02 July 2006

COMMENT: Does Superman Have Batman's Legs?


[Edited to add a conclusion!]

The early numbers are in and Superman Returns has raked in an estimated $84,208,000 at the domestic box office over its first five days in release, $12m ahead of Batman Begins over the same period, but with 2/3rds of that difference coming in over the first two days. Its $52,150,000 during the Friday-Sunday period -- which ranks as only the 5th best opening in 2006, 47th overall -- is almost tied with Batman Begins' opening Friday-Sunday haul (June 17-19: $48,745,440) which ended up representing 23.7% of its total $205,343,774 gross.

If the Man of Steel can match the Dark Knight's pace, Superman Returns should come in around $220 million at the domestic box office, notably short of its well-publicized $260 million production budget, a figure that doesn't include what is very likely a hefty marketing budget of at least $50 million. Figure a foreign box office total matching Batman Begins' $166 million, and you have a potential $400+ million blockbuster that in some circles will be considered a disappointment, a la Peter Jackson's King Kong ($218m domestic BO, $207m budget).

The big question, though, is does Superman have Batman's legs, and is not reaching the $200m plateau a possibility?

Batman Begins opened two weeks before the three-day 4th of July holiday weekend, sandwiched in between the summer blockbusters Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds, one week after Mr. & Mrs. Smith and three weeks before Fantastic Four, all but the latter of which joined Batman in the top 10 for 2005. The film ran through the end of October, but was pretty much dead in the water by mid-August when it scratched its way across the $200m mark.

Superman Returns, on the other hand, opened two weeks later over what is effectively a four (or, for some, five)-day holiday weekend during a relatively quiet period -- with Mission Impossible III and X-Men: The Last Stand having already run their respective courses -- and faces a sure-fire blockbuster in its second weekend as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is expected to blow it out of the water, before the likes of Clerks II, Lady in the Water, Monster House and My Super Ex-Girlfriend cut its legs out from under it the following weekendtwo weeks later by splintering the audience and pushing it out of many of the 4,065 theaters it opened in.

By comparison, Batman Begins, which ran 14 minutes shorter, opened in 3,858 theaters and averaged $12,634/theater its first weekend vs. Superman's $12,829.

While name recognition and mostly positive reviews certainly contributed to solid opening weekends for both films, word of mouth ultimately dictates what kind of legs a film will have and next week's box office take will tell that story. These kinds of movies routinely see an average 50% drop in their second weekends, which would put Superman Returns on track for approx. $26m, but negative word of mouth has kneecapped many seemingly surefire hits over the years.

Last year, War of the Worlds opened with $21,256,483 on Wednesday, June 29th, pulled in $112,744,353 over its first six days (including Monday, July 4th) and the Spielberg/Cruise combo seemed like a sucker's bet for breaking $250m easy. Instead, its second weekend saw a 53% drop at the box office, and another 50% drop in its third, and it ended up making "only" $234,280,354 total, with 48% of that coming in the first six days of its 147 total days in release.

On the other hand, Batman Begins, which made $33m less than War of the Worlds over its first six days (representing 39% of its total domestic take over 138 total days in release), experienced only a 44.7% drop in its second week and didn't see a 50% drop until its 15th week of release!

Another notable tidbit to consider is that of the 10 movies with better Wednesday openings than Superman Returns, three actually ended up grossing less than $200m -- Men in Black II ($190,418,803), Jurassic Park III ($181,171,875), and The Matrix Revolutions ($139,313,948). Expand the list to the Top 20 and, somewhat suprisingly, you get only two more movies that failed to cross the $200m mark -- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines ($150,371,112) and Pokemon: The First Movie ($85,744,662).

My guess -- based partly on the purely anecdotal, lukewarm word of mouth I've been hearing/reading (see tomorrow's "Say What?" for more) -- is that Superman Returns becomes the 6th movie on that list, coming up short with $198m at the domestic box office, and falling similarly short overseas (such a blatant American icon isn't going to fare as well as Batman did) for a final gross in the neighborhood of $350m, a relative disappointment that will result in a Hulk-like return to the drawing board for the inevitable sequel.

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