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Those Bunch of A-Holes – Taking a Closer Look at Guardians of the Galaxy’s Big Box Office

Guardians of the Galaxy just made over $90 million in 3 days in the U.S./Canada, enjoying this year’s biggest opening weekend for a non-sequel.  That seems significant, especially since experts were expecting something more in the $60-70 million territory.  Let’s talk about it.

Why was this movie considered such a big risk?

Here’s what I previously said about this:

Despite the internet hype surrounding the trailers does the general audience know enough about the Guardians of the Galaxy at this point to want to see them in a movie?  The source material is basically a cult-favorite comic book, and surely lesser known than other cult comics to grace the silver screen like Watchmen.  In the build-up to the film, the Guardians comics are adding new readers each week, but the only reason director James Gunn got a crack at Guardians is because the ginormous success of The Avengers and related solo films has afforded Marvel the luxury of getting to try and not sell us characters we at least kind of know but instead introduce us to characters we’ll want to see because we love everything Marvel Studios does.  This is the point where we find out if Marvel Studios truly is like the Pixar of comic book movies in that their brand alone is enough to guarantee a certain return on investment.

How might this effect when other big budget movies get released?

Movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy are supposed to drop in the heart of the summer movie season

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the National Association of Theater Owners have been trying for some time now to convince the big studios to spread tentpole releases more evenly throughout the year instead of the traditional method of jamming everything in May-July and December.  Guardians is the latest example of the wisdom of thinking outside the box in that department, scoring the third biggest debut of 2014 (despite opening in August) just as Captain America: Winter Soldier has the second biggest debut of the year (despite opening in April):

“Every instance of a film with a massive debut outside of the traditionally accepted ‘big’ release periods will embolden studios to take more risks,” Rentrak box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian said in commenting onGuardian of the Galaxy‘s debut. “As long as the movies define the month and not the other way around, the taboos will fade away and the notion of the 52-week-a-year business will become a reality and not a myth.”

What about audience demographics?

Women like comic book movies, too

How significant is that 46% of the opening weekend audience was between the ages of 17 and 34, a coveted demo which Hollywood has been struggling to get out into theaters this summer?  Or that 44% of the audience was female, the biggest share ever for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, beating The Avenger‘s 40%?  Women have not been turning out for the big tentpole releases this summer quite as much as they have in the past.  So, Guardians not only getting the coveted 17-34 age group but also women is a big win.  Clearly, this is yet more proof that after Frozen (and Maleficent and The Fault in Our Stars) Hollywood should be bending over backwards to court female audiences, right?  That being said, it’s hard to isolate just exactly how Marvel Studios really appealed to female audiences with Guardians since the most traditional example of doing that for a movie like this from a marketing standpoint would be to play up the romance between Star-Lord and Gamora, which was never really a focal point of the advertising.  Then again, they sure did show us a lot of shirtless Chris Pratt:

Marvel remains committed to the female gaze

What about ticket price inflation? 


“Damn you, 3D, and your related ticket price inflation!”  That’s to blame for this big Guardians biz, right?  Well, 45% of the opening weekend came from 3D ticket sales, and $11.7 million came from IMAX, a new record for an August release.  I could compare that to some of the other big movies this summer, but that information is very spotty since studios don’t always release it anymore.  I can at least say that Godzilla actually owed more of its opening weekend to 3D (51%) and IMAX ($14.1 million) indicating that whatever force price inflation is playing on Guardians numbers isn’t particularly greater than the going average for these kinds of movies these days.

What about international box office? 


Big movies often make up to if not over 70% of their worldwide money outside of the U.S./Canada.  So, while Guardians‘ big domestic debut is fan-freakin’-tastic it is still only half the story.  Opening in approximately 50% of the international marketplace, Guardians pulled in $66.4 million, and when you look at the individual markets (Russia, UK, Mexico, Brazil) you see that on average it actually opened lower than Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Both of those ended up with around $450 million foreign, which Guardians is not expected to match, instead finishing somewhere in the $300-400 million range.  Of course, you could say all that means is the very first Guardians movie will just barely fall short of the international biz put up by the third cinematic appearances of Thor (Thor, Avengers, Dark World) and Captain America (First Avenger, Avengers, Winter Soldier).  From that angle, it actually looks really impressive.

What about marketing?


Much is to be made of Guardians‘ big biz being a validation of the intense brand loyalty built up by Marvel Studios, and it absolutely is.  However, it’s equally if not more so a testament to the immense power and perfection of Disney’s advertising empire, but their incessant (and usually brilliant) Guardians media campaign does beg the question of exactly how much they spent in that department.  We know Guardians cost roughly $170 million to make – how much did it cost to market?

No idea.  They don’t exactly like sharing that kind of information.  However, a recent THR special report indicated that due to the need to capture the booming international market the advertising costs for most big movies are skyrocketing.  A big budget summer blockbuster is now thought to cost $100 million for North American advertising and an additional $100 million on international advertising, meaning you can just add an additional $200 million on top of that production budget to get a better idea of how much the studio actually needs to make to break even (while remembering that the studios split ticket sales 50/50 with the theaters in North America).

Oh, btw, yet one more reason that China is such a powerful film force for Hollywood right now is this: marketing in China is practically free, “The government’s China Film Group pays for and runs a campaign, relying almost exclusively on the Internet since few moviegoers watch television.  Sometimes, a studio will be allowed to supplement those efforts but spends no more than $1 million.”  It suddenly makes more sense why Hollywood studios are willing to go along with the Chinese government/theaters only sharing 25% of a film’s ticket sales with them.

What about next weekend? 

Be it the hated Amazing Spider-Man 2 or generally well-regarded Days of Future Past, this summer’s big releases have all dipped in the 60-70% territory in their second weekends.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Maleficent have been the two exceptions (both dropped 50%).  It’s a by-product of the unusually brutal summer movie season, analyst Phil Contrino summarizing ASM2‘s plight, “You open to whatever you open to, and then you just get gutted. Spider-Man opened, and then the following week Neighbors took a chunk out of it. Then Godzilla. Then X-Men. Before you know it, you’ve run out of gas really quickly.”

Guardians of the Galaxy is seemingly being regarded as immune to this trend mostly because analysts are now expecting it to perform on par with Captain America: Winter Soldier since they opened almost identically and are both Marvel Studios brand films.  However, Winter Soldier (which topped out at $258 million domestic) didn’t face any serious competition for at least a month after its release.  Guardians already has to deal with Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles next weekend, and Expendables 3 and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For in the weekends after that.  Not that any of those are thought to be guaranteed hits, but they do represent some actual competition for similar audiences.

Must we really keep on talking about box office? 

No.  We can ponder the ways in which Guardians will now bleed into the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  We can also point out the feel good story of the “thank you” letter Guardians director James Gunn just posted to Facebook:

“I am of course happy with all the film has accomplished box-office-wise, but what touches me the most is that the film I told the folks at Marvel I wanted to make two years ago is the film that you’re seeing in theaters today – it’s that so many of you seem to be directly EXPERIENCING the film I INTENDED. If I relied on myself to implement these intentions, the film would be a shambling mess,” and thanking “a wonderful cast, genius producers, an incredibly brave studio, sublimely talented visual effects artists, great editors, and the best damn crew of mostly-British bastards to actually implement these intentions for me. Where I had a good idea they would, through alchemy, transform it into a great one.  Of course, I’m not really saying goodbye as, while many of you have been enjoying the film, I’ve spent this weekend hard at work on the sequel.  The characters have so many hardships and heartaches and triumphs ahead of them, and I can’t wait to share them with all of you.”

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is due out 7/28/17.  In the mean time, there’s nothing stopping any of us from going back and seeing Guardians of the Galaxy again.


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