A movie featuring no bankable actors as lead actors or villains debuted this weekend. Carrying a hefty $170 million budget plus one of the largest advertising outlays in the history of our industry, this project was as daring and ambitious as it was risky. It was a comic book adaptation featuring characters considered obscure even within the realm of comic book fanatics. That movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, just opened to $94 million, thereby shattering the August opening weekend record and demonstrating once more that nobody in Hollywood is better at producing blockbusters than Marvel Studios.
Guardians of the Galaxy Stops Summer Slump
By David Mumpower
August 3, 2014
On August 31, 2009, the Walt Disney Company acquired its latest property, Marvel Entertainment. At the time, the $4 billion investment was hailed by some as a masterstroke while others wondered if Disney had overpaid for a business that had been mired in bankruptcy only a decade ago. Few people are willing to own up to that criticism now, as Disney’s purchase of Marvel has once again proved to be one of the greatest business masterstrokes of the 2000s.
Their latest number one movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, is unquestionably their most impressive accomplishment to date. There are eight actors who physically appear in the movie as either heroes or rogues. The ninth performer is Glenn Close, arguably the most famous of the core, yet she claims only a handful of minutes in what must have been a performance largely left on the cutting room floor. Two of the other three most famous actors, Djimon Hounsou and John C. Reilly, disappear for large stretches of the film. The other half a dozen thespians do not seem like a group of people who could star in a $90 million opener.
Guardians of the Galaxy possesses one A-list Hollywood performer, Zoe Saldana. She can now add this movie to an already dazzling resume that already includes performances in seminal franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek and Avatar. As wonderful as Saldana and her representation have been at selecting projects, however, she is not much of a box office draw. Consider the three projects she anchored after starring in the number one movie of all-time, Avatar. The Losers, The Words and Colombiana averaged an opening weekend of $8.2 million with a final domestic take of $23.9 million. Those numbers are lower than Guardians of the Galaxy earned on Thursday night and Friday alone. Simply stated, Saldana is a trusted actress whose name does not mean much to the bottom line of production.
The other “stars” of Guardians of the Galaxy are a trio of television actors, a professional wrestler, and a pair of CGI creations. The person who will get the Robert Downey Jr. bump from Guardians of the Galaxy is Chris Pratt, the lovably unintelligent Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation. In combination with his voicing the main character in The LEGO Movie and his upcoming starring role in Jurassic World, Pratt has a chance to be the male Katniss. Meanwhile, Lee Pace has now played the villain in Guardians of the Galaxy plus a villainous type in The Hobbit prequels. The artist formerly known as the Pie Man on Pushing Daisies is currently starring in Halt and Catch Fire, a series so unpopular that it has not garnered a million viewers over the last eight episodes. And Michael Rooker was famously Merle Dixon on an AMC series people do watch, The Walking Dead. Adding in professional wrestler Dave Bautista, I have just described four people who could just as easily anchor a straight-to-video action film. How then did these people just accomplish the impossible?
There is a fine line between natural optimism and complete overconfidence. When Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, many critics, including myself, focused upon the negatives. The cast featured a set of largely unknown comic book characters, the story required huge CGI expenses to animate a couple of others, and there were no true tie-ins to the current revenue rainmaker that is the Marvel universe.
While people such as me saw negatives, Marvel and Disney focused upon the positives. The most popular production they have created thus far, The Avengers, excelled in large part due to its team dynamic. For all the success of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America as individual brands, the team climate provides enriched storytelling opportunities. Guardians of the Galaxy is closer in style to that release than the solo projects. In addition, those expensive CGI characters, Groot the living tree and Rocket Raccoon, are child-friendly enough to provide merchandising opportunities.
Most important, the outer space backdrop creates Star Wars-style story options. This aspect creates a tremendous opportunity for Disney, as the company also purchased the Star Wars franchise. In this manner, Guardians of the Galaxy becomes something of a trial run for Star Wars 7. Effectively, Guardians of the Galaxy has just opened to eerily similar numbers as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the number one domestic movie of 2014 to date, while paving the way for the next seminal Disney project. And there should be an educational aspect to this release for Disney.
I am of the opinion that THE most important employee in their company or, at the very least, their movie division is neither Pixar leader John Lasseter nor Frozen/Wreck-It Ralph creator Jennifer Lee. It is Marvel Productions President Kevin Feige. He deftly guided the Marvel Universe through Phase One, and his biggest gamble in Phase Two has just hit the jackpot. Having a single leader for all of the major projects has assured that even as a multitude of writers and directors have taken their turns with Marvel characters, the composite voice has been consistent. Feige has built a level of brand awareness and trust with Marvel that is all but inimitable. For Star Wars to succeed with all of the announced projects, they need similar leadership from a single voice. That role is presumed to be held by Kathleen Kennedy, current president and brand manager of Lucasfilm. She should be picking Feige’s brain at every available opportunity, because what he has achieved with Marvel borders on incomprehensible.
The Iron Man, Captain America and Thor properties combined with The Avengers have grossed $6.83 billion, an average of roughly $855 million per release. And those numbers do not include toy sales and other merchandising opportunities, the way Disney makes most of its money. Best of all, the movies have been universally hailed as great. This is the most important aspect with regards to Guardians of the Galaxy, since that title has been treated like an Avengers property even though there is no true tie-in.
The numbers demonstrate the point. Thor: The Dark World earned $85.7 million on opening weekend, $31.9 million of which was accumulated on its first day. Captain America: The Winter Soldier debuted to $95 million, $36.9 million of which came on its first day. Guardians of the Galaxy grossed $94 million, $37.8 million of which happened on Friday. In the process, it effectively matched the post-Avengers release of Captain America while handily defeating Thor. It also absolutely obliterated the standing record for an August opening weekend, which had been The Bourne Ultimatum's $69.3 million. The only logical explanation for this behavior is that Marvel has become a bona fide brand in and of itself similar to what Pixar and DreamWorks Animation accomplished last decade. All the credit for that goes to Kevin Feige and his team.
Where does Guardians of the Galaxy go from here? It is already a huge hit overseas, earning $66 million for a global debut of $160 million. It also bagged an A Cinemascore, something few summer films have managed. With glowing reviews and that kind of word-of-mouth, this science fiction epic has a chance to unseat Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the number one domestic release of the year. The trick will be to use the next few weeks of summer weekdays to make up the difference. No matter what, Guardians of the Galaxy is unlikely to track down Transformers: Age of Extinction as the number one global release of 2014 since that film just crossed the billion dollar mark this weekend. Then again, who would have considered Guardians of the Galaxy as the potential number one film of the year many months ago when that quirky Hooked on a Feeling video first debuted?
It’s a long way down to second place, which is occupied by last weekend’s top film, Lucy. The Scarlett Johansson/Luc Besson science fiction/action film earned $18.3 million, down a not-surprising 58% from its debut weekend. Everything the film earned from opening weekend on was pretty much gravy, so the fact that it is now sitting with $79.6 million has to have the executives over at Universal feeling very happy at this point. The title is yet another feather in their cap in what has been an outstanding two-year run.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know there were two openers this weekend, though the second one did relatively well compared to budget and expectations. Get On Up, the James Brown biopic featuring Chadwick Boseman, earned $14 million over three days. It was released to a conservative 2,468 locations, which means it had a venue average of $5,685. Tate Taylor (The Help) directed the film, and early critical and audience response is quite promising. It currently sits at 77% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, while the Cinemascore is an A. Considering that the budget was a slim $30 million, Universal should be pleased with this result. It may even get some discussion during awards season, as Boseman is being praised across the board for his portrayal of Brown.
Fourth place goes to our other holdover from last week, the Rock’s Hercules. It had a hefty drop of 64%, but considering that it was competing for the same demographic that just tossed almost $100 million at Guardians of the Galaxy, this decline was to be expected. With $10.7 million more in the coffers, the Paramount release brings its total up to $52.3 million. It has slightly more money than that from international theaters, bringing its overall worldwide total to $108.8 million. Although it’s not particularly a roaring success in North America, the movie appears to have enough appeal overseas that it should be an okay financial performer.
The four-weekend-old Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hangs on to a top five spot. Its weekend total was $8.7 million, a 48% decline from the previous frame. The second film in the latest reboot of the series has now increased its domestic total to $189.3 million, with its international take matching that amount.
Planes: Fire and Rescue is our sixth place finisher. It fell 33% to $6.4 million as it inches ever closer to matching its budget amount. The film has a domestic total of $47.6 million and overseas revenue of $21 million, meaning that even though Disney does damage the Pixar brand somewhat by continuing with the releases that look as though they should go straight-to-video, they make enough money to justify the financial decision. And that doesn’t even take the toy sales into consideration.
Yet another Universal success is in seventh place. The Purge: Anarchy had a weekend total of $5.6 million, a drop of 47% from the previous frame. Its domestic total now sits at $63 million, which is wildly successful considering that the budget for the horror flick was only $9 million. Don’t doubt for a moment that we’ll be seeing yet another purge during the summer of 2015.
Sex Tape spends probably its final weekend in the top 10, as it earned $3.6 million, dropping 41% from the previous weekend. The Cameron Diaz/Jason Segel comedy has to be considered a disappointment. Its domestic total of $33.9 million still throws well under the $40 million budget, and even the additional money from overseas isn’t going to help much.
The films in ninth and tenth place are tied with a weekend total of $3.3 million. And So It Goes, the Michael Douglas/Diane Keaton film from Clarius Entertainment, finished about $20,000 ahead of the Philip Seymour Hoffman spy flick A Most Wanted Man, but their trajectories are a bit different. And So It Goes declined 28% from last week and brings its total to $10.5 million. A Most Wanted Man’s screens increased by 368 and resulted in a jump of 24% compared to the previous frame. Its domestic total so far is $7.1 million.
Overall, the top 12 films earned $172.6 million, an increase of 40% over the $123.3 million take from the same weekend last year. Yes, that is the first time in many, many weekends that we have seen a year-over-year increase. We’ll hope to continue that trend next weekend, as new releases include the tornadoes-stalking-humans flick Into the Storm, the Michael Bay-produced reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the dance movie Step Up All In, and The Hundred-Foot Journey, featuring Helen Mirren and produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey.