When Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) announced plans to move "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" to March 25, 2016 -- effectively escaping the shadow of "Captain America 3" -- it also revealed an ambitious plan to release 10 DC Comics movies in four years.
Yes, you read that right.
As a fan, I love that we'll be getting more comic book movies. As a business analyst, I find it fascinating that of those 10, four are scheduled for either March or April. Odds are that one of DC's biggest characters is going to arrive in theaters during what has historically been Hollywood's low season.
Isn't that just as risky as avoiding the Mighty Marvel Movie Machine? Not when you run the numbers.
End of the tentpole
This year's top domestic performer, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," opened on April 4. "The LEGO Movie" ranks second despite opening on February 7. And while "Divergent" didn't crack the top 10 after opening on March 21, its $150.9 million in domestic grosses was good enough for 11th. Signs point to a thaw settling over the typically chilly early spring season at the cineplex.
And not just this year. In March 2012, Lions Gate Entertainment (NYSE:LGF-A) released "The Hunger Games" to eager fans. The film spent almost six months in theaters, earning $408 million in U.S. grosses and $691.2 million globally. Almost exactly a year later, Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) delivered "Oz the Great and Powerful." The film earned $493.3 million worldwide on a $215 million production budget.
Economics appear to be driving the shift. Most studios are making fewer movies, which puts pressure on big-budget epics to make their numbers quickly and then stick around long enough to earn a profit. The hypercompetitive summer movie season generally doesn't offer the sort of breathing room "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" will get by moving to March.
Fans: the key differentiator
Yet competition isn't the only factor at play here. An increasing number of Hollywood-developed movies are adapted from other media, and as such, have built-in fan support. Films based on DC and Marvel properties benefit from this dynamic more than most.
According to a recent survey from Eventbrite and consultant Rob Salkowitz, author of the book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, genre entertainment fans flock to special events, buy more gear, and pay up to see their favorite movies in 3D and Imax. Fans give studios foundational support that makes it easier to greenlight ambitious, big-budget projects such as "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" -- and the nine other DC movies due to follow it.
(Full disclosure: At last month's Comic-Con, Rob and I were on a panel with Heidi MacDonald, editor of the popular comics blog The Beat, discussing this topic in depth. John Siuntres of The Word Balloon podcast moderated. Find the audio here, and the video here.)
In the end, no one should expect "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" to be a billion-dollar epic or even outdo "The Hunger Games," owner of the current March record. So what can we expect? A strong turnout among die-hards who no longer have to choose between Batman, Superman, and Captain America. For a fan-driven business like Time Warner, that's a win.