The unprecedented global box office success of “Avengers: Endgame” was a $1.22-billion boon for Walt Disney Co. and movie theaters around the world.
But it also, in a single weekend, encapsulated sweeping long-term changes in the movie business — one that is increasingly driven by global audiences, the rising power of social media, and multi-part movie franchises that act almost like TV shows for the big screen.
The Marvel Studios film delivered a record-shattering $1.22 billion in worldwide ticket sales during its opening weekend, including $356 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to studio estimates reported Monday. That’s well above what some analysts thought would be impossible because of the logistical restrictions posed by the film’s three-hour run time (longer films limit the number of screenings theater owners can have each day).
Coming off the box-office success of their latest blockbuster, “Endgame” co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo credited social media conversations with creating an intense fear of missing out among global audiences for “Endgame,” driving more people to want to see it in theaters as soon as possible. If people wanted to talk about the movie with friends and avoid the risk of spoilers, they pretty much had to see it by Sunday.
The gargantuan performance was a “testament to serialized storytelling, [and] something that can only be made possible through social media and the collective global conversation about content,” Joe Russo said Monday at a panel discussion at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills.
“There’s a very clear ratio between social conversations and success with these movies,” he added at the annual event held at the Beverly Hilton. “Social media is driving a different kind of consumption.”
Trailers showing the surviving Avengers dealing with the aftermath of villain Thanos’ deadly finger-snap were viewed by millions of people online within the first hours of their release. The trailers released online raised the stakes for the characters without disclosing plot points. Disney even started using a hashtag, #DontSpoiltheEndgame, on social media.
“Endgame” is the culmination of 11 years of story lines in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and 21 prior movies featuring many of the world’s most popular heroes. The highly lucrative franchise has benefited from more than a decade of intense loyalty for the franchise among people who have gotten to know Iron Man/Tony Stark, Captain America/Steve Rogers, Thor and other characters over the course of the previous movies.
Fans were already eager to see the resolution of last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” which ended with a cliffhanger in which half of the people in the universe were wiped out, including some beloved characters. The baked-in interest in the series has allowed Disney to promote each new movie while giving away virtually nothing about the plot.
The film’s extraordinary success further validates the enduring appeal of cinema even in the age of streaming, the brothers said. People want to see the Marvel movies in theaters and experience the collective feeling they get from cheering for their favorite characters, the directors said. “It can feel a little like a rock concert,” Anthony Russo said.
“Endgame’s” $356-million domestic debut exceeded the previous record, held by “Infinity War,” by about $100 million and helped to give the industry a much-needed boost at the box office after a sluggish start earlier this year. The Marvel Studios films have grossed $19.9 billion worldwide to date.
The latest film also benefited from a global release strategy that made sure the film opened in nearly every country during the same week, including China, the world’s second-largest box office market.
That’s key for highly anticipated big-budget movies that rely on a worldwide wave of interest to propel sales, a strategy that studios call “eventizing,” because they want to turn their movies into can’t-miss events at a time when films face more competition than ever from premium television and streaming. “Endgame” collected a record-breaking $330.5 million in China alone.
“There’s a dialogue happening on a global scale about these movies,” Anthony Russo said. “When you can actually figure it out when you’re literally releasing everywhere at the same time, it’s difficult to pull off, but it’s critical.”
The runaway success of “Endgame” comes at a time when other movies are struggling to get attention at the multiplex. Even after the launch of “Endgame,” the U.S.-Canada box office is down more than 11% from a year ago because of a paucity of hits. Though social media worked in favor of “Endgame,” bad buzz online has helped destroy the prospects of films such as the Lionsgate release “Hellboy.”
“Avengers: Endgame” is also a prime example of a trend in which the box office is concentrating in a handful of giant films. Franchises such as “Avengers” are the rare types of movies that draw the masses out of their houses with a see-it-now appeal, even on a weekend that saw a key episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
To compete with the small screen, movies have started to emulate TV in many ways, illustrated by “Endgame” and the entire Marvel series of interconnecting characters and stories. “Endgame” is a kind of season finale.
The Russo brothers, who honed their skills working on shows such as “Arrested Development” and “Community,” were the ideal directors to tackle the formidable task of bringing together a massive cast of characters with their own histories and relationships. The strategy also depended on Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige’s ability to chart out the superhero films’ trajectory, consistently producing hits since 2008’s “Iron Man.” The brothers have made four Marvel films together.
The movie industry, Joe Russo pointed out, is no longer a business of making “two-hour, closed-end” movies. Although the business of making stand-alone films had a good run, he said, “this generation is craving a different kind of storytelling.”
Franchises such as Marvel will be a key weapon in Disney’s battle to attract streaming audiences to Disney+, its $6.99-a-month platform that launches in November. Disney is planning multiple shows starring characters and actors from the Marvel feature films.
Joe Russo said the competition between Netflix and Disney will be an important test of the company’s strategies and execution. Netflix has a head start with nearly 150 million subscribers and is trying to create more quality content, while Disney is relying on the quality of its existing intellectual property to drive subscriptions.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who achieves their goals first, because that’s going to determine dominance,” he said.