Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” has become a certified box office sensation, earning $744 million in worldwide ticket sales after less than a month in theaters. Making that haul all the sweeter, Warner Bros., the studio behind the R-rated origin story about Batman’s nemesis, spent $62.5 million to finance the film, a fraction of what most comic-book adaptations cost.
That conservative budget, a figure that doesn’t include global marketing or distribution fees that sources estimate were north of $100 million, puts “Joker” on track to become one of the most profitable superhero movies in history.
“‘Joker’ is definitely having the last laugh,” said Jeff Bock, a senior media analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You can’t buy a comic-book adaptation for that price, yet Warner Bros. pulled it off with good old-fashioned story telling.”
Given its dark themes and far more disturbing content than standard comic-book fare, Warner Bros.’ intentionally kept expenses low.
“They took a risk and it paid off. That’s the bottom line here,” Bock said. “‘Joker’ has tapped into the zeitgeist of today and is running away with the spoils.”
Fox took a similar bet in 2016 with “Deadpool,” Ryan Reynolds’ foul-mouthed mercenary that hails from the X-Men universe. In a sign of caution, the studio spent just $58 million to bring that character to the silver screen. After it became a massive hit and grossed $783 million worldwide, Fox doubled the budget for the equally successful sequel, “Deadpool 2” ($785 million). Though the bottom line was ultimately smaller, the follow-up still proved to be a creative risk worth taking. Another cost-effective heroic origin story was Sony’s “Venom” with Tom Hardy. The company paid $100 million to produce the film, which ended its box office run with a mighty $856 million. Sony flirted with releasing a more violent, R-rated version before ultimately deciding to go with a more commercially friendly PG-13 iteration.
Superhero movies are usually heavy in special effects, meaning studios routinely shell out anywhere from $150 million to $200 million bring those stories to the big screen. Since “Joker” is more of an intimate character study rather than a CGI spectacle, Warner Bros. was able to control costs. Comic-book movies tend to have huge opening weekends but a steep decline in box office receipts in subsequent weeks. However, ‘Joker’ has proved to be an exception and held strong since launching in early October.
“We’re talking about universal themes of alienation, loneliness, helplessness and anger that have truly continued to feed this box office beast,” Bock said. “Younger audiences are championing this film in much the same way the youthful demographic of the day rallied around ‘Natural Born Killers’ or ‘Clockwork Orange’ or ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Each film was violent in its own way, and presumedly had something to say about society’s shortcomings, as theses films jacked into the cinematic synapses of moviegoers, making them taking points, and thus having much longer shelf life’s than their competitors.”
Box office analysts predict “Joker” will continue attracting audiences through Halloween. After setting a new benchmark for an October release, the movie is expected to become the highest-grossing R-rated film in history. In that category, “Joker” recently passed “The Matrix Reloaded” ($742 million) and currently stands in third place behind “Deadpool 2” ($785 million) and “Deadpool” ($783 million).
While Warner Bros. will walk away with a sizable chunk of change, the company has to split revenues with co-financiers Bron Creative and Village Roadshow. Bron boarded “Joker” as part of a slate package that also included “The Mule,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “The Good Liar” and “The Kitchen.” Some studios such as Disney prefer to finance tentpole films by themselves so they don’t have to share the riches.
In weeks leading up to its release, “Joker” sparked numerous criticisms between complaints that the movie glamorized a mass murderer and outrage from the families and friends of the survivors of the 2012 Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting. Warner Bros. increased digital promotion to try and limit the blistering headlines and instead foster organic conversation. That approach paid off, since negative press didn’t impact ticket sales, but targeted advertising can be pricier.
Still, those enviable profit margins will undoubtedly inspire Warner Bros. to take more chances with its DC franchise. Unlike its recent hits such as “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and “Shazam,” “Joker” was able to differentiate itself from Disney’s more family-friendly Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Now they have a viable model, one that to this point Disney’s Marvel has been afraid and/or unable to tap into — R-rated comic book adaptations,” Bock said. “In recent years, Disney, as an entity, hasn’t been able to successfully cater to adult crowds that enjoy exploring darker themes aka to PG-13 and beyond.”