Guardians Of The Galaxy Top Movie

Among U.S. theaters, Guardians of the Galaxy is the top movie of 2014. Credit: Marvel Entertainment.

Up until a few days ago, only five movies in history had earned $20 million or more at the domestic box office in their fifth weekend of release. Guardians of the Galaxy became the sixth over Labor Day, and is now the top movie of 2014 in terms of U.S. theater grosses.

Impressed? You should be. Guardians' $22.9 million, four-day haul ranks behind only Avatar ($42.8 million), Titanic ($30 million), and Frozen ($28.6 million). The Sixth Sense ($22.9 million) and Marvel's The Avengers ($20.5 million) round out the top six, according to Box Office Mojo. What can Disney (NYSE:DIS) investors expect from this franchise now that Guardians of the Galaxy is in elite company? Let's take a look at history for some clues.

Superheroic performances

All three of Marvel Studios' character franchises have benefited from the success of The Avengers. Two benefited as early as the sequel, while Iron Man waited till his third big-screen adventure to catch the tailwind:

Title
Captain America
Iron Man
Thor

First movie gross

$370.6 million

$585.2 million

$449.3 million

Second movie gross

$714.1 million

$623.9 million

$644.8 million

% Improvement

+92.7%

+6.6%

+43.5%

Source: Box Office Mojo.

For the eagle-eyed who object to my not including a certain gamma ray monster in the table above, remember that Ang Lee's Hulk was developed in concert with, and distributed by, Universal Pictures in 2003. Marvel Studios wouldn't release The Incredible Hulk for another five years, with Universal once again acting as distributor. The Hulk needs another solo film to join the ranks of Marvel Studios franchise characters.

Buy the numbers

For the Guardians of the Galaxy, a second movie is already in the works. In fact, Marvel Studios was so confident in the franchise, that it announced plans for s sequel on July 26 at Comic-Con -- five days before the U.S. premiere. Smart move.

According to comparative data from Box Office Mojo, Guardians of the Galaxy is tracking ahead of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and behind Iron Man 3 in terms of domestic grosses. We also know that the movie has earned about 51% of its box office haul from U.S. audiences, unusually high for a Marvel movie. (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier generated 66.3%, 68%, and 63.6%, respectively, of their worldwide grosses from foreign audiences.)

Add it up, and I'd say Guardians of the Galaxy is on track to earn $600 million to $650 million worldwide by the end of its theatrical run. A sequel could add another $725 million to $800 million when you consider Marvel Studios' history of success with follow-ups.

The power of franchising... revealed!

For investors, it's worth remembering how the Marvel movie franchises have multiplied results:

DIS Chart

DIS data by YCharts.

See the pattern? While Disney has been on an upward trend since completing the Marvel acquisition in January of 2010, the stock enjoyed its biggest gains following the May 2012 release of The Avengers. Earnings growth has multiplied during the same period. Guardians of the Galaxy may not have as big an impact; but as the top movie of 2014, it won't be small, either.

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 Apple and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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