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How ‘Batman v Superman’ Rewrote the Hollywood Blockbuster Formula

Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of JusticeBatman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

As audiences know full well by now, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel square off in an epic battle. What you may not know is this: Even the studio was shocked by its success.

The film’s super-sized box-office returns over Easter weekend punched the lights out of every industry expectation.

Pulling in $420.1 million worldwide, Batman v Superman toppled Marvel’s The Avengers to become the highest-grossing global superhero movie debut of all time (and seventh most successful opening of any film to date).

“That’s about $100 million more than we thought we’d ever get,” admitted Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of theatrical distribution for the movie’s distributor Warner Bros. “I can’t believe we hit a number that large.”

Even scathing reviews couldn’t stop the movie’s momentum. This sequel to director Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel may have established a new business model in Hollywood. Call it the Rotten Tomatoes-proof blockbuster. The movie had a 29 percent “freshness” rating on the movie-review aggregating website

Batman v Superman is a tiresome, ill-tempered film, and one too lazy even to earn its dismal outlook,” wrote Christopher Orr in The Atlantic. “I feel sorry for kids and families who will be sucked into seeing this blockbuster,” wrote Leonard Maltin. “Don’t kids deserve to cheer for a superhero in this kind of movie?”

“Some critics were unduly harsh,” said Goldstein. “But there’s no question the audiences felt differently. They made up their mind and voted with their feet. So there is a disconnect between what the audiences felt and the critics wrote.”

So how’d it blow up all expectations?

Sequel strength

In an era when sequel after sequel has been slumping at the box office—recent ones including The Hunger Games: Mockingly—Part 2; The Divergent Series: Allegiant; Terminator: Genisys; The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials; and Skyfall each earned significantly less than their previous franchise installments—Batman v Superman surpassed prerelease tracking estimates by more than $50 million domestically.

Moreover, as the jumping-off point for an intended interlocking series of movies based on DC Comics characters including Wonder Woman, Cyborg and Aquaman, the $250 million Batman v Superman provides a crucial function for Warner Bros. It serves to establish a viable counterpoint to the Marvel Cinematic Universe—home to such blockbuster superhero franchises as Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers and Captain America—in an era when industry observers have predicted viewer fatigue with comic book movie adaptations.

“Going into this, we had such high expectations. We really believe in the property. And not just in Batman and Superman but the whole story arc of the DC Universe,” said Goldstein. “Did I feel the pressure of multiple movies? Of course! Here we are launching this movie and it’s the start of a whole story arc for a bunch of movies. And you go, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty bold move to do that.’”

Repeat business

In 2013, fanboys reacted to Ben Affleck’s casting as Batman with vocal dismay. And for more than a year before the film’s release, Batman v Superman’s various trailers and teaser video clips were pointedly critiqued across the blogosphere and social media. But anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those same fanboys are now repeat customers helping drive ticket sales into blockbuster territory.

“Fandango is seeing 30% more repeat business for Batman v Superman than the company sees for a typical blockbuster,” said Fandango’s vice president of communications Dana Henry Benson, “and sales for the movie continue to be strong today.”

According to Goldstein, movie theater owners estimate 5 to 10% of their business over the Easter weekend came courtesy of repeat business.

“You can’t gross this kind of business without people coming back,” he said. “The math isn’t there.”

Getting a jump on blockbuster season

By scheduling Batman v Superman’s release before before summer, when theaters are packed with so-called “tentpole” films (they support the studio) and competition among splashy event movies is at its most fierce, Warner Bros. took a counter-programming gamble. In 2014, the studio made the unorthodox decision to push back its roll-out to Easter weekend to capitalize on school holidays.

“We had 35% of the kids out of school as we opened last Wednesday. Then on Friday, almost everyone was off of work and out of school for Good Friday,” Goldstein said. “Forty-five percent of the kids are out of school this week. This is just a huge vacation period.”

“Quite honestly, in the summertime, you don’t get any running room,” he continued. “You have a movie that opened up before you. And one comes right after you. So you never get time to be by yourself. Well, right now there’s nothing in the marketplace the size and scope of this. One of the things that brought audiences is, the movie looks big. It looks important. And it looks fun.”