09 July 2006

COMMENT: 'Twas Marketing Killed the Son of Krypton

"Son, I'm Captain Jack Sparrow. Savvy?"

While Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest finishing first at the box office this weekend was a no-brainer, I doubt even the most optimistic pundit predicted an eye-popping, record-breaking haul of $132 million in its first three days.

$132 million: aka Biggest. Opening. EVER!

Savvy, indeed!

Boxofficemojo's ALL TIME BOX OFFICE: OPENING WEEKENDS chart puts that number in perspective:

1) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest -- $132,028,000
2) Spider-Man -- $114,844,116 ($403,706,375; 28.4%)
3) Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith -- $108,435,841 ($380,270,577; 28.5%)
4) Shrek 2 -- $108,037,878 ($441,226,247; 24.5%)
5) X-Men: The Last Stand -- $102,750,665 ($231,288,000; 44.4%)
Considering the first Pirates opened with a relatively paltry $46,630,690 on its way to a $305m domestic haul (plus an amazing $348m overseas), the sequel should be a shoo-in for breaking the $300m mark again, with a decent shot at pulling a Shrek 2, outperforming its predecessor and reaching the rarified air of a $400m+ box office upon initial release. (Star Wars and E.T. took multiple releases to surpass that mark.)

But what of the Man of Steel and his reported $21,850,000 booty, a harsh 58% drop from his opening weekend (Friday-Sunday only) for a stinging $5,375/theater average that pretty much guarantees a significant drop in theaters as Pirates and "sleeper" hit, The Devil Wears Prada (a 43% drop in its second weekend, while matching Superman's average in nearly a third fewer theaters) will still be drawing significant audiences next weekend. Plus, there's four new major releases opening the weekend after next.

With $141,677,000 over its first 12 days, while Superman Returns is definitely no Spider-Man and can hardly be considered a franchise-killer on par with Batman and Robin, will it at least be considered a success on the level of Batman Begins, or is it more of an underwhelming disappointment that calls for a return to the drawing board, like The Hulk?

The most important box office numbers for a movie come in its first 10-12 days of wide release, where opening weekends and second weekend drops generally reveal everything you need to know about the effectiveness of its marketing campaign(s), and the effect of critical reviews and word of mouth. Superman Returns had the benefit of multiple (if arguably ill-conceived) marketing promotions and mostly positive reviews (tracking at 75% on RottenTomatoes) -- and, of course, its lead character's iconic status, on par with Spider-Man, Batman and the Hulk -- so a strong opening weekend was to be expected. Further, the five-day holiday weekend combined with a Wednesday opening (and a Tuesday night preview for the hardcore fans) padding its initial take was also to be expected.

Superman Returns' 58% drop this weekend puts it smack in-between Batman Begins' better-than-average 43% drop and The Hulk's devastating 69.7% drop in their respective second weekends. (Both opened in late-June, two weeks before the Fourh of July weekend Superman took full advantage of.) The Hulk, which actually had the biggest opening weekend of the three movies ($62,128,420), overcame mixed reviews and similarly ill-conceived marketing at first, but was absolutely killed by negative word of mouth and ended up grossing only $132,177,234, leading to the decision that the sequel would be a Batman Begins-style restartredo"remake" instead of an actual sequel.

Superman Returns has already surpassed The Hulk's total box office, though, and is currently $19m ahead of where Batman Begins was on its 12th day in release, but with the holiday weekend already having inflated its numbers, this weekend's harsh dropoff in the face of two strong competitors, and even more competition coming in two weeks with four major releases -- not to mention its record $260 million budget -- all indications are that its word of mouth hasn't been very good and that it will very likely not have strong legs.

For all the misdirected attention the alleged gay undertones in Superman Returns may have received in the mainstream press, that was a mere sidenote to what really hobbled the film's chances for mega-success: questionable casting decisions and a lack of focus in its early marketing and PR efforts.

Regardless of what those who've seen Superman Returns think about Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth's actual performances, they were convicted in the court of public opinion as being too young and lacking credibility for their respective roles before the first official review was filed. That's a difficult perception to overcome, and it didn't help that the initial marketing efforts for the movie were either too vague, leaning on Superman's iconic status (which many felt Routh was ill-equipped to personify) while ignoring the fact that for many, he represents an old-fashioned, Pollyanna-ish perspective on life; or, it was too focused on the romantic angle of the story, a deathwish for both superhero movies and summer action blockbusters.

Bryan Singer himself doomed the movie to negative pre-conceptions by calling it his "first chick flick", a phrase he'd repeat in numerous interviews, with and without qualification, leading up to its release.

"[Superman Returns is] about what happens when old boyfriends come back into your life. Even if you're the strongest man in the world," said Singer, "if the woman you love has found someone else that she's nearly married to that's not a bad guy, how do you figure out what your place is in that woman's life? I call it my first 'chick flick'."
I don't care if you're Steven Spielberg or Keanu Reeves, you can't promote your summer blockbuster action movie as a "chick flick" and expect it to match up with the expectations of a summer blockbuster action movie.

Almost every superhero movie ever made, successful or not, has been criticized for its handling of "the love interest." At its best, the character and her connection to the hero is weaved seamlessly into the main story and is a known entity from the source material, a la Lois Lane and Mary Jane Watson. While Singer uses Superman 2 as his springboard -- wherein Superman gives up his powers to be with Lois Lane and they attempt, unsuccessfully, to live happily ever after, before he regains his powers to lay the smackdown on the bad guys and save the day in dramatic fashion -- he apparently forgot that the movie was balanced by its three kick-ass villains who were actually on Superman's level and posed a legitimate threat to him and the rest of the world. Lex Luthor, a stash of kryptonite and yet another over-the-top real estate scheme? Not so much; not even with Kevin Spacey in the role.

Even the first Superman had a clearly focused campaign built around the tagline "You'll Believe A Man Can Fly!".

Pop Quiz: Superman Returns' tagline is...

None come to mind, and the only one I've seen in a quick Google search that could be considered close to one is on its MySpace page: "The Holiday Begins When He Returns"

Um, suck much?

About a week before the movie opened, Warner Brothers finally released a trailer that focused on the action (and a bit of the plot) in its summer blockbuster action movie, but by then, most people's opinions of it were set and 120 seconds of planes falling from the sky and a bullet bouncing off of Superman's eyeball weren't enough to offset the first impression of its axis of failure: Routh/Bosworth/"my first 'chick flick'".

I have to wonder if it wouldn't have helped to put the kid in one of those early trailers, with some hint of his identity -- the only real twist Singer's apparently brought to the table -- and whether or not even now, Warner Brothers is debating if it might help give it some buzz going into its do-or-die third weekend. Certainly couldn't hurt.

From the numbers so far, it appears that Superman Returns was able to capitalize on its wide release over a long holiday weekend, pulling in the audience that was inclined to see it anyway -- either fans of the character, Singer and/or Spacey, or those who can be counted on to catch every summer blockbuster on opening weekend -- while unable to generate the kind of buzz and word of mouth that expands that audience and captures repeated viewings.

I predicted last week that Superman Returns wouldn't break the $200 million mark -- coming up short at $198m, with a similarly disappointing result overseas -- and I'm standing by that. Warner Brothers, of course, is still optimistically predicting it will pass the $200m mark, but based on its second weekend drop and the upcoming buzzworthy releases, I wouldn't be surprised if the final result isn't just below Men in Black II's $190,418,803, another sequel that opened on a Wednesday before the Fourth of July weekend with almost identical numbers and a 53% drop in its second weekend, before quickly fading away by summer's end.

While it's highly unlikely that 2009's Untitled Superman Returns Sequel will go the extreme route of the aforementioned The Incredible Hulk, I wouldn't be surprised to see some Batman Returns-style stunt casting, and either the replacement of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane with someone better able to pull off the role of a thirty-something single mother who's also an award-winning journalist, or the introduction of Lana Lang to provide some spark to the "Man" aspect of "Superman". For the latter, Singer should do everything he can to convince Natalie Portman to take on the role and then make sure his writers give her a character worthy of her talents.

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