How ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Cherry-Bombed the Box Office and Made Off With All of Our Money

What a difference a trailer makes. Remember back in February when Guardians of the Galaxy was just the oddest curio in Marvel’s bottomless cabinet of wonders?  No offense to Parks and Rec fans, but Andy Dwyer teaming up with the Slither guy doesn’t exactly sound like a formula for a $170 million movie. And now here we are, with a $94 million opening weekend. In August. The month we’re all stuck in vacation lake cabins with our cousins playing Super Mario Kart tournaments. Guardians of the Galaxy, the little gun-toting raccoon movie that could, didn’t just have the single best August opening ever; it toasted the previous record holder, The Bourne Ultimatum, by $25 million. (Which, to add insult to Cruise injury, is just a few million shy of Edge of Tomorrow’s opening weekend.) With a Tomatometer rating more often associated with Oscar campaigns and an A Cinema Score that could get it into Harvard, pundits who probably thought Star-Lord was an old Atari game are hailing Guardians of the Galaxy as the savior of the slumping summer box office and Chris Pratt as the Second Coming of Han Solo. Folks are quite literally saying that Guardians of the Galaxy has extended the summer by making August an attractive time to open a movie.

And they’re not wrong. Its numbers are great anyway you slice it. Before this weekend, the domestic summer box office was down 20 percent compared to 2013 — now it’s only down 18 percent. That’s a fairly big change for one weekend and one film, especially since the second-place movie, Lucy, only pulled in $18 million. And at the international box office, Guardians racked up another $66 million. The only movies that had a better opening weekend this year were Transformers: Age of Extinction, which we are apparently legally obliged to spend money on no matter how incoherent it is, and Captain America: Winter Soldier, both sequels that opened in prime blockbuster season. If everyone’s breathlessly comparing Guardians to Star Wars, that’s because rarely in recent memory has a little-known property exploded into the mainstream like this. If you need proof of how little faith the industry has in something different, just look at the predictions for Guardians before it opened: Folks were expecting a $65 million opening. They were off by roughly 50 percent. What’s the dark art behind Guardians’ success? Here are four theories.

1. The Power of Brand Compels You

Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t a sequel per se, but it wasn’t as out of left field as the original Star Wars. Being part of the Marvel playpen clearly helps; success breeds success and eventually if you get enough momentum you can spend some of your goodwill telling audiences, “Hey, just trust us. We’ve been here before.” Pixar could say it’s making an animated film about Chia Pets, and bloggers would write about how bold a move that is. As a lover of the actual Marvel films themselves, I’m loathe to use the b-word, but that’s just what it is: “brand.” The reason sequels are such a safe bet for studios isn’t that sequels are more exciting movies — in fact, I think even the most casual moviegoer girds him or herself to be slightly disappointed by any given sequel — but because they get us to pay attention. When you have had as much success as Marvel Studios ($6.54 billion in ticket sales worldwide), you can tell us we’re going to fall in love with a talking tree that only knows three words and we’ll preorder “We are Groot!” T-shirts.

2. Romance the Con

The cosplay masses and detritus of studio promotional materials that still litter San Diego show how seriously Hollywood takes Comic-Con. But Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige knows how to woo Comic-Con. You don’t just make an awkward, flailing pass at the fan-erati as many studios do — Sucker Punch’s marketing push at Comic-Con 2010 was akin to a bro doused in Axe body spray flipping out his iPhone to ask for our numbers. No, Marvel knows how to play the long game. In fact, it was in an interview at that 2010 Comic-Con that Feige coyly dropped a hint about Guardians of the Galaxy. The point isn’t that no one knew what the hell Guardians of the Galaxy was way back in 2010 — it’s that Feige instantly had everyone asking themselves what the hell Guardians of the Galaxy was way back in 2010. And like any true pickup artist, Feige knows how ludicrously effective mystery can be. Not until Comic-Con 2012, a full two years later, did Marvel actually announce the film and tell us exactly who these Guardians were by way of some gun-toting raccoon concept art that only raised even more questions among the uninitiated — which, let’s be honest, was 96 percent of us. Then in 2013, as filming had just begun, James Gunn and cast made the pilgrimage to Comic-Con again to let us know its intentions were pure. By last week’s Comic-Con, Feige was already announcing the sequel ahead of the premiere. In short: The man knows how to play Comic-Con like a baby grand.

3. It’s the Trailer, Stupid

Any studio marketing executive worth his or her salt will tell you (and they have in fact told me directly) trailers are still the most important factor in generating wide audience interest. Studios spend huge chunks of money green-lighting multiple trailer houses to do countless cuts of potential trailers. In fact, the studios have direct fiber connections to many trailer studios so they can see new work instantly and make changes from their desks. Trailer-cutting is the one part of Hollywood where editors are treated like (and paid like) kings. While his fans may have been twittering with glee that Gunn had been given such an opportunity, the rest of us unwashed masses might just as easily have confused Super with Kick-Ass until the trailer crooned at us with Blue Swede. Here’s how eye-catching trailers are: They have Google ads in front of them. Someone pays to get their advertisement in front of an extended advertisement — and we sit through those ads. Premiering the Guardians trailer on Jimmy Kimmel Live! was really just the icing on the foul-mouthed raccoon cake.

4. Oh Yeah, the Movie Was Actually Good

This should be self-evident; and honestly, it’s probably more in our clichéd imaginations that villainous studio executives stand around whipping monkeys chained to 10,000 copies of Final Draft while cackling that audiences will eat up anything. (I suspect bad movies come more often from the petty politics of studio bureaucracy and scared executives tossing half-formed thoughts like blunt-tipped darts at anxious-to-please screenwriters.) The truth is we don’t eat up just anything; sure, we can be manipulated, but even cutting a deal with the devil couldn’t make R.I.P.D. a hit. But making a movie good — whatever your standard takes that to be — certainly counts these days, and not just because of quaint notions like pride in one’s craftsmanship. Ten years ago, studios could count on getting two weekends of attendance based on marketing materials alone; even in the dark times before Twitter, when we had to text our opinions to each other one at a time, you didn’t have to worry about your film dropping like a rock by its opening Sunday. Those golden days are long gone. Now, audiences can smell the body rotting months down the line. Conversely, few things will motivate us to actually head to a movie theater than the hope — springing ever eternal — that we might not be disappointed this time.

And what exactly made Guardians so good? That is a question best answered by unprovable assertions and baseless conjectures, like saying that everyone’s now tired of Dark Knight–imitating self-seriousness. Here’s mine: Freed from high expectations, or any expectations at all, Gunn got to take actual risks with a mega-budget blockbuster and play among the stars. Imagine floating space colonies excavated from a cosmic being’s head, a talking raccoon’s real moments of pathos, and, overall, not bending backward trying to match others’ ideas about what we wanted to see. Instead, Gunn showed us what he wanted to see: drunken alien lizard cockfights and a hero-walk set to “Cherry Bomb.”

Filed Under: Movies, guardians of the galaxy, Marvel, Box office

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John Lopez is a Grantland contributor and a writer/filmmaker living in Los Angeles.

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