Sony, the Spider-Man universe, and dwindling box office

Feature Simon Brew 7 May 2014 - 06:19

With The Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperforming slightly at the box office, we look at Sony's future for the franchise...

It's probably best you don't read this if you've not seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Many words have been written over the past day or two about the opening weekend numbers for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in the US. The film opened with $91m, the second biggest opening weekend of the year in America, behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier's $95m Stateside start.

But whereas Captain America 2 was quickly lauded as a big hit, understandable given that it built substantively on the box office for its predecessor, there was warning lights all around the takings for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. We're not quite at the stage of calling a film that's just earned $91m in a weekend a flop, but words and phrases such as 'franchise fatigue' and 'disappointment' were being used. Bluntly, one franchise is on the way up, one isn't.

Looking at the numbers, you can see why. The original Spider-Man movie opened to $114m, with Spider-Man 2's opening weekend being $88m, Spider-Man 3's standing at $151m and The Amazing Spider-Man at $62m (albeit after an earlier in the week opening, which inevitably meant the weekend total was lower). Sony would have hoped for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to nudge over $100m in its US opening weekend, but now analysts are predicting a $230m final gross for the movie in the States. By tens of millions of dollars, that'd make it the weakest performing Spider-Man movie at the US box office. And that's with the numbers for the four previous films not adjusted for inflation and rising ticket prices.

In short, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is struggling just a little. Not too much, but enough to cause questions to be asked.

That said, things aren't quite that simple. The new Spider-Man film has been hurt, for instance, by stronger than expected competition from Captain America 2. Furthermore, the real money isn't made so much in the US anymore, rather it's the international box office total that ultimately matters. Sony has a chance of breaking $500m non-US for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and that'd make the film far from a flop at around the $730m mark.

However, caveats aside, there are truths in the hard numbers that Sony can't ignore. If The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does get to $730m, that's still below the $750m take of The Amazing Spider-Man (both got a bump from 3D admissions too), which to this point is the lowest grossing Spider-Man movie to date.

The problem for Sony is this: the Spider-Man cinematic franchise appears to be in box office decline, at the point where it has five more films (at least) lined up for it. Contrast that with what Marvel has achieved: every follow-up it's done to one of its films has earned more than its predecessor, and then it has the juggernaut that is The Avengers at the heart of it. The central core of the Sony Spider-Man universe should be the Spider-Man films themselves, but there's very real evidence that audiences are losing just a little interest. That's in spite of the reviews and reaction for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 being generally better than those for The Amazing Spider-Man.

So what's going wrong? Well, we'd argue a few things.

Firstly, Sony hasn't shaken off the fact that it rebooted a franchise that only needed a reworking for business reasons. Creatively, even accepting the bumpy Spider-Man 3, the films were working. But when Sony and director Sam Raimi's relationship deteriorated, and when the cost for the mooted Spider-Man 4 was set to push $300m, Sony went back to square one.

It didn't handle that stage well. The first teaser trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man infamously ended with a reflected look at Spider-Man in a window. There was understandable bafflement at the teasing of a character's appearance, when he'd only been on screen a few years before. Furthermore, the marketing then played up that we were getting an untold story, when in fact that was pretty much the last thing we ended up with (the untold element only really kicked in to any degree in the new sequel).

But most disappointingly of all, The Amazing Spider-Man redid the genesis story of Spider-Man with little to distinguish it from a film that had done the job better just over a decade before. The suspicion going into the film was that it was a boardroom reboot, and by the time the end credits rolled, there was precious little evidence to the contrary.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 certainly ups the ante, and we'd argue is a notably better film. But it too can't shake the feeling that it's a sequel to an unnecessary reboot. That's been a little unfair on some real talent at work, we should note. Director Marc Webb is on far surer footing this time around, whilst both Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are really very, very good.

Yet it does feel like they've got their hands tied a little around their back. Even the post-credits stings feel business-tinged. One for X-Men: Days Of Future Past was part of a deal hatched to free Marc Webb from a Fox contract so that he could direct the new Spider-Man film. The other, of pictures teasing the Sinister Six, could only be clearly seen with a phone app, no doubt as a result of a commercial tie-in. Whether or not you find Marvel's credit stings enthralling or tiring, you can never accuse it of using said scenes to directly make a few extra quid.

The big problem, though, is that Sony needed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be a springboard. It needed it to be a Spider-Man 2, a Dark Knight, an X-Men 2. The kind of excellent sequel that invigorates a franchise, and leaves you salivating for the next instalment. And the film doesn't really do that. It sets up The Amazing Spider-Man 3, it sets up Rhino, it sets up the Sinister Six to a degree. But we'd wager that most people left the cinema feeling they'd got their money's worth, but not Googling to find out when the next one was coming out.

The fact that, in the US, the film has a CinemaScore of B+ is a further worry. The CinemaScore is a gauge of what audiences thought of the film on the way out. History shows that B+, while no disaster, is not good news. It generally means that hopes of word of mouth bump are dampened. To put it into context, this year films such as Divergent, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Rio 2 had earned an A score. B+, meanwhile, was the score given to Brick Mansions, Need For Speed, Draft Day and RoboCop. Sony would want to be in the former pack. But its Spider-Man film finds itself in the latter.

As things stand, the plan remains for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 to land in 2016, with Sony set to announce release dates for Sinister Six and Venom imminently. It's expected that one will be released in 2017, one in 2018, and then in 2019 we'll find out if Spider-Man is getting another reboot (Marc Webb has already confirmed he won't make The Amazing Spider-Man 4, and there's a strong possibility that Andrew Garfield won't either).

There are certainly intriguing possibilities in the Spider-Man universe that Sony is planning, and the idea of a Drew Goddard penned and directed Sinister Six movie is a good place to start. But there must be warning sirens in Sony HQ right now. It's building a cinematic universe on foundations that are slowly subsiding. And they're subsiding, in large part, of a consequence of that decision to reboot the Spider-Man franchise so soon, which appears to have taken at least 20% of its audience with it.

It's all certainly salvageable, and a movie making north of $700m is no disaster. But it is a disappointment, and Sony's strategy, going forward, might just need some fine-tuning...

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