This story first appeared in the May 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
To most, the numbers were shocking: The Avengers opened to a staggering $207.4 million domestic, coupled with $447.4 million overseas in just 12 days of release. When The Hollywood Reporter polled film executives and agents for insight into how Marvel and distributor Disney pulled off a record-breaking weekend, a few clear reasons emerged:
A Five-Year Marketing Plan
Avengers benefited from something no movie had before: It has been marketed to audiences since Iron Man first appeared at Comic-Con in 2007. When that movie became a surprise hit in May 2008 with a $98.6 million opening weekend, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige quickly unveiled his intention to make four more movies -- The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America -- all of which would lead to a giant team-up. Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) popped up in those movies, and the original Iron Man featured a coda segment devoted to the Avengers initiative. At the time, only comic-book fanboys understood the reference.
"They established character equity that, when combined, makes one and one equal a lot more than two," notes Disney distribution head Dave Hollis. "This is Feige's six-year vision to get to a place where people would want to watch these characters assemble."
Grouping several heroes in one movie also primed a wider swath of moviegoers to show up opening weekend. Not a fan of Chris Evans as Captain America? How about Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man or Chris Hemsworth as Thor?
"Every movie that they released was prepping for this one," says a top producer. "That's never been done before, and it was ingenious."
One Man, One Vision
Marvel operates in a way other studios do not: under the direction of one man, Feige, 39, who shapes its movies in a singular way.
Feige has been Marvel's lead producer since Iron Man, and the self-professed comics nerd supervises a dedicated crew with consistency. Along with executive producer Louis D'Esposito, Feige hires actors, writers and directors, keeps talent costs relatively low and executes a Marvel vision across all its films in a way traditional studio executives -- most of whom juggle diverse slates including romantic comedies and dramas -- cannot.
Warner Bros., for instance, has for years wanted to create a universe of films around its DC Comics heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. But a Justice League movie has stalled, in part because there isn't a Feige type to keep the elements together. Warners' recent success with Christopher Nolan's Batman series led the studio to assign him producing duties on its Superman reboot and a planned relaunch of Batman after his The Dark Knight Rises hits theaters in July. Given Marvel's success with Avengers, don't be surprised if Warners -- and Nolan -- take on a Justice League movie soon.
Fox could be in a similar position with X-Men. The franchise was successfully rebooted with 2011's X-Men: First Class, and spin-offs for Wolverine and others are in the works. But these movies lack the cohesive universe that contributed to Avengers' mega-gross.
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Hitting Every Quadrant
The Avengers audience breakdown -- 50 percent over 25, 40 percent female, 55 percent couples, 24 percent families -- shows the film's wide appeal. That's a testament to casting. Fortysomething leading men Downey, Renner and Mark Ruffalo signaled to adults that the movie wasn't just for kids. Hemsworth, 28, and Evans, 30, appealed to young adults, and Samuel L. Jackson, 63, has a huge African-American fan base. At the same time, colorful costumes helped sell the movie to youngsters.
The Laugh Factor
Not many chuckles in The Dark Knight or Harry Potter. But Avengers delivered far more laughs than most summer tentpoles, adding a word-of-mouth benefit typically enjoyed by comedies. Credit goes to director Joss Whedon, 47, known for TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who rewrote Zak Penn's script with his own idiosyncratic humor, such as referring to Thor's outfit as "Shakespeare in the park." Says one observer, "Joss deserves the biggest credit for this movie because that's his tone up there."
Don't Forget 3D
Despite consumer doubts about 3D, Avengers is a big validation of the format and the box-office lift of surcharges. Domestically, roughly 52 percent of the audience watched Avengers in 3D, adding roughly $30 million. Subtract that from $207.4 million and you have $177.4 million, a figure that, while still a record, is closer to the $158 million opening of Dark Knight, which wasn't in 3D when it was released in 2008. The appetite for 3D is even stronger overseas, particularly in Russia, Brazil and China.
Now, with Iron Man 3 weeks away from production, Marvel has said it will make sequels to Thor and Captain America before it returns to Avengers, though Disney CEO Bob Iger announced May 8 that a sequel is already in the works. Plus, Marvel has a second wave of superheroes in development, including Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Runaways and Ant-Man. If those movies come together, Avengers 2 could feature a virtual town hall of heroes. Is a $300 million opening possible?