15 movies. 15 no. 1 openings.
That’s the Marvel Studios way. The latest no. 1 opening is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which earned an estimated $145m this weekend, marking a 54% increase over the first Guardians’ $94.3m August 2014 opening. That’s the largest jump for a second film in Marvel Studios history, and Vol. 2 is similarly outperforming its predecessor everywhere else in the world. Here’s where the film stands after 13 days of worldwide release:
And when Vol. 3 comes out in a couple of years, reuniting the cast with director-writer James Gunn, it’ll probably do just as good if not better. That’s how beloved the Guardians franchise has become, but that’s also just what Marvel Studios movies tend to do. They come out and make loads of money. That’s just what they do. It’s like, the law these days. Even lesser-performing titles like Ant-Man still do perfectly fine relative to their budget. That’s because holy shit does Marvel Studios ever have the strongest brand loyalty going in Hollywood these days, and when Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel or whatever the hell else they make comes out, yeah, they’ll all be hits too.
As run by Kevin Feige along with his two co-presidents Louis D’Esposito (head of physical production) and Victoria Alonso (head of effects and postproduction), everything Marvel Studios makes, save The Incredible Hulk, practically prints money. According to Deadline, the studio’s 15 films have grossed over $11 billion worldwide, netting $1.17 billion in combined profits for Disney/Marvel “after all revenue costs and ancillary money streams.”
Why, though? Why is Marvel Studios so successful? Their movies all bank serious coin, earn at least modest praise from critics and continue to please fans all over the world. It’s a perfect, but ever elusive combination considering how many movies (WB’s sorrowful DC offerings, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean) make money despite not being very well liked by critics or audiences or both. So, what is it about Marvel Studios that makes it so different?
The answer really isn’t that complicated nor is that revelatory for anyone who’s already thought about this question a lot. Marvel Studios has Kevin Feige; everyone else has people who aren’t as good.
It really is that simple, even more so since the 2015 reorganization which left Feige and his co-presidents answerable to only Disney chairman Alan Horn. Feige is the guy who started his film career getting people coffee on the set of X-Men movies, often giving him a front row seat on what not to do, especially on X-Men: The Last Stand. Now he is in the middle of one of the most successful runs by any one studio executive since the Golden Era studio moguls, and he’s done so largely by not thinking like a studio executive. Instead, his model has been John Lasseter, the Pixar and now-Disney Animation Studios genius. Like Lasseter in his prime, Feige allows his creative and story instincts to guide all decision-making and then filters that through a creative committee of trusted collaborators. In practice, as Feige told Deadline, this means employing the type of practices which might seem common sense to the ordinary person but are often foreign concepts in a Hollywood overrun by clueless executives, nervous shareholders and general incompetence:
1. Hire the right people, regardless of their experience
“I can’t think of anything where I would say ‘Don’t do that’. We don’t sit in the theater and say ‘Make it brighter’. Some of that is just the natural instincts of ourselves and the filmmakers we work with.” – Feige
This hasn’t always worked out, leading Feige and company to either boot a director off a project (bye-bye Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright) or to wield a heavy hand in post-production (sorry, Alan Taylor). However, the principle is sound: hire the people you feel will best execute your vision and/or share your general sensibilities. You then end up with the perfect marriage of director and film franchise, as is currently the case with James Gunn and Guardians.
2. Think of them not as comic book movies but as genre movies that happen to feature comic book characters
“I never believed in the superhero or comic book genre. Genres are diverse with novels, and it’s the same thing when it comes to Marvel titles. It gets us excited. We don’t feel like we’ve made 15 comic book movies, but a fantasy epic (Guardians of the Galaxy), a political thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and a heist film (Ant-Man).” – Feige
This is a common Feige argument which is often disputed by cinephiles, who argue that for all of Marvel’s talk of genre-hopping their films all maintain a similar house style, both visually and tonally. True, but the genre-hopping keep things from growing overly stale, and the maintenance of a consistent tone is central to the brand loyalty. It’s what assures audiences they always know what they’re going to get from a movie bearing the Marvel Studios logo, which is remarkably important to parents who still probably don’t have a good read on what to expect from Fox’s X-Men films and have been burned three straight times by overly ponderous, hyper-violent DC movies from Warner Bros.
3. Hit audiences with the comedy and then bring on the tears
“When you sit and test these films…We do friends and family screenings where we show rough versions of our movies which are horribly painful. Imagine watching Guardians without Rocket, Groot or any of the space ships. It’s a horrible thing to do. The one time you know it’s working is when the audience is laughing. That’s the only sign you get that they’re with you. Laughter is the way you hook the audience, then you can scare them or touch them emotionally deeper than they expected in a film about a tree and raccoon.” – Feige
You have to find some way to relieve the tension, to cut through the defenses of those who would dismiss comic book movies as immature child’s play. Hook them with the jokes, and then make them care enough about the characters to be moved when the more serious parts kick in. It’s not a formula which Marvel Studios films always execute perfectly, and often times the jokes go too far in lightening the mood. Still, it’s a solid strategy if the goal is to be a crowd-pleaser.
4. Pick the characters and properties that sound like good ideas for movies, not simply the ones which sell a certain number of comics per month or already have a specific cultural footprint
“It’s about how good a movie you can make off an idea as opposed to how many comics it sold, did it have a live-action series in the ’70s, or a hit animated series in the ’90s. That was a great theory for me to have for a long time, but it was really put to the test with Guardians. It just encouraged us to continue what we’re doing.” – Feige
Hollywood is a copycat business, and all of the studios are simply facets of corporate conglomerates with lots of bosses. Risk is abhorred, and vision or originality discouraged even though those are the attributes which actually inspire enthusiasm from audiences. As such, whether or not something is a good idea for a movie is secondary to the strength of its ISP and calculated chance of actually delivering a return on investment. That’s why comic book readers are used to encountering all manner of quality titles which would clearly make for a good movie or TV show but don’t have a chance in hell of ever happening due to the various corporate hoops which would need to be jumped through. And then, sadly, on the rare occasions those movies do happen (e.g., Scott Pilgrim, R.I.P.D., Jonah Hex, The Losers) they tend no to do well because the studios have no real idea how to make/market them.
Marvel Studios, on the other hand, is the place where if something strikes Kevin Feige as making for a good movie it has a higher likelihood of not only happening regardless of cultural footprint or risk-averse ROI analyses but happening in such a way that it proves all the doubters wrong.
Unfortunately, Feige has not pushed hard enough into this area has he could have, which is why we still don’t have a Black Widow movie and why one-time Marvel Studios movie projects The Runaways and Inhumans are now TV shows handled by Marvel Television, which might share the Marvel name but is completely separate from Marvel Studios.
5. Continue to challenge yourselves creatively
“The biggest risk was not doing [Guardians or Doctor Strange or Ant-Man]. The biggest risk would have been doing Iron Man, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.” – Feige
Whereas others might have stuck with what worked and kept plugging away Feige and crew added a space opera centered on a group of misfits (Guardians), a shrinking man (Ant-Man) and magician (Doctor Strange) to the roster of MCU characters. Someone somewhere early on in the process decided those simply sounded like they’d be good movies (Nicole Perlman for Guardians, Edgar Wright for Ant-Man and Scott Derickson for Doctor Strange), and Feige agreed, corporate considerations be damned.
Ultimately, the Marvel Studios formula is not that complicated – how can we make the best movie possible? And let’s make the type of movie we’d want to see. It takes someone who actually loves movies and knows the source material very well to steer that vision, and you’d be surprised how many studios are run these days by people who don’t actually know anything about movies but are damn well versed in brand management and quarterly profits.