Batman Will Still Make Billions. Here's Why

Batman never has it easy in the comics, but conquering the theater was supposed to be a cinch. Not this time. A shooting at an Aurora, Colo., multiplex on July 20 that left 12 dead and 58 injured cast a pall on The Dark Knight Rises during its opening weekend. Now, with 10 days on screen, it appears director Christopher Nolan's final entry in his three-film Batman epic won't live up to early box office hopes.

A heroic year at the box office
Here are the most recent numbers, offered in context:

Film (Year)

10-Day Total (U.S.)

Total to Date (U.S.)

Rank*

Marvel's The Avengers (2012) $373.1 million $616.0 million 1
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) $159.7 million $242.1 million 11
The Dark Knight (2008) $313.8 million $533.3 million 2
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) $289.1 million $289.1 million 8

Source: Box Office Mojo. *Among comic book adaptations.

As an investor, these figures tell me three things:

  1. All hopes of The Dark Knight Rises surpassing megahit The Avengers have been dashed.
  2. Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) subsidiary Warner Bros. will still take in hundreds of millions in profit.
  3. Comic book adaptations remain one of Hollywood's best box office draws.

On this last point, consider that the year's three major adaptations have already combined for more than $1 billion at the U.S. box office, and all three pictures are still showing in theaters. (Although, to be fair, only 84 multiplexes are still showing The Avengers, according to Box Office Mojo.)

Warner and Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) have the most to gain from the rising interest in comics-themed cinema and television thanks to their DC and Marvel subsidiaries. But of the two, Warner has more at stake because it doesn't have to share the cinematic rights to DC characters such as Batman and Superman. Disney, on the other hand, has handed over Spider-Man box office profits to Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) and must share X-Men profits with News Corp. (Nasdaq: NWS  ) .

Paying homage to the comics
Other than cashing in on video games -- the LEGO Batman games are leading Activision Blizzard's (Nasdaq: ATVI  ) The Amazing Spider-Man on the charts as of this writing -- it isn't yet clear how Warner will make good on this freedom. But thanks to Nolan, DC Entertainment can get creative with how it handles Batman's theater appearances from here on.

Don't worry; I'm not about to spoil the film if you haven't seen it. All I'll say is that the movie has an open-ended conclusion that should allow the next team -- whoever that may be -- to pick up where Nolan left off without needing to "reboot" the story, as Sony did when it retold the origin of Spidey in The Amazing Spider-Man.

To me, Nolan's final bow is the cinematic equivalent of a writer-artist team ending a "run" on a particular comic book. The new team enters and then builds upon or alters what's come before, creating a new and (hopefully) good story arc that lasts another 20 or so issues.

Here, the arc opened with Batman Begins, rose to a crescendo with The Dark Knight, and concluded with The Dark Knight Rises. My guess is Warner wants another trilogy with another director with a vision worth exploring.

The big profit picture
How soon before Warner and DC Entertainment announce a new project is up for debate, but I'm expecting to hear something by next year's San Diego Comic-Con. Here's why:

Time Warner Metrics

2005

2008

Difference

Films released 27 31 4
Gross U.S. box office $1,432.3 million $1,785.7 million $353.4 million
Batman film as a % of box office 14.3% 29.7% 15.4 percentage points
Film and TV subsidiary operating profit $885 million $823 million ($62 million)

Sources: TheNumbers.com, S&P Capital IQ.

The lesson? Having more films matters, but volume doesn't always mean much when it comes to operating profit, especially when you factor in the impact of not having a Batman film in theaters.

In 2007, Warner released 33 films; three -- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 300, and I Am Legend -- each took in more than $200 million at the U.S. box office. Bona fide hits, all, that resulted in $1,431.5 million in gross box office receipts.

And how did those performances impact earnings? Film and TV operating profit came in at $845 million in 2007, down $40 million from two years earlier when Batman Begins debuted alongside Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The very next year, Warner released two fewer films with only one earning at least $200 million at the U.S. box office. But that one hit turned out to be The Dark Knight, a blockbuster that broke box office records that have since been broken again, by The Avengers. So even with its litany of 2008 losers, Warner's Film and TV operating profit declined by just $22 million. Call it proof that, just as in stock investing, one megahit usually makes up for a lot of also-rans.

While there's no formula for predicting exactly what will make for a Hollywood megahit, Warner executives know from history that Batman is capable of drawing large audiences. Nolan's epic run at the franchise may be over, but when it comes to the comics and the movies the Dark Knight is still and ever will be rising.

Think I'm right? Wrong? Weigh in using the comments box below and then be sure to add Time Warner to your watchlist for ongoing coverage. You're also welcome to a new special report that reveals three other American companies that are dominating on the world stage. Get your copy now -- it's 100% free to download.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Time Warner and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home, portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney and Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool has sold shares of Sony short. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney and Activision Blizzard. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 30, 2012, at 3:06 PM, revrurik wrote:

    The Disney/Marvel movie machine has been rocking the house for the past few years (Avengers, Thor, Captain America, Hulk) while the Time Warner/DC movie camp has been sputtering or non-existent with the exception of Batman. While it's good to see them all putting out quality movies to bolster the entire industry, DC just hasn't been able to compete.

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