The dividing line between success and failure at the movie box office is difficult to pin down. Superficially, it might seem simple: subtract the movie's original production budget from its total worldwide gross, and if the number left over is positive then the movie was a financial success. In reality, however, the additional costs of marketing and distribution can run just as high as the cost of actually making a movie - so much so that many films only begin to turn a profit after they have already grossed twice or even thrice their production budget.
Often we look at box office success as a measure of how likely it is that a movie will get a follow-up (since a common recurring theme in Hollywood is profit = sequel). In this respect, however, Zack Snyder's superhero showdown Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is different from almost any other film in recent memory. This wasn't just a sequel being used to test the waters for further potential sequels; this was the cornerstone of an entirely new universe that already had years of future release dates lined up and, in some cases, tie-in movies already in production. Batman V Superman wasn't just a movie that Warner Bros. was hoping would succeed; it needed to succeed.
At this point - looking collectively at the box office results one month into its release, the response from fans, and the response from critics - anyone who describes Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice unilaterally as either a success or a failure is doing a disservice to the complexity of this movie's reception. After all, any movie that can break box office records and gross north of $800 million while still leaving some in doubt as to whether it has even managed to break even is clearly in an exceptional position.
As Batman V Superman closes out its fifth weekend in theaters, now is a good time to take a look back at the tumultuous nature of the film's release, the impact that this had on its box office, and what it all means for the future of the DC Extended Universe.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in theaters just a few short months after Star Wars: The Force Awakens became the third movie ever to cross the $2 billion mark at the global box office. Earlier that same year, Avengers: Age of Ultron became the second highest grossing Marvel movie of all time, with over $1.4 billion in ticket sales worldwide. Nonetheless, a rumor emerged shortly thereafter that Age of Ultron had been "dubbed a failure" at Disney, because it didn't make as much money or get as good reviews as Joss Whedon's first superhero team-up, The Avengers.
Whether these rumors are true or not, they became part of a noticeable shift in the conversation surrounding what constitutes a success or a failure at the box office, particularly when it comes to movies that are part of a larger franchise. If being one of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all time isn't enough to shut down all talk of a movie being a financial failure, then what does that mean for movies that don't gross $1.4 billion? If The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can be considered to have underperformed with a final tally of over $700 million - so much so that Sony was forced to cut a deal with Marvel Studios to reboot the character all over again as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - does that mean that a movie grossing twice or even three times its production budget just isn't good enough any more?
This, alongside the obviously huge amount of effort and money that Warner Bros. was pouring into promoting Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, meant that the discussion leading up to the movie's release wasn't so much about how much money it would make, as it was about whether Batman V Superman would be able to meet the huge expectations placed upon it. Though studios keep their cards close to their chests when it comes to accounting, some box office analysts estimated that Batman V Superman wouldn't even break even until it hit $800 million worldwide. Among fan circles the number generally agreed upon as the milestone at which Batman V Superman would be a "success" was $1 billion (it's a nice round number, after all). And at first, that target seemed very much achievable.
The Huge Opening Weekend
Warner Bros. was seemingly determined to break at least one record with Batman V Superman's release - perhaps believing that a huge opening weekend would be just the shot of nitro it needed. For whatever reason, the studio gave Batman V Superman a day-and-date release, meaning that it would arrive in theaters worldwide on the same day. The tactic was extremely effective (in the short term, at least), allowing the movie to score a massive $424 million opening weekend and break the record for the biggest worldwide opening for any superhero movie. Since Disney has always staggered the release of Marvel Studios films, and a staggered release is far more common in Hollywood, even the most successful comic book movies couldn't keep Batman V Superman from laying claim to this particular record.
The movie's initial success wasn't all thanks to its distribution pattern, however. In the U.S. alone, Batman V Superman grossed an extremely promising $166 million in its opening weekend, and had this initial interest been followed by a more standard dropoff rate then the movie would no doubt have passed the $1 billion mark by now. As it was, things took a rather more drastic turn.
The Sharp Decline
When it comes to the box office, perhaps no factor is more crucial in predicting a movie's success or failure than word of mouth. It's one of the reasons that it's so hard to get an accurate bead on how well a movie will perform before the review embargo is lifted, and why studios that suspect they may have a dud on their hands often set the embargo date as close to the release date as possible (Fantastic Four's review embargo lifted just one day before its release). It's also the reason why studios often hold advance screenings for hardcore fans who are more likely to view the movie kindly, thereby creating positive early buzz on social media.
In the case of Batman V Superman, the influence of review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes was palpable. The site, which categorizes each review as either "Fresh" or "Rotten" and frequently throws mild or mixed reviews into the latter pile, gave Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice a final score of 28% - certifying it as "Rotten" - and that score came to characterize the word of mouth surrounding the movie. Though some who saw the film praised it and said the critics were crazy, the reviews had a knock-on effect of influencing those who hadn't seen the film, and didn't have the same burning compulsion to see it as the core fanbase. Thus, much of the word of mouth ended up being along these lines: "Batman V Superman? I heard that movie's terrible."
The effect of this negative buzz was profound. Despite the fact that Batman V Superman's biggest direct competition in theaters was My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, the film saw a staggering 69% dropoff from its first weekend to its second, including an 81% dropoff from Friday-to-Friday. Audiences weren't just choosing to watch something else; they were choosing not to go to the movies at all. Batman V Superman fell a further 54% in its third weekend, where it was knocked off the #1 spot by R-rated comedy The Boss.
The Grand Total
Batman V Superman is now closing out its fifth weekend and the final worldwide gross won't be determined for several more weeks, but current projections estimate that it will finish its theatrical run at around $850-900 million worldwide - past the rumored $800 million break even point, a long way past Man of Steel's total take of $668 million, but short of the $1 billion mark and no doubt short of Warner Bros.' highest hopes.
It's still possible that the studio will listen to fan requests for a theatrical release of Batman V Superman's R-rated director's cut, but it seems more likely that Warner Bros. will now be looking to maximize the appeal of the movie's home video release, and the director's cut - with its promise of more hardcore action scenes and appearances by characters who were cut from the theatrical version - will play a significant role in the Blu-ray and DVD marketing. Moreover, a follow-up release could prove to be tricky to place in a summer full of blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse - not to mention Warner Bros.' own Suicide Squad.
As for where Batman V Superman's final standing will be in terms of profit (including TV, merchandise and home video release), SNL Kagan analyst Wade Holden offered an estimate of $278 million, while Wunderlich Securities' Matthew Harrigan said that Warner Bros. will likely be "satisfied" though not "elated" by the results.
The best indication of how Warner Bros. feels about Batman V Superman will be how the studio proceeds in the coming months and years. Zack Snyder hasn't been booted from the upcoming Justice League movie, and as far as we know he's also still set to direct its sequel as well, so obviously the studio isn't in a complete panic. There were rumors that Suicide Squad was undergoing reshoots to lighten its tone, but even these rumors stated that the reshoots were not in direct response to Batman V Superman's critical reception.
The DC Extended Universe has naturally been compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe many times, so it's worth remembering that the MCU did not kick off with its biggest box office hits. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger all grossed significantly less than Man of Steel and a lot less than Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and it wasn't until all the characters teamed up for The Avengers that Marvel finally saw really explosive box office results. Considering Batman V Superman is only the second movie in a whole new universe of superheroes, $850-900 million worldwide is not to be sniffed at.
Really, the chief area of concern for Warner Bros. is Batman V Superman's critical reception, rather than its ticket sales, but the studio is fortunate in that the next DCEU movie appears to be very far removed, both in terms of its story and its tone, from Batman V Superman. If Batman V Superman had been immediately followed up with Justice League then there might be a more urgent need to change tactics, but since Justice League doesn't arrive in theaters until November 2017 the studio has a lot of time to think carefully about how to market its next epic superhero team-up.
It may be a boring conclusion, but based on the available information Batman V Superman's box office results are fine. Not a runaway success, not a disaster, just fine. As for its mixed critical reception - well, tomorrow is another day for the DCEU.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is now playing in U.S. theaters. Suicide Squad will arrive on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman on June 2, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17, 2017; The Flash on March 16, 2018; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on June 19, 2020.