It’s incorrect to label Iron Man 2 a fan boy film – even though it’s based on the Marvel comic book superhero. Many expect Iron Man 2 to earn the highest weekend ever at the domestic B.O, outstripping Warner Bros.’ first frame for The Dark Knight which made $158.4 million in late July 2008. When fan boy films begin churning out huge opening numbers, they become four-quadrant films. Not only is Iron Man 2 currently tracking through the roof in every sector (unaided awareness, total awareness, first choice, definite interest) for Iron Man 2 but no other studio is counter-programming a title against the Marvel sequel – evidence that this is an everyman tent pole.
“The biggest surprise is how much women over the age of 25 enjoyed it,” says Don Harris, Paramount distribution executive vice president and general sales manager, “It’s a testament to Robert Downey Jr.’s appeal.” Though labeled PG-13, Iron Man 2 looks to hook a sizeable number of families. Despite its shoot-em up finale, the violence is arguably tamer than the first installment’s military battle scenes.
At the bare minimum, pre-release tracking suggests that the lowest Iron Man 2 could bank is between $130-$140 million. “Once you look at the (tracking) numbers, and it looks like a film is set to make $100 million, it’s hard to tell whether or not that film will break a record,” says one studio executive. Iron Man 2 is already touting the widest opening of all-time at 4,380 venues, besting Dark Knight's 4,366. However, Paramount is taking a low-key approach to Friday 12:01 am showings, leaving the ultimate choice to exhibitors as to whether they want to screen or not. Contractually, they can’t show the film any earlier. Certain theaters are playing the original Iron Man digitally on Thursday night to warm up the crowd.
To date, Summit Entertainment’s Twilight: New Moon owns the opening midnight record with $26.3 million from 3,514 coffins. Industry speculation is that 2,500 theaters will be flickering Iron Man 2 Thursday into Friday.
Iron Man wasn’t always one of Marvel’s most popular characters. The industry didn’t know what to expect. For two years, the project languished in development at New Line with Nick Cassavetes in the director’s seat, before Marvel walked the feature over to Paramount. Downey, Jr. had a rep as a solid actor with personal demons and an Oscar acting nod for Chaplin; but a box office star he was not. Gwyneth Paltrow tried to position herself in what was initially perceived as tentpole fare (the ill-fated $70 million Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow which grossed $38 million stateside); but it had been a decade since one of her films grossed over $100 million: 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, for which she won an Oscar. Industry estimates predicted that the first Iron Man would bow between $60-$70 million.
But then Iron Man woke up moviegoers, firing up $102.1 million in its first three-days (with $3.5 million from Thursday previews) and $318.4 million stateside.
Summer’s May days
How did we get here?
Which distribution executive first thought that the first weekend of May was the prime time to start summer? Prior to Memorial Day weekend, this was a month where lackluster comedies opened to die, i.e. Dan Aykroyd’s Doctor Detroit ($10.4 million), Robin Williams’ Cadillac Man (427.6 million) and Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil ($46.9 million). Ironically, during the ‘80s, top-grossing films charting during the first May frame included such cult classics as 1984’s Breakin’ and Sixteen Candles and 1982’s Porky’s.
One theory as to why tentpoles began clicking during early May is that the college student portion of the moviegoing public was underserved: this crowd was either already out of school or in a resting period prior to exams. Distributors believe that it merely boiled down to persistence as they consistently prodded the schedule with bigger product, proving that audiences would come.
Arguably, Warner Bros. was the first major studio to jump start summer in 1996 with Twister which bowed to $41.1 million. Then, Universal one-upped Warner Bros. by achieving a May first weekend record opening of $43.4 million in 1999 with The Mummy. Since then, the majors haven’t left the weekend untouched, especially after Sony mined record $100 million-plus bows for the month with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3.