Sony Pictures is about to face a crucial test for its highly lucrative "Spider-Man" film rights — but the studio will have to pass it without the help of the wall-crawler himself.
Next weekend, the studio aims to score the latest superhero hit with "Venom," a movie based on Spider-Man's popular rival. Sony is betting that the anti-hero can pack theaters even without an appearance by Spider-Man, who is currently tied up in a partnership with Disney/Marvel's "Avengers" franchise.
Venom first appeared in a 1988 comic issue of "The Amazing Spider-Man." The series introduced readers to Eddie Brock, a disgraced reporter who blames Spider-Man for his fall from grace and merges with a living alien costume to become a gruesome facsimile of the heroic wall-crawler.
If "Venom" falls short, it would mark a setback to Sony's path to developing a franchise featuring Spider-Man's expansive cast of characters. But if it succeeds, it would go a long way towards building goodwill with movie-goers, and boosting the prospects for future films.
The studio announced in June that Jared Leto would star as Morbius, a vampire in Spider-Man's pantheon of characters. Sony has the right to develop movies based on hundreds of Marvel characters, and is already developing films based on several, according to a recent report in Variety.
Analysts say "Venom" has a lot going for it. It stars a popular leading man, Tom Hardy, and boasts a fan base deeply invested in the character. The movie also caters to an appetite for edgy and offbeat comic book movies like "Deadpool" and "Suicide Squad," which have been among the biggest box office earners in recent years.
Those factors are putting "Venom" on a path to top the $55.8 million opening haul for 2013's "Gravity," which holds the title for the best debut in October. Forecasts have estimated "Venom" could pull in $60 million to $65 million in its opening weekend, though recent projections are closer to $55 million.
The range puts it roughly on par with openings for Disney's "Ant-Man" and the first "Captain America" and "Thor" movies.
But the lingering question is whether the cult comic book character can keep theater seats filled after the inevitable flood of hardcore fans subsides.
Venom may be a lesser-known character among the general movie-going public, but the same was true for Deadpool and Iron Man just a few years ago, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.
"Often the best superhero experience comes from the unknown," he said. "When you first go to see 'Deadpool' for the first time, you don't really have a point of reference unless you're a comic book aficionado."
To be sure, 20th Century Fox's massively successful "Deadpool" is a very different movie than "Venom." However, both characters debuted during Marvel Comics' era of hard-edged anti-heroes in the late 80s and early 90s.
For many fans of that era, Venom was Spider-Man's premiere enemy. He proved so popular that Marvel soon transformed him into an anti-hero who could carry his own stories — and sell his own comic books. His enduring popularity potentially makes "Venom" a major draw for Millennial movie-goers, said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
"Venom is just a really, really popular villain in the overall world of comic books and there are a lot of diehard fans that really want to see a faithful version of this character in a movie," Robbins said. "I think that's driving a lot of the excitement for it leading into the release."
The character appeared on the silver screen in Sony's 2007 "Spider-Man 3," but the portrayal by Topher Grace left many fans disappointed, said Alisha Grauso, editorial lead at Atom Tickets. Those fans now see the new standalone movie as another opportunity to get the character right, she said.
A survey of Atom Ticket users ranked "Venom" as the most anticipated movie of the fall. Grauso says Tom Hardy is a major draw, in part because he's already proven himself to comic book fans as the Batman villain Bane in 2012's "The Dark Knight Rises."
Grauso added that "even fans who have reservations about the movie itself are eager to see what Hardy brings to the role."
Still, questions linger about "Venom." Reviews remain under embargo, and Robbins thinks critics will play a major part in audience turnout.
October is also a grab-bag of movie releases, and Robbins says it's difficult to predict how "Venom" will compete for ticket money with Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" and the latest installment in the "Halloween" horror franchise.
October is usually a sparse month for superhero movies — but that was also the case for February, which is when "Deadpool" and Disney's "Black Panther" smashed records. If "Venom" succeeds, it could put October on the radar for movie studios looking to test the waters with new properties, said Dergarabedian.
"Studios are definitely thinking outside of the box and not having any constraints on the calendar," he said. "October could be yet another frontier for superhero movies to conquer."