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Superhero Movies: The safest return on investment

Films that create cohesive universes generate huge revenue

Big-budget movies have artistic potential, but first and foremost, each and every movie produced by major production companies — specifically Universal Studios, Time Warner, Sony, MGM and the Walt Disney Company — is made for a profit. Production companies are primarily concerned with a return on their investment.

Of course, this does not include the indie, no-budget oddities made by minimalistic film gurus with The Cure tattoos and nickel-sized gauges who put their blood, sweat and tears into directing the film using 4mm footage, $12, their parent’s garage and their cousin and roommate as extras. The number one goal of these artists is more likely to create art.

This is not the case for production companies. Production companies are just that -- companies. They are owned by larger corporations; they have stockholders to appease, owners to dividend, and people who torrent to guillotine. Maybe creating lasting art is one objective for these companies, but it always falls behind money.

This is especially true for one genre that’s been breaking box office records left and right — the superhero film. Superhero films, more than any other genre, are the safest bet, and that’s why they are here to stay.

Methods for gaining profit in the movie industry have changed greatly in the 21st century. In the 70s and early 80s, production companies made dozens of relatively inexpensive movies with the hope that some would burst into stardom and make the company huge gains. Many of the movies disappeared into nothingness, but others became box office successes. Examples include “Jaws,” “Rocky,” “Star Wars,” and “Grease,” all four of which were made for less than $12 million and were the highest grossing movies of their respective years. Even adjusted for inflation, their cost is next to nothing compared to blockbuster movies today.

The highest grossing films cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make today. Production companies have a different method for scoring huge profits: Instead of making dozens of inexpensive movies each year, production companies now focus on a few very expensive movies with hopes for huge profits on each one. Companies pull in greater overall profits by concentrating their efforts and creating these few expensive movies — usually superhero films — that generate billions.

These superheroes are so universally recognized that marketing is a no-brainer. They sell toys, costumes, video games and Happy Meals and tie them all in with the release of the movie. Throw in some famous actors and directors, and the public foams at the mouth. Relate movies to each other, like connections between X-Men and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the fan base will bow down.

Lower budget movies present lower risk, but they also present a lower reward. As superhero movies continue to prosper, the risk drops as fans consistently show up to watch them, even if they are average-quality films. It becomes a ritual for moviegoers to pay to see their favorite superheroes fight it out.

A return on investment is net profit divided by net worth and superhero films have some of the surest returns on investment — especially the Disney Marvel franchises. This phenomena has a long life ahead of it before people move on to something new, so get used to them.