Saturday, December 9, 2017

The DCEU Should Not Be Canceled: Comparing Film Series Box Office

Some people, even fans of the DCEU, are openly wondering about a reboot of the film series in light of Justice League's underperformance at the box office. I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of the DCEU, also known as the Justice League Universe, and because it has been continually hounded by negative press and overreactions, I wanted to just look at how it actually compares to other film series from a box office standpoint.

Below is a graph that isn't fancy, but it has helped me to put the DCEU box office performance into perspective. I have collected the worldwide box office totals for 10 different film series (Star Wars includes only the modern era since Episode I; James Bond also includes only the Daniel Craig reboot series). I recognize that these are not all directly comparable, being in different genres and appealing to different audiences, etc., but I think this is useful nonetheless.

Box office totals from

A few observations from these data...

The DCEU is off to a strong start despite the clear downtick that is Justice League

It is inarguable that Justice League is underperforming and that it is a step downward compared to BvS, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman before it. There's still a slight chance that it might catch Man of Steel ($668 Million), but given the team-up power that it was hoping to bank on, that would still be a disappointing outcome.

Yet, the entire DCEU curve (in purple above) is still positioned well. It is entirely above the first 5 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men Universe, and (once Justice League finishes its run) the Fast & Furious series. All of those series began lower than the DCEU and then continued forward, eventually reaching billion dollar heights in the case of MCU and Fast & Furious, and spawning many more films (with more to come) in the case of the X-Universe. In other words, those series are going strong and the DCEU has started with 5 films above those series.

That hardly justifies scrapping the DCEU.

Many Series Post Their Biggest Hits 6+ Films In

Many people, myself included, were hoping that Justice League would post the largest box office total for the DCEU thus far rather than the smallest. So that disappointment must be acknowledged, but for an expanding film series, the long view should be kept in mind. The graph above shows that it is often the case that the highest heights are achieved 6+ films in. The MCU has surpassed a billion dollars four times, all coming more than 6 films into the series. Fast & Furious did not surpass a billion until its 7th film. For Harry Potter, it took the conclusion with its 8th film to join the billion dollar club. The X-Universe has not yet reached one billion, but its two biggest earners were its 7th and 8th entries. Even Star Wars, which shows The Force Awakens and Rogue One above the billion dollar line, could be viewed as the 7th and 8th entries in their universe, rather than the 3rd and 4th. (I didn't include the original trilogy in the graph because they are from so far in the past.)

Of course inflation over time plays a role in this (later films occurred later in time and so benefit from higher ticket prices and general inflation), but the trajectories of those series just mentioned are strong enough that the relationship still holds.

What about the other series? The Dark Knight managed to jump way up to one billion in its 2nd film of the trilogy, and it stayed there for The Dark Knight Rises. Three other series reached their billion dollar peaks in their 3rd films. James Bond jumped up with Skyfall, Transformers crested with its 3rd installment, and the Lord of the Rings peaked with the Return of the King, with The Hobbit doing well better never quite matching RotK levels. All of these early successes had substantial winds at their back. The Dark Knight and Skyfall were universally praised and hugely successful as cultural-event films. The Return of the King was the conclusion to a groundbreaking and widely popular trilogy, with a release schedule that maximized on the momentum of the series. And Transformers benefited from a massive international fanbase.

Yes, I recognize that these things are not random or due to happenstance -- they are largely dependent upon the contents and quality of the movies. Although the quality of the DCEU films thus far is debatable (I think they're a solid 4 for 5, but critical consensus would suggest 1.5 for 5, with Wonder Woman being the universal favorite and Man of Steel being mixed-to-positive), it's nevertheless true that the DCEU has never had a tailwind. On the contrary, they've faced many strong headwinds from the very start (e.g., strong popular opinions about how the characters are "supposed" to be represented, constant comparisons to and penalties for deviating from the Marvel formula for superhero films). If the DCEU is allowed to continue, they may reach the billion dollar club like the first group described above or they may finally catch some tailwinds (either by their own making or by cultural circumstance) and reach new heights.

There is hope after a downturn

Even if people accept the observations above, they may still say that the DCEU is doomed because of the trajectory. A person might say, "Yes, it took 7 films for Fast & Furious to surpass a billion but F&F had a clear trendline upward. The DCEU is trending down." It is true that, to this point, BvS is the highwater mark. But Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman were solid financial hits, and so only Justice League is the clear failure. Any series with a planned 10+ entries needs to be allowed a few underperformers.

And we can see from the graph that many series bounce back from downticks in their box office performance. The MCU ticked down for two films before the big success of The Avengers. And they went down again for Phase 2 before another big uptick with Age of Ultron. Harry Potter saw declines for its 2nd and 3rd movie before reversing the trend for the rest of the series. The X-Universe films had 4th, 5th, and 6th installments that failed to surpass X3, but then they managed to shoot up for Days of Future Past and Deadpool. With Bond, Quantum of Solace underperformed Casino Royale, but that did not prevent Skyfall from shooting upward.

You could nitpick lots of details about each of these past situations, but my point is simply that a temporary downward trend should not automatically be taken as the death knell of a series. I think the disappointment and the overreaction to Justice League's performance is largely due to the expectation that it would be a huge spike in the graph, akin to The Avengers for the MCU, rather than thinking about it as simply another data point in a developing film series.

For me, from the business side of things, Man of Steel was a decent hit. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad did remarkably well for movies being dragged down by critics. And Wonder Woman was a solid hit, especially domestically. It is only Justice League that has been a financial liability thus far, and I think it should be viewed as a downtick but not a death knell. Audience scores have been solid for Justice League, and there is quite a bit of excitement for the characters even among people who didn't adore this particular movie.

My hope going forward is that Warner Brothers stays strong with a DCEU plan. And I also think it would be wise to aim for $125-200 Million production budgets instead of $250-300 Million, just to take a bit of the pressure off. A curve that floats along between $600 Million and $900 Million should be totally acceptable and viewed as a success, yet the pressures and expectations have triggered freak-outs when a film garners "only" $600 Million rather than one billion.

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