Box Office

Wonder Woman’s Box Office is a Reminder That Hollywood Can Still Sometimes Catch Lightning in a Bottle

The Hollywood Reporter pulled in plenty of eyeballs recently with its headline that Wonder Woman is now the most resilient superhero movie of the last 15 years (meaning it has built off of its opening weekend in ways no superhero movie has since 2002’s Spider-Man). Naturally, I now have to respond with a thinkpiece attempting to place this in the larger context of industry trends and expanding on the lessons the industry needs to learn from this, undoubtedly bending my message around my own personal longing to see more female-led movies. Women, roar, in numbers too big to ignore, and all that.

But, honestly, we have a tendency to overthink these things. Why is Wonder Woman still playing in 3,000 theaters in North America at a time in its theatrical run when other superhero movies would be playing in half that number? The truth is sometimes simpler than we let on. We forget this in the age of media saturation advertising campaigns, but when it comes to producing hits movies the best path is as true now as it was in the pre-blockbuster age: Make something people like, and they’ll tell other people to go see it.

That’s also the most difficult path to take because making a good movie is hard work. So, that’s why Hollywood focuses so much on getting us out on opening weekend because if a movie makes enough in those first 3 days it will end up doing okay for itself even if no one actually seems to like it. This is all dates back to 1989’s Batman, as Tom Shone argued in Blockbuster:

And for a long, long, loooooooooooooooooooong time that’s how Hollywood has operated. They are in the business of manufacturing hits, not simply trying to make good movies which might, if they’re lucky, catch lightning in a bottle like Jaws, Back to the Future or E.T. and seemingly never leave theaters due to the astonishing word of mouth. There’s too much competition for our entertainment dollar to bother with that shit these days, and too many stakeholders to please to simply go forward with a “eh, let’s make a good movie, and hope for the best” mentality. These are now widgets which can be relied on to clear certain financial benchmarks in key fiscal quarters and feed into a global value-chain.

So, if you have to spend hundreds of millions in advertising just to make millions in ticket sale revenue then so be it. That’s the model. That’s why Sony just spent $140+ million to market Homecoming, the biggest advertising spend in franchise history. Every new movie has to be eventivized, things we all go see for a couple of weeks and then forget about until the next eventivized movie distracts us.

It’s not like Wonder Woman is immune to that. Although there was much speculation and criticism of WB’s marketing campaign, the studio has long maintained that it spent just as much in marketing as it would for any other movie of its size, and you could certainly find some Wonder Woman-branded products prior to the film’s release.

Although some of their branding choices were downright puzzling

WB’s seemingly lackluster marketing campaign likely aided the movie, allowing it to be something more people could discover the old-fashioned way instead of having it shoved down their throat. And 2017 has been the year of the comeback of good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. It’s rarely a 1-to-1 where the best-reviewed movies of the year are also the ones which make the most money, but generally, those movies which have prospered this year have been well-reviewed and well-liked and those that haven’t weren’t (and then, of course, there are those movies like Fate of the Furious which make money no matter what).  The box office has more of a meritocracy feel to it than usual. People are rejecting those movies like Transformers 5 whose extreme laziness betrays a barely concealed contempt for the audience, and we keep encountering movies which capture that old lightning in a bottle, leading to supercharged box office runs from the likes of Split, Get Out  and now Wonder Woman.

Of course, context matters. You can’t control why people will like your movie. Had Wonder Woman come out a couple of years ago there’s no guarantee it would have done as well (ditto for Get Out). Certain movies arrive at just the right time in history and speak to a national or worldwide need in ways which were almost wholly unintentional, and that’s been Wonder Woman‘s experience, ticking off more progressive checkboxes than any major movie in recent memory and acting as the culmination of multiple societal and industry trends.

Patty Jenkins’ goal during the making of the movie was to simply produce a universally relatable story about an outsider going through just about every facet of the human experience and coming to a message of love. What she produced is not a perfect movie, but it is the perfect movie for right now. Its success should teach the rest of the industry plenty of lessons about female-led/crewed/directed/targeted blockbusters, but it’s also a reminder of a very old truth about movie hitmaking: If you make a good movie the people will come and tell their friends about it.

That doesn’t always happen right away, but certain good movies are lucky enough to find their audiences in theaters and make all the money they deserve to. Wonder Woman is now up to over $750m worldwide, and will soon pass Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to be the second highest-grossing film of the year at the domestic box office. It’s almost as if there had been years upon years of data showing that good, female-led movies were nearly guaranteed to become hits. That can’t be the case, though. What business would have gone on this long ignoring such overwhelming evidence?

Source: THR


  1. I still dont get it. Wonder woman was ok. It wasnt bad but do i think it is that good? Not sure I do. Was a bit glum in places. Some good scenes. Good comedy. Wasnt spiderman 2 a bigger deal orbatman in 1989 or batman returns or dark knight? Scratching my head on why people keep returning to see it. Is it more because there is no competition? Transformers 5 and… Nothing else going toe to toe with it.

    1. When a movie catches on the way Wonder Woman has it is quite often in spite of the film’s flaws. It’s more a case of recognizing what it is specifically about the movie which resonates with audiences at that specific moment in time, and WW’s message both about and for women could not be more timely if it tried. Years from now Wonder Woman’s flaws will stand out more just as they do with Raimi’s Spider-Man when watched in 2017, but when movies catch lightning in a bottle it’s rarely about it being a perfect movie and more about it being the perfect movie for that specific moment in time.

      But, yes, the weak competition this summer has certainly helped.

      And, yes, the ’89 Batman was a bigger deal. Much bigger. It had a multiple of 6.23 compared to WW’s 3.68. However, so, so, so much has changed in pop culture and in the ways films are marketed and distributed that such comparisons are largely useless. Whenever we talk about modern movies like Wonder Woman sticking around in theaters for longer than normal it’s almost always nothing compared to the way movies like Jaws, Star Wars, ET, Back to the Future and the like would legitimately still be making money in theaters a year after being released. We really just mean longer than normal for this day and age, and by those standards for a superhero movie to not be remarkably front-loaded and instead actually build up an audience as it goes is incredibly rare.

  2. Lol!!! The last sentences is gold!

    I think that Wonder Woman was always destined to reach something in the 800m vicinity if the movie is any good…that was simply what I considered realistic for a comic book character of her standing. To me the movie being so stable from week to week is more the result of the DCEU context. I think if Wonder Woman had been released without this label a few years ago (I actually would have started the DCEU with a wonder woman movie), it would have played more like a standard Superhero movie, making most of its money in the first weekend. As it is, people were more wary and waited for the first reactions before making a decision, so the revenue spread more out. It also helps that since then Homecoming is the first blockbuster which was released which got good reviews.

    1. The lack of competition has certainly helped, and you are right about the lack of typical front-loadededness being somewhat attributable to the fact that thanks to BvS and SS Wonder Woman had to earn its audience, not simply be a rubber stamped hit due to brand recognition and superhero movie loyalty.

      1. I am curious about the opening weekend of Justice League. I have the feeling that it will have similar struggles to deal with.

      2. The thing to watch there will be whether or not it benefits from any kind of WW bump, both in the sense of Gadot’s presence drawing in fans of her movie and that the love for WW might have renewed optimism in Justice League and the DCEU in general. However, that bump will seemingly be minimized by the unmistakable Zack Snyderness of the Justice League trailers. The finished product might be better than the trailers indicate, especially now that Whedon is handling reshoots and post, but if you’re someone who didn’t like BvS it’s hard to look at the JL promotion and not immediately think “Oh, more of the same shit just with lame jokes this time.”

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