Fox thinks outside the box with 'Fantastic Four'

An image from the "Fantastic Four" movie
Source: Fantastic Four

Next weekend, 20th Century Fox will see whether moviegoers are ready to welcome back the Fantastic Four—eight years after two forgettable films brought to life Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and The Thing.

However, a few controversial casting decisions for the film have left some fans fearing the worst, with a vocal contingent even vowing to boycott the movie altogether—raising the possibility that the film could fall short at a time when demand for comic book movies has never been stronger.

Marvel's super-powered quartet is the latest comic book property to undergo a big-screen makeover. Box-office watchers have come to expect huge hauls after a series of superhero flicks became breakout hits. Yet some analysts say measuring "Fantastic Four" by those standards risks overlooking Fox's long-standing and mostly successful strategy.

"Fox is a different kind of studio than most other studios. They don't tend to swing for the fences. They don't make the gigantic big bets, and they don't miss very often," David Bank, a media analyst at RBC Capital Markets told CNBC.

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Except for its enormous bet on James Cameron projects like "Avatar," Bank said the studio focuses on low-risk, medium-reward projects, and as a result, it boasts industry-leading profit margins. Success for "Fantastic Four" might look like a roughly $125 million U.S. box-office haul, and about a $350 million global total, he said.

A representative for Fox did not immediately return a request for comment from CNBC.

According to, the movie is tracking for a $46 million U.S. opening, down from its earlier estimate of $50 million.

"We're mainly concerned with its middling social media buzz compared to similar films, as well as potential impact from 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation's' word of mouth," Shawn Robbins, assistant editor BoxOffice Media, told CNBC in an email.

That estimate lies at the low end of the scale for the first installment in a new superhero franchise, but it's by no means an outlier.

If the reported production budget of $120 million is accurate, "Fantastic Four" would also be relatively economical, a formula that paid off with Fox's "The Wolverine" and "X-Men: First Class."

'Ultimate' team, big risks

The studio's more light-hearted, special effects-oriented crack at the Fantastic Four in 2005 was mostly panned by critics and got mixed reviews from audiences. Still, it earned a respectable $328.5 million worldwide, according to Rentrak. A 2007 sequel was better received, but its global take slipped to $286.5 million.

This time around, Fox opted to adapt Marvel Comics' "Ultimate Fantastic Four," a 2004-2009 series that reimagined the team and updated its 1961 origin story. Instead of obtaining superpowers from exposure to cosmic rays during the space race, the characters are transformed in modern-day teleportation experiment. Marvel is owned by Walt Disney.

To bring the story to life, Fox hired Josh Trank, the acclaimed young writer and director of "Chronicle," a character-driven found footage superhero film. The move also incurred the wrath of the comic's ardent fan base, who objected to casting and leaked plot twists.

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Some observers, however, think the gambit could pay dividends.

"It's exciting to see what they're doing with it. It looks pretty interesting," Barton Crockett, senior research analyst at FBR Capital Markets, told CNBC. He said Fox's execution on its earlier Fantastic Four films could have been better.

Taking a more grounded approach brought Marvel's Daredevil back to life in a Netflix series this year, and spawned a pair of billion-dollar Batman sequels after Warner Bros. entrusted the Dark Knight to director Christopher Nolan in 2005.

Controversies abound

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Fox has also shown it can improve on the past, as its core X-Men franchise has mostly pleased fans following a soft reboot. (They were technically prequels— the new films erased the original trilogy with a time-travel plot twist.)

"X-Men: First Class" ended its 2011 theatrical run with about $355 million worldwide, and last year's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" earned $747 million. Both films got high marks from fans and critics alike, according to the Rotten sentiment meter.

To be sure, the X-Men are far more popular than the Fantastic Four, which could leave the movie with a high bar to jump over. "Everyone expects X-Men to do decently. 'Fantastic Four' is the more debatable one," Crockett said.

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The film has also been dogged by opposition from some corners of fandom, and more recently, reports of on-set friction.

The filmmakers' choice to cast Michael B. Jordan, an African-American actor, as Johnny Storm, a Caucasian character, proved controversial. The decision sparked highly charged conversations on social media and message boards. (Kate Mara, who is white, plays Johnny's sibling, Sue Storm.)

And in May, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story in which sources said Trank had been indecisive, erratic and isolated during shooting, making it necessary for producers to steer the film to completion. Yet in a subsequent Los Angeles Times interview, Trank denied the report, and producer Simon Kinberg said there was no "blood feud" between the two.

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News outlets began reporting this week that Fox had embargoed their reviews of the film until the day before its release, raising concerns the studio isn't confident in the final product.

That said, moviegoers appear to be intrigued. Earlier this year, Fox told Entertainment Weekly online views of the first "Fantastic Four" trailer had beaten the previous studio record-holder—"X-Men: Days of Future Past."