by Jonathon Oake
Interesting, provocative analyst report picked up in the last couple of days in press surrounding Comic Con. From Susquehanna analyst Vasily Karasyov and called ‘The Death of Superheroes’ the note to investors argued:
“We are at the tail end of another IP re-monetization cycle,” Mr. Karasyov wrote, noting that 16 superhero films have been released since 2000. “Just like CDs enabled record companies to re-sell their catalogs once again and DVD did the same for film studios, computer generated imagery (CGI) technology helped IP holders monetize pre-existing properties, including comic book characters. As is usually the case, the highest quality properties such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ tend to be monetized earlier in the cycle. The more properties are monetized, the more limited is the appeal of each new one coming to market.”
“As film studios dig deeper into catalogues for characters for new films, we think the chances of finding a break out property are diminishing fast”
This makes superficial sense, and has some big implications for companies like Disney (who bought Marvel for $4bn) and my employer Time Warner (owners of DC Comics). And especially so in a year like 2011 where you could argue we’re facing a glut, with Thor, X-Men First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America.
The first big superhero movie of modern times was Batman in 1989. Spiderman was in 2002, almost 10 years ago. And we only reached ‘Peak Superhero’ in 2008, with the release of The Dark Knight – at $500m US box office, the biggest superhero film of all time and the 3rd biggest US film ever behind Avatar and Titanic. If we are at the tail end of this cycle, it could potentially be a very long and lucrative tail, especially with The Dark Knight Rises already building buzz for a 2012 release (see the teaser here).
And I think the example of The Dark Knight shows what’s wrong with this analysis. The problem with the superhero genre is that a lot of them tend to be the same, so lose product differentiation. TDK broke the mold by standing out as darker, more realistic, more gritty than other superhero films, and despite being the 6th film iteration of Batman, was the best performer by some distance. In reality there’s nothing much in common between films like Watchmen and Spiderman – both are very rich, very different films, appealing to very different audiences. The Spiderman franchise is being given a redux next year, possibly along the lines of TDK, with Superman to follow in 2013.
By focusing on differentiating and developing the core genre elements, there’s no real reason the Superhero genre can’t have the longevity of, say, Horror, which has been around for as long as cinema. Continual creative revolution will always trump technological-determinism – they just need to keep the dollars rolling in in the meantime.