because Iím one of them. We talk online as we pick up every single breadcrumb thrown our way in the many months between the announcement of a superhero film and its release date. We arrive hours early for the midnight show on opening night to make sure we get a perfect seat.
Something magical happens on opening night. Standing in line never feels like much fun anywhere else, but when waiting for a midnight show, we have the wonderful opportunity to strike up conversations with complete strangers due to our shared passion for what we are about to see. When we finally get to our seats and watch the theater fill up around us, we see so many other TRUE fans just like us.
We bought out the midnight show weeks in advance. We anonymously debated with each other over how good this film will be. We are all here now with corresponding t-shirts. In this moment, we are all the same and our collective enthusiasm has led us to one simple conclusion: we, the diehard fans, MUST be the ones who make superhero movies hundreds of millions of dollars!
Fanboys (and girls) have developed an inflated sense of just how much control and impact they have on a superhero filmís financial performance. Beyond the false midnight show assumption outlined above, this gross miscalculation is the result of rather simple deductive reasoning.
In the early 2000s, movie studios started ďgetting it rightĒ with respect to comic book movies. That is to say, studio executives and filmmakers started chatting about how much they wanted to honor the fans and source material. This was backed up by the release of films that, believe it or not, really were more faithful adaptations. At the same time, comic book movies started making a lot of money.
Since comic book movies started making a lot of money right as fans were served with more accurate representations of the source material, this had to mean hardcore fans were the ones responsible for the boost in ticket sales. This logical, but ultimately false reasoning unravels rather quickly. All we have to do is apply a little scrutiny and do a little math.
The truth is, adapting comic book characters and worlds to film is a balancing act. Studios look at the source material to extrapolate the enduring elements that have made certain characters appealing enough to be in continuous publication for decades. Thatís not fan service. Itís common sense.
Once those elements are selected, the scales have to be balanced with mainstream sensibilities. What is it about this character some people like that we can use to make a lot more people like him? That, folks, is the question studio executives and filmmakers must answer. Depending on the character, finding that answer can be very difficult.
If studios could make cinematic replications of fanboysí favorite comic book stories and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, they would. Their creative process would be infinitely easier. They could bring in any director-for-hire and ask him or her to take this or that comic book and shoot it.
This, of course, would be a recipe for financial disaster. The comic book audience is not nearly large enough to support superhero blockbusters. The massive budgets of said films require even more massive returns on investment in order to justify the continuation of the genre.
Last month, the DC title Superman Unchained #1 was the highest selling comic book in the United States. Its estimated sales were 251,456 copies, but letís go ahead and round that up to 252,000. Letís now imagine that 252,000 people all bought one copy to make the comic book audience seem as big as possible.
The average ticket price in the United States was $7.96 in 2012. Multiplying that figure by the audience size above gives comic fans a value of a little over $2 million. Superman Unchained came out the same week as Man of Steel, a film that made $128.7 million from advanced Thursday night screenings and its opening weekend.
The op-ed continues after the jump!
Since weíre talking about dedicated fanboys, letís assume that on average, those 252,00 comic book buyers saw Man of Steel twice in that same timeframe. Their collective $4 million in ticket sales now accounts for approximately 3% of the filmís opening box office receipts.
At this point, someone is screaming that not all fanboys who qualify as hardcore read monthly comic books. This is true; so letís use another example for Iron Man 3. The official Twitter handle for the film, @Iron_Man, has 229,906 followers at the moment, so letís just make that 230,000. Every fanboy isnít on Twitter, but every Twitter follower isnít a fanboy, so it balances out. Multiplied by the average ticket price and then doubled for repeat viewings (while also ignoring that many of these followers are international), this means Twitter followers would have accounted for approximately 2.1% of the filmís domestic opening weekend. Remember, though, we skewed a lot of numbers in fanboysí favor to inflate that tiny percentage.
Even if we multiply the fanboy audience estimates above tenfold, they are still not the ones making these movies hundreds of millions of dollars. Fanboys only seem like a larger, more important demographic than they actually are because of how loud they get online. Speaking of which, the last three major superhero films (The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3, and Man of Steel) all received divisive reactions from hardcore fans while still being the top earners in their respective franchises.
Consensus amongst fanboys is dying, yet there are no signs of the superhero genre being any less lucrative. Social media has replaced whatever word-of-mouth power fanboys ever had to hype or bash a film prior to its release. The whole world is on message boards now, they just call them Facebook and Twitter to feel less dorky.
Studios must be aware of this given their willingness to push and even break the limits of what fanboys are willing to accept. Marvel, a company revered for how well it treats its fans, was bold enough to pull off the Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3. Warner Bros., a studio desperate to make Superman cinematically relevant again, was confident it could survive the title character breaking one of his most sacred rules.
In both cases, the studios knew full well their decisions would anger many fans, but would not take away from the average moviegoerís experience. The filmmakers and studios believed those decisions were in the best interests of their respective films, so they moved forward. Good for Marvel. Good for Warner Bros.
Superhero films will continue to be faithful, for the most part. Underneath all of the comic book minutia some fanboys crave are universal qualities and themes that have kept characters like Batman and Spider-Man relevant for decades even as new writers and artists have made changes. These same core qualities are what can be combined with more mainstream, cinematic sensibilities to make these characters appeal to a mass audience.
Throw in relentless, innovative marketing with the aforementioned combination, and THAT is how superhero movies make hundreds of millions of dollars. - Sean Gerber