10 days. That’s how quickly Deadpool became the highest-grossing X-Men movie of all time, domestically.
Well, gosh. What happens when you adjust for inflation?
Okay. Fine. Days of Future Past, the first X-Men, X2 and The Last Stand all technically sold more tickets, but give it another 10 days and Deadpool will have completely passed all of them, other than maybe The Last Stand. The point is that Deadpool is a big, stinking success, both here and abroad since its current worldwide gross ($493 million) is second to only Days of Future Past ($747 million) in franchise history. So how is Hollywood going to learn all of the wrong lessons from this?
For decades, the corporate conglomerates which control the various Hollywood film studios have pursued a blockbuster mentality where you make millions but only after spending hundreds of millions. A Harvard professor even wrote a book about it. Ever-increasing production and marketing budgets act as important signals to the marketplace, convincing audiences, distributors, the media and critics which films are most worthy of their attention, or so her argument went. She did caution, “Spending big is no guarantee for success, though. All studios can do by adopting a blockbuster strategy is significantly increase the odds of success. They’ll still have big flops. And great small films can still find a way to large audiences.”
Days of Future Past was the second most expensive movie in 20th Century Fox’s history, and it ultimately made around as much money as the franchise-killing Amazing Spider-Man 2. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice might have an astronomical budget, and HitFix recently doubled down on its claim that WB people who’ve seen the movie fear for their jobs because they don’t think it will make the type of money its budget demands.
Meanwhile, here’s Deadpool gleefully making four-quadrant blockbuster money despite the fact that it is not actually a four-quadrant blockbuster. It only cost somewhere around $60 million to make, and its R-rating theoretically disqualifies a huge portion of the traditional four-quadrant model (needs to appeal equally to men, women, and anyone over-25 as well as anyone under-25). However, nearly half (47%) of the opening weekend audience was under-25, and 62% of it was male. Some of that is attributable to Deadpool’s inherent appeal to the teenage male, but it also owes a considerable debt to Fox’s truly ingenious marketing campaign, from emoji billboards to charmingly bizarre PSAs about testicular cancer and a general mastery of social media.
I have no idea how many millions Fox devoted to marketing, but let’s say for the sake of argument that they spent $60m on marketing, equaling the film’s actual production budget. The would put the combined cost of making and marketing Deadpool in the $120m territory. That’s nothing when you consider The Hollywood Reporter’s claim that for most blockbusters worldwide marketing costs alone regularly approach $200m.
That’s why Deadpool is potentially a game-changer, but it’s a game-changer that will be impossible to truly replicate. There has never been a superhero movie on this scale which invited such a thorough sense of ownership from its fans. This isn’t the Veronica Mars movie or the upcoming Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival. None of us contributed to any kind of Kickstarter campaign granting us literal partial ownership. However, this movie’s existence is directly tied to the outpouring of unanimous support from fans online after the visual effects test reel footage was intentionally leaked.
From the very beginning, this lent the film a coveted sense of feeling completely different than everything else. Batman and Superman are fighting. Captain America and Iron Man are engaging in ethical debates. Ant-Man’s having small-scale family disputes. However, Deadpool’s the ghost in the machine, popping up to laugh at everything and act as our superhero avatar. If we’re all laughing at a bizarre new Kanye West rant Ryan Reynolds will seize the opportunity to offer his own parody in character. He’s turned Deadpool into a perpetual Funny or Die character who just happens to also have a movie we can see if we want. Of course, as it turns out his movie is actually a fairly standard superhero origin story, but the marketing has cultivated a sense that Deadpool would be the antithesis of everything we’ve come to find annoying about the superhero genre.
Now its success will likely result in the same kind of “business as usual” crap from the film industry. Progress is painfully slow and original ideas are badly emulated because Hollywood always seems to learn the wrong lessons from success stories.
That’s not actually me talking. That’s exactly what several people who actually work in Hollywood think is going to happen. As such, in the wake of Deadpool’s box office James Gunn and Lexi Alexander have expressed apprehension about what happens next, but they each returned to the same central lesson: Deadpool should hopefully teach the decision makers to trust the lunatics to run the asylum, so to speak.
The Guardians of the Galaxy director took to his Facebook page to react to a Deadline report in which an anonymous Hollywood executive came off as having no real clue why Deadpool was so successful:
After every movie smashes records people here in Hollywood love to throw out the definitive reasons why the movie was a hit. I saw it happen with Guardians. It “wasn’t afraid to be fun” or it “was colorful and funny” etc etc etc. And next thing I know I hear of a hundred film projects being set up “like Guardians,” and I start seeing dozens of trailers exactly like the Guardians trailer with a big pop song and a bunch of quips. Ugh.
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.
Deadpool wasn’t that. Deadpool was its own thing. THAT’S what people are reacting to. It’s original, it’s damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn’t afraid to take risks.
For the theatrical experience to survive, spectacle films need to expand their definition of what they can be. They need to be unique and true voices of the filmmakers behind them. They can’t just be copying what came before them. So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They’ll be green lighting films “like Deadpool” – but, by that, they won’t mean “good and original” but “a raunchy superhero film” or “it breaks the fourth wall.” They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.
But hopefully in the midst of all this there will be a studio or two that will take the right lesson from this – like Fox did with Guardians by green-lighting Deadpool – and say – “Boy, maybe we can give them something they don’t already have.”
And that’s who is going to succeed.
While talking to ScreenRant about her switch from film to TV, Lexi Alexander reflected on her past as the director of the R-rated Marvel movie Punisher: War Zone:
I made a R-Rated film eight years ago that became a cult hit, so it’s great everyone is on the train now. I think there needs to be a limit to things. I hope there’s not five years where everyone is trying to do Deadpool. Deadpool is massively successful because they made a very unique movie. That uniqueness and originality, try to imitate that. Not, how about let’s try to do Deadpool on a train. They always take the wrong thing from a box office success. Trust new filmmakers and trust them with budgets that haven’t really been proven in the box office.
Deadpool‘s Actual Screenwriters
Prior to Deadpool’s release, its screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese sat down for a conversation with Forbes. They struck a more optimistic tone:
Reese: Well, Hollywood is nothing if not imitative. Every film has any number of facets, and when a film succeeds all of the characteristics of that film tend to be repeated moving forward. So, the R-rating is just one of those, and the edginess, they’re just part of this movie. And I think they’re a part that will probably be imitated. At least, executives will have their eyes open to the potential for a movie like this, a high-end gross potential. And that’s a good thing. I think the more diversity we have in these varied superhero movies, the better.
Reese’s partner reflected on the culture in Hollywood which leads to such imitation and fearfulness of risk-taking:
Wernick: You know, Rhett and I have been talking a lot and what motivates Hollywood decisions is fear — following the crowd, not breaking out, not doing something that’s different, being an apple among apples instead of an apple among oranges. Hopefully, a decision like this — which is very bold for Fox to make, to make an R-rated anti-hero superhero film — will embolden this town to trust the lunatics, to trust us. Because it looks like this decision will really pay off for Fox.
Sources: Facebook (Gunn), ScreenRant (Alexander), Forbes (Wernick, Reese)