Op-Ed: $hould $tudios continue to make Comic Book Movie$?
Comic Book movies are huge money makers. The Dark Knight (2008) cost $185 million to make and earned over a billion dollars from box offices across the world; meaning that Warner Bros. nearly $200 million investment got that them $500 million dollars back. (Why only $500 million you ask. Simple, as brilliantly explained by Edward Jay Epstein in The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies, movie profits are split in half between the theaters that show a film and the studio that make a film.) Recently Thor (2011) earned about $450 million for Marvel Studios after spending a $150 million on the film. An investment that allowed Marvel to earn about $225 million – a net profit of $75 million.
Given that many comic book movies are turning a huge profit for the studios that make them you’re probably wondering why I’d even ask if movie studios should even bother to make comic book movies. My reasoning is that non-comic book movies that are about superheroes make just as much money for their respective studios, without any of the hassle that comes with dealing with comic book properties.
First, what are some of these hassles that I speak of? Well, franchises like Superman and practically anything owned by Marvel Comics are being dragged to court over who is owed creator credits and royalties. These ownership issues have become so complicated that it is legally possible for two different Superman movies to be made by competing companies. (You can learn more about this insane story via Blastr here.) Also, these court cases can get incredibly nasty. Take for example the recent court decision that ordered the unemployed Ghost Rider creator, Gary Friedrich, to pay Marvel/Disney $17,000. (You can learn more about this story here via Bleeding Cool here.)
In contrast, movies based on novels rarely have these legal troubles. (I use the word rarely, because I am aware that novels-to-movies lawsuits do happen sometimes.)
The movie that inspired me to write this article is the recently released Chronicle. This movie cost Davis Entertainment $15 million to make. Within two weeks, it has earned over $60 million back. Meaning that in just 14 days, Chronicle has earned four times its cost of production; a ratio that most studios executives would kill for.
I’ll admit, $60 million isn’t much compared to most comic book superhero movies, so let’s take a look at three other recent non-comic book superhero movies: The Incredibles, Hancock, and Megamind. (I wanted to include Joss Wheden’s and Neil Patrick Harris’ Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but that film’s financial data hasn’t been released.)
The Incredibles was the amazingly great movie made by Pixar and distributed by Disney. This movie only cost $92 million to make and generated over $630 million dollars at the box office. In contrast, the film about Marvel Comics’ first family, the Fantastic Four, cost a $100 million to make and only earned $330 million. Could this difference in earnings be because of the clear difference in quality? Most likely, yes. Regardless of this though, according to Box Office Mojo, The Incredibles is the 7th highest grossing superhero movie of all time.
Following in Pixar’s footsteps, Dreamworks created the film Megamind for a $130 million and stole over $320 million from movie theaters. Megamind’s profit margin wasn’t as high as The Incredibles, but it still made enough money to be the 21st most financially successful superhero movie.
“The Incredibles and Megamind are both animated films, so what about a live action superhero film?” you so cleverly ask. In regards to the live action films, comic book inspired materials have dominated the superhero genre. However, in 2008 Will Smith stared in Hancock. While this film received mixed reviews from critics, its $150 million budget produced over $620 million dollars in box office returns. Returns that were good enough to green light a sequel. Also, according to Box Office Mojo, Hancock is the tenth most profitable superhero film to date.
Given that comic book based movies still generate a significant amount of money, movie studios are going to be looking at properties to turn into films. However, given that non-comicbook superhero films can make just as much money as standard comic book inspired films, it seems to me that movie studios are eventually going to just invest in creating their own in-house properties. After all, most comic book characters often have decades of convoluted histories that are difficult to streamline, and there is always that real fear that a forgotten creator will emerge to file a lawsuit.
Now this is what I think, but I want to know what you think. Do you believe that comic book characters are worth the effort for studios to bring them to the big screen? Or do you think studios are better off making their own superhero properties?