I just recently heard that Time Warner’s CEO plans to release 14 superhero movies.
I think that’s a ridiculous plan. And I’m a comic book fan.
Why do I think it’s ridiculous? Because I know the history of film.
Right now I believe there are TOO MANY superhero movies. Just this year Hollywood released about four or five of them. Kick-Ass 2, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Iron Man 3, and the upcoming Thor: The Dark World. Next year is supposed to be a Captain America movie, an Ant-Man movie and another Spider-Man movie and X-Men Days of Future Past.
And this is top of material adapted for TV like the WB’s Arrow and cable’s The Walking Dead, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Back in the late 1960’s the big Hollywood movie studios made the mistake of continuing to make three-hour musicals and three-hour epic movies. Big budget Films like Cleopatra and Tora! Tora! Tora! Bankrupted big studios like 20th Century Fox and MGM Back then.
And in the late 1990’s Hand-drawn animation seemed like it was in its second golden age. But after an oversaturation of films from Disney, Warner Brothers, and FOX, a string of box-office flops like The Iron Giant, Titan A.E, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet hand-drawn animation became dead medium.
I believe the superhero movie is slowly becoming the new musical and the new epic movie. The business model Hollywood is following for superhero movies now eerily parallels that of the one that almost put Hollywood out of business back then. An oversaturation of these films led to audience apathy. And the changing times led to audiences wanting a different kind of film.
These superhero movies now cost a minimum of $100 million dollars and some are costing $200 million dollars. That cost may soon balloon to $300 or $400 million. As those costs rise over the years it will become harder and harder to pull a profit on these movies in just the U.S. alone. Studios will be forced to become more and more dependent on the foreign box office just to pull a profit. That’s going to make it harder for these films to pull a profit overall in the long-term.
Compare the costs of the Superhero to the one of the musicals and the epic movies of the 1960’s. Films like Cleopatra were breaking the bank at 20th Century Fox. Combine the high costs with the huge losses at the box office and it was clear what was bankrupting studios back then.
Also note the similarities in the run times of today’s superhero movies to the 1960s epics and musicals which were running three going on three and a half hours. The runtimes are heading past the two hour mark and heading towards the two-and-a-half hour mark. With long runtimes like this, theaters have fewer and fewer times to run the movie in a day and get those sellouts.
In addition, the audience was changing. The Vietnam War was going on and audience of kids who were into flower power, women’s lib and Black Power weren’t interested in watching a three hour movie featuring smiling people singing and dancing about superficial things when there was serious political and social change going on around them. With a focus on changing the world they had little time to watch a three-hour epic movie.
Movies with 2 and 2 ½ hour runtimes are have been a huge box office risk since the mid-1960’s. And today’s superhero movie are heading towards that dangerous 2 ½ hour mark as a normal runtime. At such a long runtime it becomes harder for a theater to get a return on a movie because it limits the number of runtimes they can have in a day for a film on a single screen.
That cuts down on the profit a film can make in theaters in the U.S. And it’s the main reason why these films have to depend so heavily on the foreign box office to pull a profit. Thirty years ago most blockbusters depended on the U.S. Market alone just to pull that profit. Now they need those foreign numbers just to break even.
Eleven years ago a movie like the first Spider-Man could make its full production budget and marketing budget in a weekend. But since then costs for these films have doubled. The 2002 Spider-Man only cost $80 million to make and did $120 million on the opening weekend. So when it pulled $400 millon at the box office in the U.S. the profit margin was much larger in the foreign market in proportion to its cost.
But compare this to recent films like The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Green Lantern, The Avengers, Man of Steel and Iron man 3 which cost $150 to $200 million dollars. Yes, they opened with impressive $125 million $150 millon dollar weekends in the U.S., but that barely covered the cost of the production budget or the promotional budget for these films. And with a film needing to make three times its production budget to pull a profit, these films had to depend on the foreign markets just to pull that profit for the studios that financed them.
The profit margin for superhero movies is shrinking. And all it takes is for one or two superhero movies to flop consecutively and the studios could wind up in danger of going bankrupt again. This heavy dependency on foreign markets for profits is a dangerous and extremely risky business model. One that could put the big movie studios on the brink of bankruptcy again.
So when the CEO of Time Warner makes an announcement that they’re going to make 12 to 14 Superhero movies I become concerned as a businessperson.
I’ve read about the history of MGM and 20th Century Fox in the 1960s. And about the history of Disney in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And I saw how the greed of these studios destroyed the medium of Hand-drawn animation in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
History is starting to repeat itself with the superhero movie.
The main reason why those epic movies and big-budget musicals flopped in the 1960s and hand-drawn animated movies started failing to find viewers in the 2000s was that the audience was changing. And with the first generation of millenials hitting their teen years there’s a big chance that the audience could shift the same way it did in the late 1960’s. America’s movie studios could get caught off guard again like MGM, 20Th Century Fox and Disney did back then.
I see the audience changing. Head over to a playground or a toy store and it’s clear today’s kids are no longer seriously interested in superheroes. To them, these superheroes are their father’s characters.
And as they get older, they’re going to want to see their iconic characters on the silver screen. Today’s kids are going to want to see a Monster High or Ben 10 movie rather than the fourth or fifth Batman or Iron Man movie.
These superhero movies aren’t distinct anymore or original. Just like Tora! Tora! Tora! , Cleopatra, The Iron Giant, Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Titan A.E., these superhero movies are coming one too many down the pike. And when one too many of a film is made, the audience starts to take them for granted. Even if the films are good, no one will care about them.
And one of the three big questions of screenwriting is: WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
And that’s a question that’s becoming harder and harder for the producers of superhero movies to answer. As these adult fanboys live their lifelong dreams and bring their favorite comic book characters to life on the silver screen they’re forgetting that the rest of the audience needs a REASON to continue paying their hard-earned money and their precious time to watch these movies.
Ordinary people aren’t like comic fans. They’re not going to stay for a long haul through a run of four, five or even six movies. Sooner or later they’re going to get tired of Superhero movies. The movies with their same old storylines are going to get BORING to them. They’re going to want MORE. And no amount of CGI, special effects are going to satisfy them because the stories will REPEAT themselves over and over again.
Yeah, people like superheroes. I like them too. Heck, I own over 300 action figures and 3000 comics. I used to go to superhero movies like Iron Man all the time and I own a boatload of superhero DVDs. I create my own stories with the Isis series.
But as a publisher and a businessman I know there’s only so much of the same thing an audience can stomach. Oversaturation leads to audience apathy. And once an audience becomes apathetic about a product it becomes hard to sell them other products in that line. That’s why I try to mix it up in my writing. And that’s why I believe studios really need to pull back on making these superhero movies.
A little bit of something is exciting. But a whole lot of it is just annoying. One or two superhero movies a year is entertaining, but five or six of them become annoying. Movie studios need to understand that less is more.