Warner Bros. tried SO hard to give audiences what they wanted with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that finally united their two biggest superhero characters in a live-action movie and added Wonder Woman into the mix, too, just to be a little more awesome. It was one of the most talked about films in years, but then the reviews came out, and enthusiasm waned a bit. Batman v Superman set box office records on its opening weekend, then broke a different kind of box office record on its second weekend: one of the biggest audience drop offs in movie history.
Hollywood is just like any other industry. It runs on money. So when Batman v Superman appeared to be making money, the narrative that the studios, industry insiders, and franchise apologists tried to shove down our collective throats was that the audience had spoken. What they didn’t take into account was that an enormous number of the tickets for opening weekend had been pre-sold, weeks in advance of any first-hand buzz. Batman v Superman still has many fans, but many of them were fans before they even saw the film for themselves. Once it actually came out, the word of mouth was mixed from audiences and critics alike, and now it looks like the film may not even break $1 billion internationally.
That’s disappointing by any measure. Some industry analysts had even posited that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice needed $800 million just to break even. How does that work, you ask? The film reportedly cost $250 million, but those figures are typically lowballed and rarely – if ever – take marketing costs into account. But more than that, studios like Warner Bros. use major franchise films as “tentpoles.” We use that word for a reason: the blockbuster success of a film like Batman v Superman can absorb the cost of a studio’s various misfires and, perhaps more significantly, its artistically ambitious smaller releases.
Last year, Warner Bros. released more films than any other major studio. But for every success (Mad Max: Fury Road, San Andreas, Creed) there were several bombs (Jupiter Ascending, Pan, In the Heart of the Sea, Point Break). This is par for the course, but if a tentpole falls – and falls hard – then everything underneath it is affected. That’s why Hollywood Reporter is claiming that the studio is seriously considering reducing the number of films they produce overall, and focusing instead on their three biggest franchises: LEGO, Harry Potter and the DC superhero universe.
It seems ironic, especially from the outside (and heck, even in here too), that the solution to a disappointing superhero movie is to make more superhero movies. But Warner Bros. didn’t release any superhero movies last year (unless you count Batkid) and it still came up short compared to rival studio Universal, which had three films gross more than $1.5 billion worldwide in 2015 (Furious 7, Jurassic World and Minions).
So the studio wasn’t doing great right now already, although the continuation of the Harry Potter series with this year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is promising. Warner Bros. is actually positioned to have a lot of potential hits this year but few of them seem likely to breakout into the billions, unless you think audiences are really clamoring for The Legend of Tarzan, The Conjuring 2 and Central Intelligence in record numbers.
We don’t cover the box office very often here at Crave, because it doesn’t impact audiences as much as you might think. A successful film will yield more films like it, and an unsuccessful film will usually kill a franchise. What’s so unusual here is that the opposite may now be true: Warner Bros. is forcing itself to double down on a series suffering from bad word of mouth, in large part because they’ve already made their commitments.
Wonder Woman is already being filmed, and even just bumped up its release date from June 23, 2017 to June 2, 2017. Zack Snyder is gearing up for Justice League – Part One, and it is unclear whether he will have time to make any meaningful changes to that project, which was presumably going to follow Batman v Superman in tone and content. And the supervillain team-up movie Suicide Squad is allegedly being reshot to include more of the humorous content fans responded to in the trailer, because (again, allegedly) the rest of the film was going to be just as dour as Batman v Superman was.
Warner Bros. is essentially stuck with these films, and if they’re not going to make a ton of money then the studio simply won’t have the scratch left over to produce smaller films, Oscar contenders and so on. It would appear that by committing to a major franchise before they knew that audiences actually WANTED that franchise, Warner Bros. has dug itself an enormous hole and jumped inside. It may take years for the studio to crawl out.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.