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Summer Movie Season Blasts Off with Iron Man 2

The summer movie season officially kicks off today with high expectations.

Iron Man 2, which has all the elements of a huge blockbuster: it's based on a Marvel comic book, it's a sequel with big-name international stars.

The first Iron Man easily exceeded expectations to become the second-biggest film of 2008.

Iron Man 2
Source: ironmanmovie.marvel.com
Iron Man 2

"Iron Man 2" has already grossed $133 million worldwide and it's on track to bring in at least $140 million in the U.S. this weekend.

And the superhero is bringing in these big numbers without the benefit of the $3 premium (on average) for 3-D movie tickets — unlike most big films this year the film's being offered just in 2-D.

Paramount will distribute the film, as it did the first Iron Man. But this year rival studio Disney will also cash in; this is Marvel's first film since Disney bought the studio for $4.4 billion in August. (Some analysts wondered what the real value of Marvel really is, considering the fact that some of its valuable distribution rights are committed to other studios — like Iron Man and Paramount. This movie's performance will be a good test of Disney's investment.

If "Iron Man 2" is a huge summer popcorn film, Disney and Viacom won't be the only studios to celebrate — theater chains Regal, Imax and Cinemark will also benefit from a big audience.

Then there are the dozen companies that are partnering with "Iron Man 2" or licensing its characters.

Hasbro started shipping toys based on the film in the first quarter saying that even months ahead of the film's debut, "all indications are very positive." The film is at the center of an ad blintz for big brands from Oracle and Symantec anti-virus software, to Burger King, Audi, and Dr. Pepper. Marketers are spending more than $100 million in total for ads retail tie-ins and giveaways around the film.

It's theoretically a win-win: the marketers get to tap into the appeal of the Iron Man brand and Robert Downey Jr., and the film effectively get free advertising. With so many brands on board there's the risk of some getting lost in the clutter, or a barrage of messages over-exposing the film. But with a movie this big, there doesn't seem to be any concern of over-exposure or too many partners. Dr. Pepper, which signed on for its first Iron Man partnership says it expects to see a measurable impact on sales.

All the studios are hoping this movie kicks off a huge summer.

The next three months are without a doubt Hollywood's most important season, generating an average 42 percent of annual box office. And this summer promises to generate the biggest U.S. box office on record (unadjusted for inflation) — we could see over $4 billion dollars in tickets sold. This is largely thanks to a rush of 3-D films and more 3-D theaters — not only do 3-D films cost more, but also those screenings tend to be more crowded than the 3-D alternative.

Plus, this summer theaters will host a whopping 11 sequels, including DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek 4," Disney's "Toy Story 3," Warner Brothers' "Sex & the City," plus familiar remakes, like Universal's "Robin Hood" and Sony's "Karate Kid." Familiar brands are considered a safer bet for studios — and sequels tend to perform in-line with the other films in the franchise. Of course there are some original films that could be breakout hits as well — like "Inception," from Warner Bros, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Whether it's stars or comic book characters, the media giants are counting on proven brands, 3-D technology and big budgets to lure moviegoers to theaters.

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.