What the rest of Hollywood will be half-assedly copying for the foreseeable future.
Guardians of the Galaxy had a ginormous opening weekend, with $95,000,000 in ticket sales in the good ol’ US of A, and $65,000,000 more internationally. Right now the execs at Marvel studios are probably feasting on fruit and muffin baskets aplenty (possibly philate-free jerky baskets too. I hear that’s a thing now.) Boffo box-office always spells an uptick in edible gift basket assortments, champagne, coke, and escort service bookings. Kevin Feige and company should be congratulating themselves and basking in the glow of the biggest movie opening this year.
That’s where we start; a movie’s opening weekend, and the slavish hype surrounding it, can make or break a movie. How many times have you been on the fence about a film and then you checked the box office report on Monday, saw that it debuted at #7 with 5 million dollars and though “Nah, I’ll wait for redbox to have it.” Box office doesn’t paint an entire picture, as PR departments for the studios are fond of saying (especially after their new release debuted at #7 with 5 million dollars) but what a movie makes, and the general public knowing that, definitely skews perception of a movie’s “success”. So the studio PR folk can say that it doesn’t mean everything, but it is the primary metric. HELL I’M DEDICATING THIS WHOLE COLUMN TO THE SUBJECT AND IT LOOKS LIKE THE ESCORT JOKE IS AS RACY AS I’LL GET! So much so that there is an attempt to create the perception of being #1 even when you aren’t; consider ads running after release week that tout “#1 comedy in America!”, “# 1 Tyler Perry movie out this month!”, “#1 movie after the box office winner!” Of course the door swings both ways and a movie that makes a huge box office splash can laud that. Sadly, I’m pretty sure that the “#1 movie in the WORLD!” graphic ad-ons for Trans4mers were prepped weeks ahead.
So, let’s not fool ourselves – A big opening weekend can be life or death for a major market film, especially something the size of Trans4mers: AoE and Guardians of the Galaxy (A slow build movie like the amazing “Snowpiercer” can go about its marketing and earnings differently but that’s a different article entirely). You gotta build anticipation and awareness for your film, but don’t over-saturate or choose the wrong channels to hype. There are a lot of variables and it is a precarious high-wire act.
Marvel studios has been uncannily skilled at pulling this off. Something might surpass GotG numbers, but I can’t recall anything coming up the rest of the year that has even a fraction of the anticipation levels that Guardians had (Hobbit – The battle of the five armies, maybe, but I think we all just want to get that series over with).
And how was such a thing possible? Hardly anybody outside of comic fans knew of Guardians of the Galaxy before this movie was announced. Conventional wisdom must have almost pissed itself laughing over a movie that asks us to take a talking raccoon seriously as a character. Zoe Saldana is pretty much the biggest name in the movie, (Chris Pratt is essentially untested, Lego Movie aside) she can open a film but has never been the foundation of a tent-pole franchise. I think most people might not even recognize her beyond “I think it’s that blue chick from Avatar… she’s hot!” Sure there is Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper as voices, and I’m not discounting their work, but only hard-core Vin fans (should there be a name for hard-core Vin Diesel fans? Something like Dieselites or Vin-a-rators or something?) Would see a movie because their hero is the voice of a tree.
No, there is a bit more at play here, and I’m going to break down and analyze Marvel’s game plan and possibly suggest how other studios have been trying to copy the playbook (and how they’ll most likely bork it).
1) Court the hard-core fans – Marvel has pretty much stayed true to the source material, which makes sense, but you wouldn’t know it to see other studio’s treatment of beloved properties pre-Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Marvel is handling their own material, of course, but the temptation to smooth the rough edges of a property for mass consumption must’ve been great, and allowing some of the creative teams to put their own personal divergent stamp at the expense of cannon must’ve been another temptation. The thing is, when you make those moves the first people that will jump on you and cry foul is the hard-core fan community. They are the ones scanning the interwebs for news of a movie adaptation long before a project even makes it to rights being acquired. These are the people most emotionally invested and, if done right, will be the first ones in line to see that movie when it comes out. These are also the people that will, over the course of the build-up to release, most likely do a lot of grassroots work for the movie; initiate friends and family into the fandom of the property. They talk extensively about the tiniest details during production online and gatherings of like-minded people. They speculate, analyze, deconstruct… hope. Everyone is media-savvy nowadays and just a whiff of inauthenticity and insincerity could start a backlash. The foundation of authenticity starts with the hard-core fans. Marvel has always known this and has generally kept favor with that core.
Tell me your heart didn’t race when, after the Iron Man credits, Nick Fury dropped lines like “… A bigger universe.” And “…The Avengers initiative.” We, as the hard-core fans, couldn’t believe what was being said. Any friends there to see the movie with us that didn’t know what was going on we were damn sure gonna explain it to them. By keeping true to the source material Marvel keeps the first and most loyal fans, and that foundation is solid. Sure Guardians has weird shit like a gun happy raccoon, BECAUSE THE COMIC HAS A GUN HAPPY RACOON! The fans expect an honest to god talking raccoon shooting people. Those expectations have been met and exceeded continuously with Marvel.
Conversely Warner Brothers has a vibe of taking their DC hero fans for granted. The tedious Man of Steel futzed with the Superman mythos enough that you felt there was no respect for the source material. You felt (or I felt at least) that the film makers had no idea what the essence of Superman was. Of course we all expected Man of Steel to be our gateway to a DC shared universe and “Dawn of Justice” apparently is. But look at how the Superman “Sequel” has not only Superman and Batman, but Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Red Tornado, Matter Eater Lad, and Gleek the Super-Monkey (I might be speculating on a few of those). Instead of growing their shared universe, Warner’s wants it all at once. So cram as many superheroes in as possible. Who cares if the movie is cluttered and nonsensical the kids will go see Batman and think of the toy sales!
2) Marvel is a brand unto itself – The studio has cultivated a brand awareness that really only Pixar is in front of; “I’ll take a risk on that goofy looking space movie with the talking tree. I loved Avengers and the Captain America movies… and the Iron Man movies… and yeah, Thor was cool too.” Usually using the ad line “From the studio that brought you…” is a mark of desperation. Not so with Marvel; the movie going public, in general, sees the Marvel logo and there is a level of expectation and an innate knowledge of what you’re getting regardless of the specifics of the movie. The serious fans look to Marvel to keep delivering and growing their shared universe and doing it great, and we love ‘em for it. In marketing it is called a “lovemark” and few brands have ascended to this status – Harley Davidson, Pixar, PEZ, a few others and I’ll go out there and say it, Marvel. This makes a (on paper) weird property like Guardians an easier sell because we trust the source. They’ve done it right so far. Think about it; how many of you saw the trailer for “Up” and said to yourself “Old man in a balloon house… ummmm well, it’s Pixar I’ll give it a chance.” The general film public even knows to hang around for the after credits scene. Sure several friends asked me who the hell was that purple guy at the end of Avengers (and if cry spoilers I will find you and kick you in the nuts), and most got the fact that Thanos is the big bad of the cinematic universe.
Warner Brothers isn’t a lovemark, neither is Sony or Paramount. When the ads for a tepid action flick coming out in February proclaim “From the studio that brought you a similar movie that fits the demographic and genre of this one…” you’ll see it for what it is. Universal is doing a “shared universe” thing with its stable of classic monsters, I’m cautiously optimistic, that’s the closest any of the other studios can get apart from WB and the DC brand.
3) The marketing campaign for Guardians of the Galaxy has been pretty flawless. Watch the first trailer from several months ago…
If this didn’t get you amped for a movie half a year away I don’t know what would. It’s funny, action packed, has Easter eggs for the hard core fans, funny, “Hooked on a Feeling”, funny, and introduced the characters in a sympathetic and engaging way. Plus the “What a bunch of A-holes.” Line freaking KILLED! All the usual social media trappings were there; a twitter account, Facebook page etc. The marketing kept a steady pace making sure we weren’t overdosed on GotG but always aware it was sitting there on August 1st waiting to entertain us. “Buzz”, that abstract concept of how much good or bad will a movie has with the zeitgeist, always grew in a positive direction. I personally never saw or sensed any backlash; everybody was excited to see it and everybody wanted to like it. Everybody was pretty sure they WERE gonna like it. That’s “buzz” and it was managed to perfection here. The masterstroke was the seventeen minute preview in theaters across the country a month before… you bet your ass I saw it here is the review on this very site.
Gushing to say the least. But that got everyone out there that had a stake in the blog-o-verse and such talking about it even more! We wouldn’t be doing our job if we weren’t reviewing it. Just some great marketing Kung-Fu there. The usual channels were running the promotion trail shortly after that; Zoe on a few magazine covers, interviews with James Gunn (whose enthusiasm for the movie was a great selling point), fluff pieces on the stars, photo-ops, etc. Everything was humming along but the pre-view goosed the whole enchilada to a different level. Everybody was primed and waiting.
And then announcing the sequel before the movie debuted! Not only did this telegraph Marvel’s confidence in Guardians of the Galaxy but it gave those of us who write about such things EVEN MORE to talk about just a week before the movie opened. More media Kung-Fu.
4) The movie lives up to the well managed hype! None of this would matter or hold water if the movie itself didn’t deliver. Rocking a ninety three percent rating on rottentomatoes.com, Guardians of the Galaxy has also done well with the critics. The worst complaint is along the lines of being pure pop entertainment, and some critics resentfully find a problem with that. Trans4mers: AoE could coast on being loud and dumb. Guardians has charm, laughs, heart, and a grand sense of fun with exciting and well done action scenes. The connection is earned; you WANT to hang out with Star Lord and company, enjoy their antics and bickering. The movie hits that (in marketing terms) four quadrant sweet spot where just about everybody can have two hours of fun. Not bad for an odd duck of a property that wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance of even being looked at a decade ago. James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, the cast, and crew delivered a movie that is a distinctive bright spot in a pretty lame summer. The fun I and just about everyone else in America and the world had watching Guardians of the Galaxy earns the box office rewards it gets.
The rest of Hollywood is probably looking at sticking a talking ferret in a movie with Sylvester Stallone as you read this.