Monday Morning Quarterback
By BOP Staff
August 5, 2014

Somebody does not like Andrew McCutchen's ESPN commercial.

Kim Hollis: Guardians of the Galaxy, the newest Marvel theatrical release, debuted with $94.3 million this weekend. How did Disney propel this film to such a magnificent result?

David Mumpower: Disney has provided a focused, borderline obsessive marketing strategy for this film for the body of 2014. What stuns me about the performance, however, is not that the marketing succeeded. It is the implication underneath the numbers. On the surface, there is absolutely no difference between Guardians of the Galaxy and John Carter. Both are outer space epics that include very little time on Earth despite the fact that the lead character is born on this planet. Disney had to take a $200 million write-down for John Carter. Part of that is because John Carter cost $275 million to produce, but another key is that its ad campaign was expensive as well. Disney tried to buy a new franchise, and they literally paid the price for their ambition.

Some of you may be reading this and saying, "John Carter was not a superhero space epic." Well, there is a model of failure in that regard as well. Green Lantern is a DC Comics property with a similar outer space setting. We all remember how that movie did in 2011. Spoiler: it bombed. Green Lantern cost $200 million to produce while earning $116.6 million domestically, $220 million worldwide. Cosmologically, there is virtually no difference between Green Lantern and Guardians of the Galaxy. A human becomes a universal hero and befriends a few CGI aliens along the way.

Two films that followed this same blueprint bombed horribly. A third film featuring only one true star in the cast just destroyed the August box office record. And the reason why it happened is simple. Brand loyalty to Marvel/Disney, which I call Marvney, is so complete that people will take a chance on their comic book movies independent of how they look. I have been openly mocking that first ad for Guardians of the Galaxy, the Hooked on a Feeling one, since the moment I saw it. John C. Reilly's apathy in that clip is total. The only way he could phone it in more is by using an actual phone. This movie has been a punchline for me for the body of 2014, and now I am left wondering if I should stop mocking Ant-Man as well. If Guardians of the Galaxy can open to $94 million, standard rules, logic and reason may be out the window for all existing Marvel properties.

As I mentioned in the Weekend Wrap-Up, Guardians of the Galaxy has just been treated like an Avengers property despite having no direct ties to that project (save for Thanos and his alien butler, if we want to split hairs). It has matched Captain America: The Winter Soldier despite the fact that it is A) not a sequel and B) a new property during a summer where sequels have primarily dominated. The ONLY explanation for such behavior is the Marvel name. It has become a stronger brand identifier than Pixar, as shocking as that is to type. Previous iterations of this same attempt failed mightily. This one succeeded due to faith in the Marvel brand. I am stunned by this turn of events, as Guardians of the Galaxy never struck me as anything more than a Serenity wannabe. In execution, it has proven to be a well-received Star Wars wannabe as well as a blueprint for how to build the Disney phase of the Star Wars universe.

Matthew Huntley: David, your analysis was striking and probably something I've been thinking subconsciously, though it never quite came to the surface of my brain, so thanks for pointing this out! I think you're definitely onto something here and just as the Disney brand name has allowed the studio to make more money that it probably deserves, as well as Pixar, Marvel now wields this power as well. And I totally agree with you that Guardians of the Galaxy is a Serenity and Star Wars wannabe, although I still think it makes for decent entertainment.

Along with the Marvel name, there are some other obvious factors that contributed to this record-setting debut, including: A) All the hype/anticipation/fanboy word-of-mouth to come out of Comic Con last weekend; B) A month-long drought of event/notable movies at the summer box-office - audiences finally found something worthy they could throw their money at; C) Zero competition. I wouldn't be surprised if, given Guardians' numbers, that more studios wait till the latter half of the summer to launch their tent poles.

Edwin Davies: David's absolutely right that much of the reason for this success lies in the aggressive-verging-on-assaultive advertising campaign, which did a great job of introducing people to the characters and selling the light-hearted tone of the film without actually telling people that much about it (it's the first Marvel film that seems to be sold primarily on the idea of hanging out with some fun characters for a few hours) and the way that first Marvel and then Disney have built the reputation of the brand over the last six years. (Incidentally, isn't it insane that a mere six years ago the idea that people would be excited for an Iron Man film seemed like a gamble and that the plans to build to an Avengers film seemed like the fevered dream of mad man?) Whereas before the films were sold on a premise or a particularly appealing lead actor, now the brand alone guarantees a floor for these films regardless of any other factor.

That's partly the result of great advertising, but it's also down to solid, dependable filmmaking. Marvel makes fun, agreeable blockbusters that sometimes achieve greatness (The Avengers) but never end up being awful. That's not an easy thing to achieve, but they've settled on a formula that works and they've avoided making any outright duds (I mean, there's an argument to be made about The Incredible Hulk, but even that wasn't a complete failure) or over saturating the market. They've created their own self-sustaining ecosystem in which each film reinforces the others.

Also, if we're talking about what other pop culture items Guardians of the Galaxy reminded us of, I spent the whole film thinking that it was basically Farscape if the main character was Indiana Jones, which isn't a bad combination.

Felix Quinonez: I think it mostly comes down to the Marvel name. They've not only gained audience loyalty that rivals Pixar at their peak but because they've established a shared universe people feel like all these movies are connected and want to see them all.

Bruce Hall: I have to agree. I'm not convinced that anybody loves Thor, Captain America, and even Iron Man as much as they love the Marvel Universe in general. The multi-property spanning cinema universe they've created is beginning to mirror the comic universe that inspired it. It's a world Disney already knows well. Its own properties, as well as their newly acquired Star Wars universe, both rely on brand name recognition. It doesn't matter what the next Disney movie is about, because you're going to see it. Star Wars fans are excited about the possibility of a Boba Fett movie. This is a character who never did anything but become breakfast for a giant ant lion. But it doesn't matter. Star Wars is Star Wars.

I believe the Marvel cinematic world is fast approaching this level of ubiquity. I've said many times that the superhero movie is not going away anytime soon. What we're seeing is not the end, but merely the adolescence of the genre.

Jason Barney: This opening is the story of the summer, probably for the year, and will deserve a footnote in the history of the industry. I am shocked on many levels and feel a small measure of satisfaction in what happened this weekend.

First, I recall a headline from the early 2000s which asked if Marvel was going to be able to save Hollywood. It was in the context of the Spider-Man and X-Men films gaining popularity more than 10 years ago. That question was answered, and interest in tie-ins like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Avengers skyrocketed. The line has not been moving straight up with respect to each of these, but well, pretty close. When a brand like this has become so popular and so successful it is only natural to try and attempt to expand on what has worked.

I read this comic when I was a teenager, and it is definitely one of the less known Marvel properties. I was surprised when I learned of the initial decision to bring Guardians of the Galaxy to the big screen, and I was disappointed by the price tag. There are a lot more worthy projects that could have seen this level of investment, as $170 is massive. On some level I thought it was arrogance that Disney and Marvel would be willing to spend so much with so little foundation or national exposure. I was scratching my head to say the least. David mentioned John Carter and the misfire that it was. I think another worthy comparison is The Lone Ranger last year. It seems Disney just has the resources to throw as many darts out there as they can, hoping, perhaps knowing, that some of them are bound to hit the mark.

Finally, I will put myself in the utterly shocked category with respect to this opening. Part of it is the recent summer box office. We are in a span that has been fairly profitable, but it certainly has not grabbed many headlines or made much history. Guardians of the Galaxy, as obscure as it was, has done something that no other August earner has ever done, and it established its place as a legit heavyweight out of nowhere. It opened much higher than known franchises like Planet of the Apes and X-Men, and scored among the highest earners of the summer.

What Guardians has effectively done is use the seventh or eighth man off the bench and hit a three pointer from well behind half court. The chance of success when this started was pretty small. Now the reverse is going to happen. With such positive ratings, we might see actual legs behind a summer offering, something we have not seen for a long time. If that happens, look out. If the buzz for this continues for even a little bit, we could have 2014's first $300 million earner.

Pete Kilmer: The big difference that Guardians of the Galaxy has over John Carter and Green Lantern - and it's a key one - is that Marvel Studios devised and implemented the marketing and they had the vision in place to create this in the first place. Disney approved it left Marvel to implement it.

With John Carter you had a director with vision but no steady leadership (three heads of studio in five years?) to help him and a marketing division that kept testing the word "Mars". With Green Lantern, which really doesn't compare with Guardians of the Galaxy in any real way story-wise, had a director with no faith in the product, a lackluster script and a studio (Warner Bros) that just wanted to crank out another potential franchise with minimal effort (which is a shame because Ryan Reynolds was actually solid. I would have liked to have seen a real script and director for him to work with).

With Marvel Studios there is a vision there. And yes, Kevin Feige is the man with the vision. With the creative committee he's assembled to consult on the projects and with Joss Whedon giving his help and his blessings to James Gunn, you have a WHOLE different picture than the other two listed above. Neither of those two studios (Disney at the time, Warner Bros then) had that.

This movie is certainly more in Serenity’s lineage in terms of heart and attitude. And it's certainly in line with what I call the Marvel Snark.

Marvel, for decades, since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the other creatives were working on the books, was never afraid to imbue the comics with real character moments and humor. DC Comics and other companies played it much more straightforward than what Marvel did. Marvel over the years developed a bit of a smartass attitude with some characters and I feel that with GOTG we're getting to really see that attitude on display. We've seen it before with RDJ displaying his swagger and charm and with Loki as well, all in Whedon's wheelhouse of characters. Now we're getting it full force with Rocket Raccoon and Peter Quill going full bore with the one liners and attitude.

Also, the early trailers were very much filled with this kind of attitude that made them different from the Avengers/Thor/Captain America trailers and made them a real breath of fresh air for Marvel Studios.

Full Disclosure: I own a comic book store, the largest in Indiana. We get a VERY wide cross section of customers that come in with spouses and I would always ask the customers what their spouse thought of the trailers. Overwhelmingly so I got responses like "He loved the trailer" or "She can't stand super hero movies, but she was laughing during the trailer I showed her.” So clearly the marketing was reaching out and hitting that nerve of the general public. From trailer one showing what a group of scoundrels they are and John C. Reilly's GREAT delivery of their rap sheets, people were hooked. If I can borrow a line, people were looking for a group of people who aimed to misbehave in a movie that was, most of all, fun.

The Marvel Studios brand has built such a name of reliability for itself that the general movie-goer trusts. Right now, they trust it so much that people out there are willing to go along and give a Marvel Studios movie a shot before outright saying no to it.

And lastly, this summer has been VERY lackluster in terms of major box office blockbusters (except Transformers, apparently) that people want to see repeatedly. Marvel Studios and The Guardians of the Galaxy just gave them one.

Kim Hollis: I’m going to go back to something Matt mentioned. I believe that the buzz for Guardians of the Galaxy truly reached a high level right around the time that Comic-Con was happening. Obviously we can’t credit that convention for all of the tickets sold, but I do think that the marketing and the conversations that were happening around the film at the time represented a tonal shift in what we’d been seeing up to that point. Disney and Marvel both deserve a lot of credit for doing a good job of building anticipation for the film from start to finish, particularly in finding a way to appeal to all demographics across the board.

Max Braden: First off, I think we need to mention the advertising. The campaign for this movie was incessant, more frequent than any movie I can think of in recent years. I saw the trailer everywhere on television, and much further out from release date than I normally see. They also promoted the movie with a free clip screening (which now makes me wonder if that was all the material from the trailers that they left out of the movie).

But of course you can advertise 24/7 and if you don't have the material to back it then the advertising will go to waste. What I saw in the trailer was what works well for August movies - more adult, stir crazy humor (in addition to grittier sci-fi). Movies like the Rush Hour series, American Pie series, Superbad, Tropic Thunder, The Other Guys, and The Expendables were August releases that feed that end-of-the-summer craving for something more irreverent than the straight up heroes and comedies we get earlier in the summer. Comparisons to Star Wars and Serenity are closest, but I'm thinking of some others. Chris Pratt's conceited, trash-talking, anti-authority cad reminds me of Will Smith in Men In Black, Ryan Reynolds in Blade III, and of course Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man. The rag tag group reminds me of The A-Team (in which Bradley Cooper appeared) and The Losers (in which Zoe Saldana appeared, and which was a DC Comics property). When you tempt audiences with the possibilities of dialogue and attitude, suggesting anything can happen, they'll flock to find out how the movie makers played with their tools.

In short, audiences took this seriously because it was clear the movie didn't take itself seriously.