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Business News/ Special Report / Marvel’s Bomb Won’t Blow Up Hollywood’s Formula

Marvel’s Bomb Won’t Blow Up Hollywood’s Formula

Movie audiences are tiring of overused franchises, but the blockbuster success of “Barbie” and “Super Mario” demonstrates the value of familiar properties.

FILE PHOTO: Barbie dolls, a brand owned by Mattel, are seen at the FAO Schwarz toy store in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

Wanted by Hollywood: World-famous intellectual property that no one has yet thought to make into a movie. Or nearly three dozen movies, for that matter.

Wanted by Hollywood: World-famous intellectual property that no one has yet thought to make into a movie. Or nearly three dozen movies, for that matter.

Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the most successful movie franchise in history, grossing nearly $30 billion globally over 33 films to date. But this past weekend provided the latest sign that the lucrative stable of superheroes is in need of some rescuing. “The Marvels" grossed a mere $47 million for its domestic box-office debut—a record low for the franchise and a major disappointment even against other recent Marvel movies that have been showing signs of strain. The nine other Marvel movies that have opened since the pandemic closed movie theaters in 2020 have averaged a domestic opening weekend of about $136 million, according to data from Box Office Mojo.

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Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the most successful movie franchise in history, grossing nearly $30 billion globally over 33 films to date. But this past weekend provided the latest sign that the lucrative stable of superheroes is in need of some rescuing. “The Marvels" grossed a mere $47 million for its domestic box-office debut—a record low for the franchise and a major disappointment even against other recent Marvel movies that have been showing signs of strain. The nine other Marvel movies that have opened since the pandemic closed movie theaters in 2020 have averaged a domestic opening weekend of about $136 million, according to data from Box Office Mojo.

Marvel’s problems are the movie industry’s problems. With the exception of during the pandemic-shuttered year of 2020, Disney has released at least three Marvel movies a year since 2016, with the combined box office of those movies averaging 17% of each year’s total domestic box office, according to data from industry-tracking site The Numbers.

But Marvel is hardly the only established, once-bankable movie property looking tapped out. Paramount’s latest “Mission Impossible" sequel, released in July, has generated the worst global box office in that franchise’s history, once adjusted for inflation. And three movies released by Warner Bros. Discovery this year under its DC superhero franchise have all flopped, with their global box-office totals barely covering their reported production budgets.

That seems to be a problematic trend for an industry still trying to find its footing following the pandemic; this year’s domestic box office to date is still tracking about 18% below 2019’s levels for the same period. But this year also has shown that moviegoers are willing to turn out in droves—especially for something new. “Barbie," “The Super Mario Bros. Movie" and “Oppenheimer" are the three highest-grossing movies of the year so far globally, and none are sequels or based on an established movie franchise. The first two have crossed the $1 billion mark globally, while “Oppenheimer" got close, ending this past weekend at $949 million following a rerelease of the movie to IMAX screens.

Repeating those recent success stories will prove tricky, though. This year’s billion-dollar hits don’t really fit the standard definition of new intellectual property; the 64-year-old Barbie line is one of the most popular toy brands in history, while the Mario character has anchored many of the videogame industry’s bestselling titles since his first appearance in 1981. Even Dr. Oppenheimer had a fair amount of brand recognition ahead of his box-office debut. It also should be noted that the father of the atomic bomb got a nice spark from the “Barbenheimer" social-media phenomenon that inexplicably drove many moviegoers to pair the weighty, three-hour biopic with a “Barbie" viewing when both movies opened on the same weekend in July.

Moviegoers shouldn’t really expect Hollywood studios to suddenly abandon their timeworn practice of falling back on the familiar. Disney has already broadcast plans to scale back on its studio output, with Chief Executive Bob Iger admitting on last week’s earnings call that “we lost some focus" regarding the quantity and quality of content the company has released of late. But he also added, “We are focusing heavily on the core brands and franchises that fuel all of our businesses"—strongly suggesting that Marvel’s heroes won’t get benched. “New IP has a much lower hit rate than established IP," noted analyst Doug Creutz of TD Cowen in a report on Disney last week.

Nintendo got the same message. The Japanese videogame maker’s share price jumped last week after the company announced it is working on a live-action movie based on its “Zelda" games, which first appeared in 1986. The blockbuster success of “Super Mario" seems to have convinced the 134-year-old company that its deep bench of game characters contains box-office gold.

They just need to be careful not to overmine that deposit.

Write to Dan Gallagher at dan.gallagher@wsj.com

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