'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Proves Disney Owns the Patent on Blockbusters

If there's a recipe for today's movie blockbusters, the performance this past weekend of Avengers: Age of Ultran, shows that Disney (DIS) retains an unparalleled mastery of building brands that transcend filmmaking.

Despite going head-to-head with the heavily hyped pay-per-view boxing match between Ray Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, Avengers: Age of Ultron posted weekend box-office sales of $187.7 million, earning the distinction as the second-largest North American opening weekend of all-time. Although the Avengers sequel was unable to best the original Avengers film from 2012, Marvel films still hold the top three slots on the box office all-time list with Iron Man 3 ranking third.

The Avengers sequel had been forecast to top its predecessor, but Disney had the bad luck of going head-to-head with a mass market sporting event that exceeded expectations. Pay-TV channels were scrambling just after midnight Saturday to handle a surge on pay-per-view demand. On Friday, it looked as though Ultron might break all records when box-office  receipts hit $84.5 million, but the fight clipped those aspirations.

Nonetheless, surpassing the $100 million mark over the weekend proved that Disney had done its work, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the global media measurement firm, Rentrak. 

"Very few films even have a shot at reaching that kind of height in the opening weekend," Dergarabedian said. "It shows you the massive level of interest that Marvel movies generate. This may be the brand [for Disney] that instills the most excitement."

This is Disney's sixth Marvel film, and the animation studio has proved to be a powerhouse, helping drive Disney's stock price to a 17% advance this year compared to the S&P 500 which has only gained 2.4%.

Using Marvel as a blueprint, Disney has begun adapting their classic animated films to live action, driving the box office successes of Frozen and  Cinderella and Maleficent; Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, and Pinocchio are on the way. Even Disney's original films opening this summer like Tomorrowland and Pixar's Inside Out are part of a franchise.

"It's tougher to get originals out there," said Dergarabedian, "Even Tomorrowland is a brand. People know that name. And people know Pixar."

Disney , of course, isn't the only studio leaning on franchise characters. Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast's NBC/Universal, continues to score with Furious Seven, the most recent sequel braking its own records last month. According to Box Office Mojo, Furious Seven spent four weekends in a row at first place on the domestic box office before Ultron took over. It also ranks fourth with the largest worldwide gross of all-time, trailing the original Avengers film.

"With sequels, if you're having the same thing over and over again, fatigue sets in and people get sick of it," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of Box Office Guru. "One of the reasons why the Fast and Furious franchise has done so well - seven movies into its series - is that every sequel offers something new. They have new cast members, they go to different countries, they keep upping the ante every time."

It's now the fourth highest grossing film of all time.

There's no denying that superhero movies are dominating theaters. With the top three films on the all-time list coming from the Marvel universe, it's safe to say superhero films have maintained blockbuster status. Superheroes have always been popular, hailing back to the original Batman and Superman films of the 70s and 80s. While the right kind of superhero movie can reel in audiences, like the Avengers films have shown, an influx can cause deter viewers.

"Superhero films have done so well in the last ten years that [production companies] have invested in over a dozen more that are coming up in the next 8 or 9 years. That's risky," said Pandya. "Audiences might get superhero fatigue if there are too many of them."

Not only do blockbusters depend on the domestic box office, but international audiences are becoming more influential. With the growth of markets especially in China, Korea, and Russia, Disney has consciously made an effort to attract that audience base. Ultron even opened overseas a week ahead of the U.S.

"It's no coincidence that part of Avengers: Age of Ultron takes place in Korea," said Pandya. "A lot of other superhero films - Iron Man 3 and the Transformers movie - take place in China, and have Chinese actors, and sometimes Chinese financing. There's a reason for that and it's because they want to appeal to that market which for a lot of action movies will see higher grosses than the U.S. will see."

Ultron even debuted as second all-time in Korea with $28.2 million.

Disney's Avengers is just a small glimpse of today's blockbuster landscape. Those qualities may influence production companies in the future for the race to top the box office.

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