What ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ Means for Sony - 3 Key Questions

Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) has a lot riding on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which swings into U.S. theaters tonight after two weeks of overseas screenings.

History says investors should expect at least $700 million in worldwide grosses. How's that jibe with what we've seen so far? Box Office Mojo says The Amazing Spider-Man earned more than $178 million through two weeks of foreign screenings after opening in late June 2012. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 enters this weekend having earned an estimated $155 million over a similar span.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is already winning overseas. Credit: Sony Pictures.

Here in the U.S., The Hollywood Reporter cites tracking data that predicts The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will earn more than $95 million this weekend -- on pace to top Captain America: The Winter Soldier as 2014's biggest debut to date. And that's in spite of winning the approval of only 57% of critics tracked by Rotten Tomatoes.

Of course, the first weekend isn't really what matters when it comes to watching the box office. Staying power is what drives big grosses, and that only comes when those who've seen the film spread positive word of mouth. Look at Noah, whose "C" CinemaScore led to sharply declining grosses following a strong opening. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can avoid that fate by posting a strong CinemaScore.

And if it does? In 2012 -- the year Spidey returned to the big screen -- Sony topped the charts with 17% of the U.S. theater market. Without the Wall Crawler, Sony fell to fourth place with an 11.1% share of last year's domestic grosses. The spectacular Spider-Man is the star attraction in Sony Pictures' lineup.

Investors need him to deliver again, and then keep on delivering in the years to come. Sony Pictures accounted for 10.8% of overall revenue and 20.8% of operating profit in 2013 after standing out as one of the few bright spots in a financially miserable performance the year before.

This time success isn't a given because The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn't just a follow-up. Instead, Sony is betting that audiences will want to see more of characters that only the hardest of hardcore comic book  fans know. For investors, that leaves a number of questions unanswered. Here are three from our top entertainment and pop culture analysts.

With so many villains, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is beginning to look like Spider-Man 3. Credit: Marvel Entertainment.

Leo Sun: Is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 too much like Raimi's Spider-Man 3
Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films were well received because they patiently focused on one villain at a time. The third film, however, recklessly tossed in a new Green Goblin, Sandman, and Venom, resulting in the lowest rated film of the trilogy, scoring just 63% approval among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. The first two films earned respective ratings of 89% and 94%.

Marc Webb appears to have followed Raimi's Spider-Man 3 formula by cramming three villains -- Rhino, Green Goblin, and Electro -- into The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Early reviews indicate that critics aren't impressed. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is lagging at just 57%, compared to 73% for the 2012 reboot. Hardly encouraging when you throw in at least two more sequels between now and 2018.

Sony clearly wants to beef up its corner of the Marvel Universe, just as Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) did with its Avengers characters. Unfortunately, Sony wants to accomplish in two years what Marvel and Disney did in four, between Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012). Right now, Spider-Man is Sony's equivalent of Iron Man -- the base from which it intends to launch upcoming films like Venom and Sinister Six.

Sony investors should hope the company has learned from its mistakes with Spider-Man 3. While a commercial success, grossing $891 million on a budget of $258 million, the movie also burned out the franchise. So what should investors look for this time? Engagement. Story points that show the bad guys to be more than mere punching bags for the Wall Crawler. Therein lies the difference between The Amazing Spider-Man 2 kicking off a franchise gravy train, or riding off the rails.

Even the poor reviews say Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone provide winning on-screen chemistry in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Credit: Sony Pictures.

Steve Symington: Will lackluster reviews influence what audiences really think?
We've already noted The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is being forced to weather a largely negative critical response, but the opinions of movie pundits don't always line up with what audiences think. I want to know, then, whether the broader movie-going public will share that sentiment.

For reference, polled audiences granted Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man a solid 'A-' CinemaScore, or only a notch above the 'B+' they gave to Raimi's critically panned Spider-Man 3. Moreover, when Spider-Man 3 set a then-record $151.1 million in its opening weekend seven years ago, Sony's president of distribution, Rory Bruer, even noted: "The majority of audiences we polled liked this one better than the first two."

Here again, the CinemaScore will tell us plenty when it's released next week. In the meantime, Rotten Tomatoes also tracks audience sentiment. But it's not a perfect metric: Roughly 78% of those polled liked The Amazing Spider-Man, second-best in Sony's series of Spidey movies. Only Spider-Man 2, approved by 81% of moviegoers, ranked higher. Take a look around at your fellow audience members if you see the movie this weekend. Are they clapping, cheering, or merely dazed by all the villains?

Sony is off to a good start regardless. As of last Sunday, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had already pulled in $132 million overseas, adding to that since. Tracking also has this weekend's domestic release pegged somewhere in the $95 million to $100 million range -- which would represent at least a 50% improvement over the July 2012 debut of Webb's first installment.

In the end, considering Sony "only" boosted the budget for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 by roughly $20 million to an estimated $250 million, that would be a result with which Sony investors should be more than happy.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is expected to introduce a wider universe of characters who will star in spinoff movies. Credit: Sony Pictures.

Tim Beyers: Are Spidey's villains franchise-worthy?
As Leo notes above, Sony's bet isn't just that we'll once again fall for Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Spider-Man and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Rather, the studio wants us to care about the fates of Jamie Foxx as Electro, Dane DeHaan as the Green Goblin, and Paul Giamatti as The Rhino. They'll (presumably) comprise three members of the all-villain team known as The Sinister Six, who are due for their own film from writer-director Drew Goddard.

If that sounds like a challenge, it is. Audiences prefer to see heroes triumph over villains, if only to appeal to our inner sensibility that good trumps evil -- even when reality sometimes paints a very different picture. Goddard and fellow writer Alex Kurtzman, who's been tapped to write a movie for the anti-hero known as Venom, need to make us sympathize with characters we'd rather despise. Or, at best, pity.

And yet we've seen villains catch on before. Tom Hiddleston made us love Loki as the antagonist in Thor and The Avengers, and as a sort of anti-hero in Thor: The Dark World. Reaction to his performance in the latest film has at least this Fool convinced Marvel and Disney should fund a Loki solo film. Sony is betting on this same dynamic, but without first allowing the actors to grab audiences as Hiddleston did.

Maybe that won't matter. Either way, in the wake of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, investors should be checking social media and fan review sites for better intel on whether there's enough core audience interest in Spidey's supporting cast to carry the spinoffs Sony has planned.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. What do you expect from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 this weekend? What questions would ask Webb, Goddard, and Kurtzman if you had the chance? Let us know your take in the comments section below, including whether you would buy, sell, or short Sony stock at current prices.

Your chance to cash in now
Spidey may be a big part of Sony's strategy, but this is also the same studio that bet on Breaking Bad -- and won. A studio that's as close to all-in on digital distribution as you can get. But as the industry shifts, our analysts see three other companies claiming the lion's share of the $2.2 trillion that's at stake. Click here for their names. Hint: They're not Netflix, Google, and Apple. 

 


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