How do you milk superheroes? Put 'em together in the mother of all tentpole movies. Drum up enough pre-launch excitement, and the lucrative spinoffs never have to end.
That's exactly how Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) treats its Marvel stable (or is it a barn, with the milking and all?) of brand-name heroes under the Avengers brand. A series of standalone hits lead the way: the two Iron Man movies have grossed $1.2 billion worldwide; both Thor and Captain America hover around the $400 million global ticket line; even the action reboot of The Incredible Hulk, which didn't exactly draw rave reviews, nearly doubled its budget with $260 million in global box office.
So the table has been set for a feast of heroic proportions. The crowd is appropriately hungry for action.
When Disney posted the trailer for The Avengers last week, 10 million fans downloaded the two-minute clip in the first 24 hours. Available exclusively from the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iTunes Movie Trailers service, like many of Disney's theatrical trailers, The Avengers crushed the previous record of 6.4 million first-day views.
The old record belongs to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which has collected $1.1 billion in worldwide grosses all by itself. Producer and distributor Viacom (NYSE: VIA-B ) was particularly overjoyed to see Transformers breaking records in China. All of this bodes well for another high-octane action movie with a ready-made fan base and a franchise history of doing well overseas.
The Avengers looks ready to break the billion-dollar mark for Disney. Cinema chains will love it, the action-oriented IMAX (Nasdaq: IMAX ) in particular. Then you've primed the pump for decades of sequels, spinoffs, theme-park rides, and hero-themed cruise rides. Don't forget about DVD and Blu-ray sales, and then these heroes trickle down to international syndication and digital streaming deals -- if not by Netflix in a global stretch, then perhaps through part-owned movie service Hulu.
The Marvel deal may have looked expensive at $4 billion, but the Mouse House will make those heroes pay their dues -- and then some. Marvel is an economy unto itself.