Last weekend, Disney’s Avengers: Infinity War broke a profit in its theatrical window after just 10 days, a box office triumph uncommon with many rival studio movies, yet increasingly common for the Marvel and Lucasfilm titles.
While Disney does not disclose or comment on the profitability of its films, our financial analysts figure that Infinity War by the end of its run stands to make close to $600 million after all ancillaries, based off a final global gross of $1.88 billion.
Whether Infinity War gets to $2 billion worldwide depends on its ability to generate 65% of its global gross overseas in the weeks ahead. That’s reasonable given how Deadpool 2 and Solo: A Star Wars Story largely skew domestic. Then there’s the case of China, and though we’ve heard that Infinity War is hot there on social media and advance ticket sales, Marvel is still a growing brand in the territory with its highest-grossing pic to date being Captain America: Civil War ($207.7M), a distance from local hits like Wolf Warrior 2 ($946.4M) and Detective Chinatown 2 ($563.3M).
Pics grossing $2 billion typically occur during the Christmas holidays given the limited amount of blockbuster competition. Nonetheless, our analysts are figuring a worldwide swing between $1.75B-$2B for Infinity War.
Note also that last weekend’s profit occurs before residuals or participations have been paid out to talent and filmmakers — those occur at cash break-even.
Infinity War‘s box office prowess is quite a feat especially when you consider what directors Joe and Anthony Russo have been juggling over the past couple of years. Not only did the brothers shoot back-to-back Infinity War movies, but they also launched their own freestanding studio AGBO that’s backed by China-based Huayi. Titles on AGBO’s slate include the Russos’ $10M co-acquisition with NEON on the Sundance premiere Assassination Nation; the next movie by Swiss Army Man directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, which goes into production this year; an upcoming movie by Deepwater Horizon scribe Matt Carnahan that he’s directing; and an adaptation of the illustrated tech apocalypse novel The Electric State that It‘s Andy Muschietti is directing.
The Russos set about shooting back-to-back Avengers tentpoles due to sheer practicality: Given the huge cast, it was the best way to book the actors’ availability. At present, the Russos are in post-production on the second half of Infinity War, figuring out which shots to deliver for CG and deciding whether reshoots are necessary.
“Certainly it was challenging. We’re workaholics and the pace we set for ourselves comes from the many years of television we’ve done and how that’s carried over into our current lives,” Anthony Russo says about balancing their work schedules.
Disney’s marketing strategies for its slate are measured and shrewd, akin to the Allies’ D-Day plans, and Infinity War touts the biggest brand campaign for an MCU title ever at $150M-plus. At the end of the day, however, regardless of any studio’s business practices, the film is the best commercial in and of itself generating buzz, and Infinity War has a killer cliffhanger not seen on the big screen since Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Those leaving the theater are gobsmacked as to the futures of their favorite superheroes. That’s where the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (also co-presidents of story at the Russos’ AGBO studio) can take full credit in Infinity War‘s skyward success being one of the top five films of all time at the global box office.
Marvel has a great sense of pairing material with independent storytellers, and in the case of Infinity War‘s filmmakers they share a sensibility with Marvel brass on what a great movie should be. Both believe in the Disney philosophy of plus-ing, continually deconstructing and making a movie better than the previous sequel. Civil War already showed the Avengers divided with new, free radical characters like Black Panther and a candid teenage Spider-Man amping the stakes. So where do you go in building the culmination of the 10-year-old MCU? Sure, an even bigger ensemble feature that marries all MCU characters in a war against its infamous antagonist Thanos based on Jim Starlin’s 1991 Marvel comic The Infinity Gauntlet and Jonathan Hickman’s 2013 Infinity title. But in increasing the stakes between life and death from Civil War to Infinity War, the filmmakers looked to their leading villain.
“We put the film squarely in the point of view of Thanos; he has the hero’s journey in the movie,” Joe Russo says. “It’s a complete story told from his point of view. He has the major traditional character beats and wins the film. That’s an interesting ending for a villain and one that people aren’t used to in Marvel films. For Thanos, he completes his mission.”
He adds: “The notion that Ant and I wanted was complex storytelling with real stakes. Villains sometimes win, and that’s a compelling notion for us.”
Typically with an ensemble film of this magnitude, a lot can go wrong, i.e., trivial lines are dished out to actors so they have something to say, and the action can go stale as superheros are merely put through the motions (read many scenes in Justice League). But the Russos, Markus and McFeely have painted Thanos (Josh Brolin) as more than just some lumbering CGI monster with one-liners, rather as a character of Shakespearean tendencies: His scenes dote on his ambition to conquer at all costs, and he has no bones about trading in any modicum of his decency or virtue as a foster father to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for his greater pursuits. Meanwhile, she reminds him that he’s blind, a mere monster who has his principles mixed up. It’s heavy stuff we don’t typically see in the crash-bang-boom of a Transformers movie.
“One of the most challenging aspects of making this movie was the changing need to have a very clear focused order, and navigating those points and avoiding the danger of spinning out of control and collapsing under our own weight,” Anthony Russo says about building a well-balanced story. “When you walk into a high school, it can be an orderly place or chaos. It can go either way.”
Rival studios are relentlessly curious about Marvel’s sausage-making process when it comes to churning out platinum event titles. One of the insights that Marvel boss Kevin Feige provided last year was that the studio’s test screenings aren’t the run-of-the-mill, third-party-curated screenings in random places like Phoenix and Chatsworth. Rather, Marvel has assembled a team of “family and friends” it has come to rely on in collecting responses to their films. This is on top of getting notes from an esteemed corps of filmmakers that includes James Gunn and Jon Favreau, both of whom served as EPs on Infinity War.
The Russos swear by the quality-control process of gauging what needs to be fixed. While rival studios can misuse testing, turning it to a numbers game and getting overly scientific, the Russos say Marvel’s testing is “more informative than the regular testing process,” not to mention it safeguards secrets.
“When we screened Infinity War for audiences, we were feeling out the rhythm from storyline to storyline. What would happen when we picked up a certain storyline and left another,” Anthony says.
During a rough cut of a Marvel pic without VFX, humor according to Feige is a good indicator if a movie is working or not, especially on a film like Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok.
“Our movies (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Civil War and Infinity War) aren’t the most humorous. They’re fairly intense dramatic stories,” says Joe Russo, hence testing also becomes about “whether the emotions are hitting the right way on screen. What gets misappropriated is people trying to read scientifically how a movie plays. For us, it’s an opportunity to gauge feelings.”
So with Infinity War, has Marvel set the bar so high for the studio that it can never top itself again? The Russos don’t think so.
Says Joe: “The superhero genre — that’s a lazy term. I think as Marvel continues to move forward, their stories will transcend genre and continue to move in different directions. Even though the IP source is comics, tone and genre will move them away from that.”