Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy” may be the most important film in Marvel Studios’ history.

Its $94 million domestic debut this weekend astounded box office prognosticators who were predicting an opening in the $65 million to $70 million range, and demonstrated that the company has figured out a way to push second-tier superheroes to perform like A-list brands. Prior to last Friday, most moviegoers would have struggled to pick Drax the Destroyer out of a lineup.

With all due respect to leading man Chris Pratt and director James Gunn, who are being justifiably hailed for injecting a dose of irreverence and energy into a summer blockbuster season that was ponderous and inert, Marvel is the star of this particular big-screen adventure.

“It underlines the fact that people trust their entire product line,” said Shawn Robbins, assistant editor of BoxOffice.com. “It’s becoming what Pixar became for Disney a few years back. Five years ago, I don’t think ‘Guardians’ would have opened anywhere near this.”

After “The Avengers” scored $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, Marvel has been the most reliable hit-maker in Hollywood and the standalone superhero films it produces have seen a substantial bump in their grosses. “Iron Man 3″ and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” nearly doubled the takes of the first films in their series and “Thor: The Dark World” saw a nearly 50% jump in its earnings after all three title characters appeared in the super team film.

“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” sterling box office performance paves the way for Marvel to begin broadening beyond those core “Avengers” characters.

“Marvel just has as a magic touch,” said Greg Foster, chairman and president of Imax Entertainment. “To introduce five new characters, each of whom are now able to carry their own movie, is a master stroke.”

The film’s success bodes well for the stars of upcoming Marvel movies such as “Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange,” who, like the space outlaws who populate “Guardians,” lack the household recognition of a Wolverine. In turn, that makes the company less dependent on backing a Brink’s truck into Robert Downey Jr.’s compound to convince him to make “Iron Man 9.”

“‘Guardians’ is the perfect test case to tell Marvel executives we can branch out in big ways and we can create tangential universes that audiences respond to,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

The results justify Walt Disney’s $4 billion purchase of the comicbook company – a pact that caused one short-sighted observer to scoff, “all it may get for its investment is a collection of second- and third-tier superheroes” (Full disclosure: this author was that dim bulb).

But a funny thing happened after Disney’s big deal. Success begat success, and as Marvel consistently produced meticulously crafted, well-reviewed popular entertainments, crowds began to see the brand itself as synonymous with quality. They might be unfamiliar with the heroes in one film or another, as was the case with “Guardians,” but they knew and respected the Marvel name.

“We would never have contemplated a film as risky as this unless we’d established that consistency,” said Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios’ executive vice president of theatrical distribution. “Ever since ‘Iron Man’ came out, there’s been this brand momentum.”

Had Marvel somehow emerged as a stand-alone studio, it would be one of the two or three most important in the movie business. The company’s in-house efforts have now generated north of $6.4 billion, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars racked up by the heroes its licensed to outside studios such as the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.

Being part of the Mouse House has helped elevate Marvel’s marketing. It’s no mistake that “The Avengers,” the first Marvel film distributed by Disney, was also the first of the studio’s productions to cross $1 billion at the box office.

“It was about unlocking the total company support for the product,” said Hollis. “It’s the power of having the theme parks and the Disney Channel and everything on the retail side of things. It allows for this event creation that’s especially important with new characters. It allows us to make new [intellectual property] seem as big as Captain America.”

Marvel is so confident in the strength of its offerings that it made the bold decision last month to plant a flag in most of the prime release dates through 2019. In its announcement, Disney didn’t even bother to reveal which superhero would be saving the world or universe on a particular date. It simply stated it was a Marvel release. Competition, consider yourself warned.

Disney’s future looks especially bright, even though securing its position in the industry was a costly proposition. In addition to Marvel, the company spent $7.4 billion to buy Pixar and $4 billion to snap up LucasFilm. The studio won’t see a “Star Wars” film from Lucasfilm until 2015 and was deprived a Pixar release when production delays pushed “The Good Dinosaur” into next year. Imagine what its slate will look like when it’s operating at full capacity and Disney has each of its major brands fielding between one and three films annually.

“No one is catching Disney in the next 20 years,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “They are the flagship empire.”

 

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