Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), starring Tobey Maguire, shocked the world by opening to $115 million its first weekend (Box Office Mojo). In the process, it ignited an explosion of superhero films and proved the business model that would soon yield hits like Iron Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers.
Why was this movie—a critical and financial success that still stands up—remade almost verbatim in 2012? And for the theater-going cynic, why must we sit through two more of these Spider-Man rehashes, starting with Amazing Spider-Man 2 next summer?
The simple answer is money. The Amazing Spider-Man made a worldwide box office total of over $750 million. Even subtracting the movie theater’s cut (approximately 30 percent), the reported $230 million production budget, and $100 million in marketing costs, Sony and Marvel were left with a nice chunk of take-home pay. But the margins are getting thinner.
Of the Raimi trilogy, only Spider-Man 3 had a higher budget than The Amazing Spider-Man. But all three films, even the widely panned third installment, out-earned Amazing Spider-Man at the box office. Adult viewers in particular seem to be suffering from Spider-Man fatigue. Is there a risk that these new movies won’t even break even on the massive budget required to make this type of film? And if it did, would this be a serious blow to the superhero movie genre?
As it turns out, the picture is much bigger than the film. And Spider-Man makes money. Even if the movies don’t. That’s why a bad box office return isn’t likely to stem the tide of more movies.
The Value of the Spider-Man Brand
For Marvel, the value of Spider-Man transcends even the value of the megalithic film franchise. Consider that in 2004, in the midst of the Raimi trilogy, Marvel sold approximately $160 million worth of Spider-Man toys. The Amazing Spider-Man video game, based on the most recent Marc Webb film, sold 460,000 copies on Playstation 3 alone. There is a Spider Man roller coaster at Universal Studios Orlando, a Spider-Man animated TV series of Disney XD, and the Spider Man Mega Blast Web Shooter, without which no childhood is complete.
Why does this matter? What you have to understand about Spider-Man movies is that while many of them have been delightful in their own right, they are also gigantic commercials for highly lucrative Marvel business outside the theater. If Amazing Spider-Man 2 boosts toy sales, re-invigorates ticket sales at Universal Orlando and spurs another video game and television show, its net value will be both immense and difficult to calculate. And this will be true even if the movie itself loses money.
Target Audience for Spider-Man
“Fine,” you say, “I understand the value of the movies. But why does it have to be so soon?”
The answer: because you aren’t the target audience.
When Jeffrey Ford, editor of The Avengers, visited my case-study class at The University of Southern California in 2012, he pointed out that the driving force with Spider-Man is it’s particularly young audience. Because Spider-Man attracts young boys—arguably younger than Batman, Iron Man or Superman fans on the whole—there is a higher demand for quicker reboots. For Marvel to maintain the value of the Spider-Man brand, it must constantly introduce the character to young audiences.
Like Disney, which often re-releases old movies on the latest formats for the benefit of a younger generation, Marvel reboots and remakes to keep its characters young and alive in the hearts of 1o-year-old boys. The same boys who will beg their parents for the action figures, video games and web-shooters that drive a significant percentage of Marvel profits outside the theater.
Who knows, maybe they’ll even buy a comic book.