Hollywood's Superheroic Marketing Headache

Franchise Fever From Marvel, DC Means Audiences Could Be Worn Out By All That Crime Fighting

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With Universal's alien invasion movie "Skyline" out of the gate, Hollywood kicks off one of those not-very-coincidental runs of similarly themed movies that crowd multiplex marquees. In the next few months, "I Am Number 4," "Battle: Los Angeles," "Monsters," "Super 8," "Cowboys and Aliens" and "The Thing" (a remake of sorts of the 1982 flick), among others, will battle for box-office supremacy.

Ryan Reynolds in 'The Green Lantern'
Ryan Reynolds in 'The Green Lantern'
Even if you don't have a borderline unhealthy obsession with Hollywood, most casual observers are quick to spot these sort of trends: vampires, buddy cops, road-trip comedies, '80s throwback, 3-D animated features. That the studios are in the midst of a space invader meme should surprise no one, especially after the reception "District 9" received last year. All it takes is one movie to make a mark at the box office to greenlight all sorts of projects.

Good luck to the studio marketers out there. "Skyline" didn't exactly rake in the big bucks the way those spaceships seem to vacuum up humans; its opening-weekend haul was $11.7 million, but that was good enough for the low-budget film, considering the less-than-enthusiastic critical reception it received. While nothing about "Skyline" seems to break new ground -- even if the marketing tried its very best -- if audiences feel they've seen the movie already, they'll be more inclined to see what else is playing on the next screen.

Then again, this is Hollywood, which, like most CPG marketers, isn't out to overwhelm consumers with "new" as much as "new and improved." Nothing is more reassuring to studios than the familiar, especially if audiences are receptive to seeing the same-old things gussied up in new duds (see: "Karate Kid" vs. "The A-Team"). That said, this alien leitmotif is still a fad. You know what isn't? Movies based on comic books. And for that reason the stakes are much higher. You could say Hollywood is facing a superheroic marketing problem.

Last week, Walt Disney picked up the rights to Image Comics' "Cowboy Ninja Viking," a graphic novel about deadly assassins with multiple personality disorders (or maybe it's the other way around). Not exactly what one would consider Mouse House material, but Disney is no stranger to comic books, courtesy its acquisition of Marvel, home of Iron Man, Captain American and Thor, aka "The Avengers."

Meanwhile, Marvel's longtime rival DC Comics is also part of a media conglomerate, Time Warner. Corporate sibling Warner Bros., which has brought you the likes of Superman and Batman, has a long-term deal with Legendary Pictures, the studio behind Christopher Nolan's exquisite "Batman Begins" series and, um, "Jonah Hex." Not content with just working on Dc properties, Legendary Pictures is launching a division called Legendary Comics, with the aim of bringing out four to six graphic novels a year -- potentially as fodder for its film division.

So if you're already bored with superhero movies, you've got alien movies and possibly zombies to entertain you. (Zombies are going to be big. And "Walking Dead"? Based on a comic book.) But from a marketing perspective, this battle between Marvel and DC and the studios involved is going to make for some fascinating consumer activation -- and should prove as entertaining as what will wind up on a screen nearest you.

Certainly the '00s have been the decade of the superhero. Just focus on the all-stars: Spider-Man, X-Men, Wolverine, Batman and Iron Man, with attempts at renewing the Superman and Hulk franchises thrown in for good measure. And all those properties are in the midst of continued franchise-building, or in a couple of cases, rebuilding with an eye toward keeping the franchises viable for this decade.

Marvel sees all this franchise building as an opportunity to build not only the Marvel brand, but individual hero brands. Summer 2011 brings two more films, "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger" that will help set the tone for 2012's "The Avengers," a superhero team made up of the title characters of those two films as well as Iron Man ("Iron Man 3" arrives 2013) and a other legendary Marvel characters such as Black Widow, Hawkeye and Hulk. Marvel is branding "The Avengers," using the comic's rallying cry of "Avengers Assemble" as a marketing hook for the movie as well as for a larger licensing universe of products galore. (Expectations are running so high for the star-studded "The Avengers" -- directed by every fan boy's favorite, "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon -- that doomsday rumors continue to circulate, alleging that penny-pinching at Marvel threatens to derail the whole project.)

And if that's not enough for 2011, there's plenty of talk that Marvel is looking to the small screen for three other projects. And, as we first reported, there's a plan in development pegged to 2017.

DC, which has arguably had a longer and more successful track record over the years with Batman and Superman, by comparison appears to be playing catch-up. But Time Warner has opened a West Coast operation for DC Comics, and next summer is releasing the much buzzed "Green Lantern" (not to be confused with another emerald crime fighter arriving earlier in 2011, "The Green Hornet"). Like "Iron Man," "Green Lantern" is also a little-known character to most moviegoers, but if the Ryan Reynolds-starring vehicle can pull off "Iron Man"-like heroics at the box office, it'll give DC an opportunity to also build a live-action franchise around properties such as "The Justice League of America." Already discussion has centered around "The Flash" getting the big-screen treatment, and let's not overlook the near-euphoria that emerged after it became clear that Christopher Nolan was getting started on his third Batman picture and was producing the Superman reboot, to be helmed by "300's" Zach Snyder.

But the leap from comic-book shop to big or small screen hasn't been limited to the spandex-wearing do-gooder -- 2010's "Kick-Ass," "The Losers," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "Red," Fox's "Human Target ," AMC's "Walking Dead," to mention a select few, are all based on comics or graphic novels. The first three on that list had, at best, not quite met their expectations when released earlier this year, while the latter so far have exceeded expectations.

Just how many comic-book spinoffs can audiences handle? As many as Hollywood is willing to crank out, I bet, as long as studios treat the projects with brand reverence. By this I don't mean necessarily being slavishly loyal to the origin materials. If "Iron Man" is a brand, then Marvel and Disney need to stay true to that brand. (This is more than just keeping Joel Schumacher away from your spandex.) The money poured into these properties certainly raises the stakes to make each film appeal to every quadrant, but as Detroit and others have learned, being all things to all people backfires in the long run.

So what lessons are there for studio marketers? If the past year was anything to go on, here's a few to consider:

1. The fan boys care. But the rest of the moviegoing public doesn't. That Ryan Reynolds clip from the summer's San Diego Comic-Con in which he delivers the Green Lantern oath to an 8-year-old was priceless and probably went a long way to stoke excitement for the film -- among the audience that cares about "In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil's might beware my power ... Green Lantern's light!" Audiences didn't know much about Iron Man's Arc Reactor either, so remember the larger public.

2. Movie fans like movies. And some of them also like comic books. But while most people will get that "Green Lantern" or "Captain America" is based on a comic book, not every property that makes it onto a screen needs to play up its four-color origins. Case in point: "Red" has been steadily kicking ass at the box office despite being a movie pitched at -- brace yourselves -- adults. But Summit played down any overt mention of the film's comic-book origins even though its overall marketing materials had a fantastic comic-book feel.

3. And everyone likes good movies. For every "Iron Man," there's a "Daredevil," "Elektra," "Ghost Rider," and some really bad Batsuits. The Jon Favreaus and Christopher Nolans of the studio world are few and far between. The potential for a future franchise is only as good as the final product; no amount of marketing can save a clunker. The studios are risking consumer fatigue, and they know it. Witness Marvel's attempt at making its upcoming slate of movies an integrated offering rather than a collection of standalone properties that could wear out an audience.

4. Make new fans: If you're going to break the bank putting butts in the seats to see your latest tentpole, maybe you can reward the audience with more than a trailer for another comic-book movie. When I saw "The Punisher" a few years back, Marvel handed out comic books to ticket holders. Maybe the media conglomerates can take that synergy a step further: How about a free digital download of a comic for the iPad or a promotion that rewards the longtime comics fan with a free ticket to a local screening? A little goodwill could go a long way in case your potential "Iron Man" turns into "Howard the Duck."

Aris Georgiadis is assistant managing editor for Ad Age and editor of Madison & Vine. You can also find him on Twitter.
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