What Do the Batman v Superman Box Office Numbers Really Mean?

Ed Douglas tries to look past the doomsaying to give some perspective to Batman v Superman's second weekend performance.

A few weeks back, I took a look at the box office potential for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Although the reviews for Zack Snyder’s latest superhero movie were far worse than anyone ever expected, hitting a low of 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, it still managed to open strong over the Easter weekend to the tune of $166 million. That was enough for Batman v Superman to defeat the March opening record from 2012’s The Hunger Games as well as the Easter weekend opening set by last year’s Furious 7 with $147.2 million.

Batman v Superman took in $27.7 million in Thursday previews alone, surpassing the amount made by Avengers: Age of Ultron in its first Thursday last May, although Warners did have earlier and more screenings for their movie as well as more advance pre-sales. BvS took in $81.6 million by Friday (including those Thursday previews), and then took in $50.7 million its first Saturday. At first, it was projected to make $170.1 million that weekend, which would have made it Warner Bros.’ biggest opening, but by the time the dust settled on Monday, that estimate had been reduced to $166 million.

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One might presume that negative reactions from earlier screenings accounted for the difference between the estimated and actual weekend box office or that reviews may have had an effect on the movie’s Sunday business. More likely, that was probably just a classic case of a movie’s gross being overestimated on Sunday morning, because it’s so hard to judge how Easter Sunday will affect a movie’s performance.

As far as the fan reaction to the movie, you might also assume that it was all negative, especially if you weren’t a fan of the movie yourself, but its “B” CinemaScore does not point to the kind of hatred usually associated with this kind of negative fan reaction. There are many more well-received movies that scored lower ratings (such as 10 Cloverfield Lane, which received a “B-,” and The Witch, which received a “C-“ score, two films that had a much warmer critical reception than Batman v Superman).

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Still, a lot of editorials were written about how much the movie dropped from Friday to Sunday. Some of this is simply bad box office reporting by outlets that should know better, accentuating the negatives while ignoring important facts like…

Batman v Superman is the first and only superhero movie to open over Easter weekend.

– Easter weekend is exaggerated on Friday due to the Good Friday school holiday and how Easter Sunday tends to be slower at movie theaters.

– Thursday preview numbers were exaggerated by advance presales due to the anticipation before the negative reviews came out.

Now, the second weekend estimate for Batman v Superman was just $52.4 million, down nearly 68.5% from its opening weekend, which is absolutely terrible by any consideration, but especially without the kind of direct competition you might find if it had been released during the summer. But that also brings its domestic gross to $261 million, which is nothing to sneeze at, when you consider that amounts to more than the total gross for all but seven movies in North America in 2015. And again, that’s in just ten days with the rest of April to add to its coffers.

To better gauge how Batman v Superman is doing, it might be best to do some comparisons, and we might as well start with Daredevil, Ben Affleck’s last foray into superhero movies. It opened with just $40.3 million over President’s Day weekend in 2003 (granted, the pre-Iron Man era was a different time). Daredevil only dropped 55% in its second weekend, which isn’t bad considering that it was coming off an extended holiday weekend.

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More recently, Deadpool opened with $132 million over the same February weekend, showing how much the times have changed in terms of the superhero movie boom. Despite rave reviews and fan love, Deadpool still dropped 57% the following weekend, and part of that larger drop is because of Thursday previews, which only started in recent years. (Quick explanation: studios have been opening their movies earlier and earlier and Thursday “previews” might start screenings at 6 or 7pm, money that’s then factored into the Friday box office. It’s essentially cheating.)

If you take a look at other anticipated sequels that got horrible reviews but did well anyway, you can look no further than Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which received a 19% on RottenTomatoes in the summer of 2009. That score did little to scare away fans, as it took in $200 million in its first five days. It dropped 61% in its second weekend and still grossed $402 million, so if bad reviews really had that much of an effect on whether fans go see movies, Revenge of the Fallen should have tanked much worse after opening.

Batman v Superman‘s second weekend numbers aren’t nearly as bad as that of Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003, which dropped almost 70% from its $62.1 million opening to $18.8 million. On the other hand, BvS had a bigger drop than last year’s Fantastic Four, which dropped 68% in its second weekend. The fact that those movies didn’t open nearly as big as BvS is important to take into consideration, because when a movie opens that big, one has to expect that many more people who wanted to see a movie went opening weekend. It’s called “frontloading” and it’s not uncommon for movies with large fan appeal and a passionate core audience.

By comparison, The Dark Knight opened slightly lower than Batman v Superman with $158 million and it only dropped 52% in its second weekend. The Dark Knight went on to make 3.36 times its opening weekend domestically, while The Dark Knight Rises dropped 61% in its second weekend and grossed 2.8 times its opening. One has to assume that BvS will have an even smaller multiplier based on its second weekend drop and the fact that summer movies like Captain America: Civil War will be taking over theaters in a month’s time.

While Batman v Superman opened bigger than Deadpool, it’s questionable whether it will beat it when it comes to North American box office. Deadpool just cleared $350 million domestically, making it the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time. Right now, BvS is nearly $90 million shy of that amount. At this point, it’s doubtful it will be able to reach the $400 million domestic gross of The Hunger Games and will likely end up closer to Furious 7’s $350 million range.

But the real bottom line is whether Batman v Superman will make money or whether it’s rumored production and marketing budget of almost $400 million will put it in the loss column for Warner Bros.’ year. It has been said that the movie has to make at least $800 million worldwide to break even, and it got off to a really good start with $420 million in its global opening weekend–$20.7 million of that coming from the UK and $57 million from China. Warner Bros. has really been pimping the $254 million it made internationally and the records its set elsewhere, which might also account for why they decided to open it day-and-date worldwide rather than staggering the release between territories.  

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Some might feel this global release was done to make sure that backlash in North America didn’t affect the other territories, but these days, reducing and tightening the theatrical release has become more popular since studios know what kind of money can be made on the secondary market via Blu-ray and DVD. In fact, Warner Bros. already started promoting the unrated/R-rated home video release before anyone had seen the movie and they even released a deleted clip from the movie Monday after opening, possibly in an attempt to try to counter the negative press about its opening weekend drop-off.  

As of this writing, Batman v Superman had grossed $680 million worldwide (more than Man of Steel made in its entire theatrical run), and there’s little question it’s going to surpass the $800 million benchmark for success. Maybe it won’t be setting many more records in North America, but Warner Bros. will make their money back and they’ll learn from this experience with their upcoming releases like Suicide Squad and next year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League (although the latter film could easily be moved from its November 2017 release date into 2018).

Warner Bros. now knows what works (see: Deadpool) and what doesn’t work (most of BvS), and while they will still try to differentiate themselves from what Marvel Studios is doing—just like DC Comics tries to distance and separate itself from Marvel Comics—they’re not going to try to make another movie that’s as deathly serious as Batman v Superman (I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor joins Kevin Spacey’s in the “And they were never seen again…” files either).

There are already rumors of Suicide Squad going through some reshoots to add some humor to create more of the tone delivered by the well-received trailers. The big question is whether Zack Snyder will want to lighten Justice League in order to appease audiences (and possibly the studio). There is certainly a lot that can be done based on what has been set up in Batman v Superman, but they definitely need to make sure that the story isn’t as overly complex and serious since that could turn fans off even further.  

We’ll have to see whether Warner Bros. and the keepers of the DC Cinematic Universe flame learn from the reviews and reactions to Batman v Superman and the negative press and try to adjust accordingly, but this film is by no means a “failure” as some have presumed. It will probably continue to make money as the more casual moviegoers who don’t read reviews go check it out.