“The Avengers” is a bona fide box office phenomenon – but is it crowding out every other movie at the cineplex?
In the past, the superheroes' moneymaking powers would have been good news for other summertime movies, like “Dark Shadows,” ‘The Dictator” and “Battleship," the argument being that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Instead those movies have struggled to stay afloat, with “Battleship” opening to a dismal $25 million.
Starting with "The Hunger Games" and now “The Avengers" – two massive franchise pictures have dominated the box office and made it impossible for other movies to secure huge openings.
“'Avengers created an undeniable excitement worldwide and dwarfed other films that attempted to create an event,” Kevin Goetz, founder and CEO of market research company ScreenEngine, told TheWrap.
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Studios are finding that in a packed season there is less breathing room than ever before.
“When you have ‘Titanic’ or ‘The Avengers,’ it becomes difficult to grow the business for the other films opening — there’s only so much the marketplace will expand,” Universal Pictures domestic distribution chief Nikki Rocco, whose studio distributed “Battleship," told TheWrap.
“In my heart of hearts I feel 'Battleship' would have fared much better if in its third week 'Avengers' wasn’t doing $55 million."
Last weekend's frosty reception to "Battleship" is in marked contrast to the grosses for second-tier blockbusters a year ago, when “Captain America: The First Avenger” opened to $65 million the weekend after “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” debuted to a then-record-breaking $169.2 million. In 2009, “Sherlock Holmes” racked up $62 million despite opening the week after the highest grossing movie ever — “Avatar.”
Now, all eyes will turn to “Men in Black 3” to see if the sequel to the popular science fiction comedy can break “The Avengers” stranglehold on the multiplexes. The film is currently on pace to earn between $70 million to $80 million over the holiday weekend.
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Still, this marks the second straight quarter in which one movie swallowed up a series of other potential hits.
The monster debut of “The Hunger Games” appears to be partly to blame for “American Reunion” and “Wrath of the Titans” opening to roughly $5 million to $10 million below where they were expected to debut, while “The Avengers” performed a similar hat trick with the three major studio movies that opened in its wake.
“There seems to be a price sensitivity that has crept into consumer consciousness that only began appearing about two to three years ago. As 3D reaches a critical mass, moviegoers’ are using phrases like “I can’t wait to see THAT movie,” versus “THAT movie’s not worth the money," Goetz said.
The rise of mass appeal event films, such as “The Avengers” and “The Hunger Games,” poses serious problems for the other big-budget movies that open in their wake.
Though Rocco argued the summer would hold space for multiple blockbusters, some studio executives fear this kind of ripple effect could be felt again when “The Dark Knight Rises” hits theaters on July 20. Or after such hotly anticipated films as the “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” or “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” debut this winter.
“Moviegoers have to make a decision about when they’re going to spend that $11 or $12 in normal 2D, or $14 or $15 in 3D," Goetz said. "It’s not enough to just pique interest, there has to be a significant reason to leave your house, a reason to give up multi-tasking activities like texting and working on the computer and commit to a single task.”
There’s also the issue of demographics and cost. Now that studios are committed to releasing fewer films overall, most of the slates aren’t as diverse as they had been before.
Big-budget action movies, often involving a superhero, will bow almost every weekend this summer. Comedies and movies aimed at women, which might have attracted different audiences, are few and far between.
The good news for studios, increasingly looking to expand into the global market, is that the event picture cannibalization is not apparent at the overseas box office. Staggered openings contrast with the packed domestic schedule, enabling "Battleship" to lock in $200 million before it even opened stateside.
Yet with the average costs of movies on the rise, the definition of what constitutes a good opening for a movie has become skewed.
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“All these movies cost a little too much,” a studio executive who declined to be identified, told TheWrap. “A $200 million budget has become the new $100 million. In some cases, $300 million is the new $200 million. But the movies are performing like they did in past summers, which was great when they actually cost $100 million, but is not so hot anymore.”
Right now it may be trendy to blame Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for the lackluster debuts of other recent blockbuster hopefuls. However, some analysts caution that lack of enthusiasm for the films themselves were more to blame for the failure of “Dark Shadows” and “Battleship” than the dominance of “The Avengers.”
“The movies didn’t do well because they weren’t good movies,” a studio distribution executive who declined to be identified, told TheWrap.
Overall, the breakaway success of movies like “The Avengers” and “The Hunger Games,” has had a positive effect on box office grosses in this country, with the domestic tally up 14 percent through last weekend to over $4 billion.
However, the wealth is not evenly distributed and attendance in recent years has been in decline. Beneath the gaudy grosses, a small crop of movies, paired with higher ticket prices for 3D and Imax screenings, are driving the industry's success.
The key may be to release big-budget movies that boast top-shelf stars and talent, but lack a Harry Potter or a Batman, in the spring or fall.
“Hollywood needs to see this as 52-week release schedule and they don’t do that,” Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, told TheWrap. “Instead it just turns into a pissing contest in the summer.”