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‘Shazam!’ Proves the Power of Mid-Budget Superhero Movies

DC Comics welcomed another hit with “Shazam!” Warner Bros. and New Line’s latest comic-book adventure powered box office charts, debuting with $53 million in North America and $102 million overseas.

For many films in superhero space, that start could spell trouble. But for “Shazam!,” its $98 million price tag makes it a win. The DC hero was able to pull off a solid opening weekend ticket sales while spending nearly half of what studios typically spend to produce comic-book fare.

For that reason, other studios should take notice of “Shazam!” The film proves to Hollywood that superhero movies can have flexible budgets and entice audiences. Other than “Deadpool,” which cost under $60 million to produce, the majority of superhero movies arrive with massive price tags and equally outsized expectations. Studios pull out all the stops, shelling out hundreds of millions, to dazzle audiences with stunning visual effects and CGI spectacles.

That’s where films like “Justice League” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” got into trouble. The less-than-adored “Justice League” brought in $657.9 million in ticket sales worldwide, which would be an impressive haul had the studio not shelled out $300 million in production fees, as well as tens of millions on reshoots. That number doesn’t include the hefty marketing and distribution costs it takes to sell audiences on the silver-screen experience. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” with $874.6 million globally, just barely clawed its way out of the red. With its trimmer budget, “Shazam!” doesn’t need to hit sky-high notes at the box office to ensure a sequel.

“I’m proud and thrilled with such a big win in what continues to be a challenging time to get people in theaters,” Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, told Variety Sunday morning.

Coming on the heels of “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman,” “Shazam!” marks the third comic-book win in a row as DC Entertainment continues to punch up against the success of its rival, Marvel Studios. The studio describes “Shazam!” as “Big” set in the superhero space. It tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a young boy who transforms into a fully grown superhero (Zachary Levi) when someone says the magic word. The film was praised for its lighter, more comic approach, deviating from the studio’s darker days, once-navigated by filmmaker Zack Snyder, that polarized fans. Sometimes it pays to have a less apocalyptic tone that doesn’t revolve around major cities getting destroyed.

“As amazing as the Marvel movies are, audiences have come to expect a scale and a scope and a spectacle. It works,” said Emmerich. “But there’s an opportunity, in that circumstance, to make a superhero movie that is smaller. ‘Shazam!’ relies on a certain kind of charm that makes it different by the nature in its size and tone.”

The success of “Shazam!” is also a sign that the studio is bullish on Walter Hamada, the veteran producer who replaced Jon Berg and Geoff Johns as head of DC Films. “Wonder Woman” aside, Berg and Johns didn’t have a strong track record when it came to overseeing scripts for the superhero movies under their purview. Under Hamada’s reign, the quality of movies have drastically improved. Since the shakeup at DC, the studio scored with James Wan’s “Aquaman,” the most financially successful DC movie ever, and the buzz is building for Todd Phillips’ gritty “Joker” and “Birds of Prey,” a look at female heroes and villains. For “Shazam!,” Warner Bros. turned director David F. Sandberg and New Line, the studio’s division that focuses on smaller-scale movies.

“New Line’s approach always has been and continues to be not relying on scale and scope, i.e. production spending, to make the movie creatively successful and marketable,” Emmerich said.

“Shazam!” solidifies that audience’s immunity to superhero fatigue extends beyond Marvel’s arsenal of masked heroes. “Shazam!” arrived over a month after “Captain Marvel” and just three weeks out from “Avengers: Endgame,” the studio’s epic finale that’s expected to crush records. DC was banking on that window being enough time for “Shazam!” to entice comic-book enthusiasts. It seems to be paying off.

“It was a risky strategy to put it between ‘Captain Marvel’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame,” but the team felt it was counter-programming that could live and thrive between those two,” Emmerich said.

For DC, its next test will be “Joker,” a much darker origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime. It hits theaters in October and, like “Shazam!,’ is a fairly modestly budgeted affair, costing a reported $55 million. While little has been revealed about the movie, the trailer plays less like a superhero movie and more like a Scorsese film.

“From DC to go to these two extremes is very smart. They’re carving out their own identity in the superhero world,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analysts at Comscore. “Now Marvel and DC aren’t trying to be each other. They’re trying to be their own brands with distinct point-of-view. I think both will benefit from that.”

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