THOR Positions Marvel Studios Well ... For Now

Big-Screen THOR Makes Strong Statement

Marvel Studios’ and Paramount’s big-screen 3D epic Thor led the North American box office again this past weekend, with an estimated $34.7 million, bringing its 10-day domestic total to $119.5m.

The figures, while solid enough, are well behind the 10-day totals of other recent Marvel-based films like Iron Man ($177.8m in 2008), Iron Man 2 ($211m in 2010), and even X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($129m in 2009). Add in ticket price inflation and the 3D premium factor, and you can argue the case that Thor is performing significantly below those films. And for the most part you’d be right … less people have gone to see Thor than any of those other films.

Heck, even the first Fantastic Four movie probably packed more people in the seats in its first 10 days of release, and Fox is looking to reboot that franchise after only two entries.

But a closer look at some key figures indicate the folks at Marvel are probably quite pleased with the Thunder God’s cinematic debut after this weekend, with the first key number being 47.2%.

That’s the percentage Thor’s box office receipts declined in its second weekend compared to its first, and it also happens to be the least a Marvel film has declined since 2002’s Spider-Man fell off just 37.8% in its second weekend in release.

60% (ish) or worse has been the norm for Marvel-based films the last few years - witness Iron Man 2 - 59.4%, Wolverine - 69.0%, The Incredible Hulk - 60.1%, and Spider-Man 3 - 61.5%. Thor even held a tick better than the declines of critical-darlings Iron Man (48.1%) and Spider-Man 2 (48.7% in 2004).

The lack of a new summer blockbuster opening against Thor this past weekend probably contributed to the strong hold, as well as, again, the 3D factor (it apparently did very well with family audiences on Saturday). But the below average (in a good way) decline probably is best attributed to the simple fact that people seem to like the film, and are sharing their thoughts by social media and the more ole’ fashioned word-of-mouth.

Thor’s initial disadvantage against superheroes with higher Q factors like Wolverine, Iron Man, and Spider-Man has already been well-documented so we won’t detail it further here, but if it continues to show Iron Man-like legs over the next few weeks, it will not only flirt with the domestic $200 million domestic box office mark, it will likely be a prime candidate to experience the Batman Begins effect.

What’s that you ask? That’s the Newsarama-named relationship between how a sequel performs after the well-received original picks up new fans on a successful home video run.

While for years the general rule was sequels underperformed originals (all three Spider-Man declined domestically for example), in recent years some franchises like The Lord of the Rings, The Twilight Saga, and Pirates of the Caribbean have done the opposite, with the most significant example being Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman films.

History remembers 2008’s The Dark Knight as the $500m+ domestic and over $1 BILLION worldwide behemoth that catapulted Nolan into the upper-echelon of contemporary filmmakers. But how many remember the rather relative modest performance of Batman Begins in 2005?

Despite its warm critical reception and having been eight years since the last film, fans still smarting over the 1997 abomination Batman & Robin received the franchise reboot with some caution. The film grossed just $48m its opening weekend (consider Fantastic Four opened to $56m three weeks later), and went on to total just $205m. Nothing to sneeze at for sure, but not numbers you’d associate with a film of that pedigree.

The real action for the franchise took place over the three years between Begins and Dark Knight, when moviegoers who couldn’t be talked into giving Begins a go in theaters discovered it on DVD, premium cable, and eventually basic cable and network broadcast.

Sure, the buzz surrounding star Heath Ledger’s passing contributed to the Dark Knight’s must-see factor, but that alone didn’t explain a sequel over doubling its original’s domestic gross and nearly tripling its worldwide gross.

Iron Man 2 exhibited a similar phenomena, at least early on. While as previously noted Spider-Man 2 underperformed Spider-Man both in opening weekend and overall domestic gross despite both being very well received, Iron Man 2 outgrossed Iron Man by $30m over their respective opening weekends ($128m vs. $98m). But the lukewarm critical response eventually caught up to it, and the sequel would up grossing $6m less than its predecessor despite its significant head start.

Thor is showing the signs both in the U.S. and abroad to eventually broaden its fanbase when it comes to home video later this year, which is good news for a prospective sequel but even better news for Joss Whedon’s Avengers. But then again the positive vibes being generated for Thor are probably nothing July’s Captain America: The First Avenger can’t undo if that films turns out to be more Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk than Thor or the first Iron Man.

The second encouraging Thor figure for Marvel in terms of the future of the franchise and more immediately the Avengers is its foreign receipts, $225m as of Monday and currently accounting for 65.3% of the film’s $344m worldwide gross. Again, the 3D factor noted, there was some speculative concern that Thor, being a lesser-profile superhero, might not play overseas as well as some other properties, but perhaps worldwide audiences are being attracted by the Norse mythology angle?

Marvel films have generally performed around even or better domestically vs. worldwide. Iron Man made $266.8m in foreign receipts, or 45.6% of its worldwide gross and Iron Man2 made $309.6m for 49.8%.

While Thor opened in many foreign markets a week before it opened in the U.S. and its current 34.7% domestic vs. 65.3% foreign ratio will make a move towards the middle before it’s all said and done, most true global box office giants fall into the 30’s/60’s split. Thor performance so far could indicate it may help to warm up the worldwide market over the next 354 days before the Avengers, particularly since many pundits believe regardless of its quality, Captain America may prove to be a tougher sell overseas. In fact, in several countries, it will only be titled The First Avenger, leaving out the patriotic character name altogether.

Look for Thor to battle it out this weekend with Bridesmaids for the #2 spot behind the latest installment of (somewhat ironically) Disney’s The Pirates of the Caribbean. But the key figure to look for will be a weekend-to-weekend decline in the high-30 percent range.

If the Thunder God can say thee nay to anything more than a 40% attrition rate at multiplexes, the odds of Marvel’s big cinematic gamble will improve considerably.

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