14 May, 2011

You too can be superheroes

Melbourne Herald Sun, Friday May 13, 2011

Were you like me as a kid? Did you pretend to sleep till mum put the light out and left the room, then pull out a torch and read comics under the blankets?

And what were our favourite comics? All those amazing superheroes of course. In a corner of your room a hefty pile of well-thumbed and swapped garish magazines: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Spiderman. A lot of your life revolved around that little collection.

So who would have thought that all these years on you'd still be entranced by these heroes - and that they would become a multi-billion dollar business?

Every year the movies keep appearing and filling the multiplexes. Not just with teenagers and kids, either. A good few fogies go along in memory of dark and distant bedrooms.

But never mind the ten-cent comic. In the past 33 years our superheroes have pulled in $17 billion through box office windows world-wide.

The first of these mega-flicks was Superman. In 1978 Warner Brothers took the plunge and budgeted a huge $60 million to make a kids' film that had to pull the adults in as well, if it were ever to make profit.

A chunk of the budget was spent on insurance - by buying the biggest names in Hollywood like Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Suzannah York, Glenn Ford. In the end it cost double the budget.

But when it grossed over $300 million, suddenly it was not such a crazy business proposition and the comic books started their epic migration from print to screen.

DC Comics held sway with their Superman and Batmanfranchises, but a decade later their great rivals Marvel Comics got into the action with the movie Blade.

From there the race was on. Marvel started to dig into their catalogue, bringing us the X-Men and Spiderman series.

Many did well, others failed to even repay their expensive special-effects-heavy budgets.

But boy when these blockbusters hit, they bust the block. The biggest grosser world-wide has been Batman: The Dark Night, with Christian Bale as the good guy and our own late-lamented Heath Ledger as the Joker. That pulled in more than a billion bucks. Makes the $200 million investment look a bit less crazy.

These movies rely heavily on pulling in the early swarms of teenagers looking for holiday diversion.

This is why the new Thor opened last weekend in America to capture the Memorial Day start of the summer season, whereas here in Australia it started a month before, to catch the Easter holiday crowd.

Once again this big budget was invested in a sterling cast. Some of the least comic-book actors you can imagine like Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman and that most Shakespearian of directors, Kenneth Branagh.

But it wasn't such a risky decision - already it has earned eight million more than its $150 million budget, and half of that was made overseas, while the real US income has not hit yet.

Of course in this age of giants in the corporate world you can forget about the gallant little art and story company of the early Stan Lee days. Now each belongs to a huge corporation: DC with Times Warner and Marvel with Walt Disney.

Being publishing houses, the business cuts both ways. While the magazines created generations of fans weaned and familiar with the stories, the movies also promote the magazines.

Even accounting for the flops and disasters, these super-movies cost an average $73 million to make and returned an average $150 million each. Not a bad investment if you've picked the right superhero.


1 comment:

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