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Why ‘Batman v Superman’ Is Still a High-Stakes Bet

In an era in which comic-book heroes dominate the box office, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” might appear like a sure bet. Warner Bros.’ March 25 release gives fans arguably the two biggest superheroes in the fantasy constellation, serving up Ben Affleck, one of the biggest stars of his generation, as the Caped Crusader, and Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel. At the helm is Zack Snyder, the director celebrated for creating the surprise hit “300.” And the studio’s crack marketing team, known for sparing no expense, is going full tilt on its promo blitz.

But high expectations create both opportunity and risk.

The formidable intellectual property that Warners is deploying — exciting the collective memories of multiple generations of fans — inspires enormous good will and curiosity about what comes next for (as Lex Luthor would say) the Bat of Gotham and the Son of Krypton. But it also means that fans will react viscerally to characters they feel they own, expecting to have old sensibilities affirmed, even as they anticipate being dazzled by a fresh new take.

Ratcheting up the stakes is the fact that “Batman v Superman”  serves as the ambassador for a whole new generation of films from Warner’s DC Entertainment unit — 10 pictures over the next five years — that are supposed to lift up Warner’s lackluster film slate and super-charge results into the foreseeable future.

“They have the chance to come out with all these other movies,” said media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. “But it makes the situation much harder; harder to win an audience, harder to market, if this one doesn’t work. … It’s pretty critical.”

The stakes have been thrown into high relief by the blockbuster success of crosstown rival Marvel Studios. The Disney subsidiary’s last six films have averaged $875 million at the global box office. If Warners could get just halfway to Marvel’s consumer products results, DC could add $150 million to Time Warner’s profits annually, a WB exec has said.

“It would be a slight exaggeration to say everything is riding on this film,” said Doug Creutz, an analyst with Cowen and Co. “But if they can’t make this sale to audiences, then they have a huge problem. They have told Wall Street they are going to grow earnings at Warner Bros. If you can’t make that franchise work, then you can’t achieve that goal.”

While expressing optimism about the film, Warner Bros. execs have tried not to push expectations any higher.

With a production cost of at least $250 million and added global marketing costs easily topping $150 million, the movie would have to gross $800 million to recoup its investment, if it were reliant just on box office (though the film will also benefit from substantial TV, merchandising and other receipts). Studio insiders consider the $800 million figure inflated.

“They have told Wall Street they are going to grow earnings at Warner Bros. If you can’t make that franchise work, then you can’t achieve that goal.”
analyst Doug Creutz

Current tracking suggests a robust opening of at least $120 million-$140 million when the movie launches on about 4,000 screens in the U.S. One media analyst, who asked not to be named, said that given the costs and need to launch a series of future films, “anything under $1 billion in worldwide box office will be a disappointment.”

Months prior to the premiere, Affleck conceded the high stakes in an interview with Variety. “I think there is a ton of pressure on it,” said the actor,  whose selection to play Batman initially rankled some diehard fans. “I mean I would be bulls—ing you to say there isn’t.”

Affleck expressed optimism the film will succeed, as did Greg Silverman, the studio’s president of creative development and worldwide production. “This film is really important to the fans,” said Silverman, “and we feel a responsibility to make sure they get what they deserve: a great film about great characters they care about as much as we do.”

“Batman v Superman” originally was slated for release last July, but in early 2014, Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman Kevin Tsujihara pushed the movie off eight months, allowing for script revisions and other changes. Studio insiders feel that the delay helped make the film better.

Tsujihara knew the calendar shift would hurt the studio’s 2015 results and, indeed, without the cinematic crusaders driving revenue, Warners suffered its worst year in recent memory, dragged down by films like “Jupiter Ascending” and “Pan” (which each lost more than $100 million) and “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” This year, it hopes, marks its comeback.

Eddy Von Mueller, a senior lecturer in the Film and Media Studies department at Emory University, said that DC has tended to produce films that lean more toward “engagement” with the world, in contrast with the more purely escapist fare produced by Marvel. Von Mueller, who has written extensively about special effects and superhero films, said that if the gritty tone of “Batman v Superman’s” trailers carries throughout the two hour, 31 minute film, “It could be a tougher sell to audiences.”

But the self-described fan boy said the film will benefit from a curiosity factor, and could escape the superhero fatigue that many observers think may be coming. “I am really curious to see where this goes,” Von Mueller said. “Can they develop an ensemble franchise out of the DC properties?”

Warners believes it can, in a big way. Among the studio’s plans through 2020: “Wonder Woman,” starring Gal Gadot, arrives in 2017, along with the first of what could be several “Justice League” films, featuring Batman, Superman and the other superheroes. In future years, movies centered on the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, Green Lantern and others are anticipated.

Any way you look at it, all of the leaping, flying, zapping spinoffs will be delivered on the backs of Batman and Superman. For the DC heroes to fly, “Dawn of Justice” must lead off a winner.

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