Box Office: ‘Joker’ May Affirm DC Films As Warner Bros.’ Most Valuable Franchise

The first official pre-release tracking is out for Warner Bros. and DC Films’ Joker, and the first word is, well, wild. Early indications for the $55 million, R-rated comic book supervillain drama, which has played to strong reviews in Venice (where it won the Golden Lion) and Toronto over the last two weeks, is on track to open with anywhere between $75 million and $90 million.

That upper-level guestimate would be essentially neck-and-neck with the $91 million opening for It Chapter Two. It would also be just above the $80 million launch of Sony’s Venom, which would give it the record for an October debut. Anything above It Chapter Two’s $91 million opening weekend would make it WB’s biggest opening of the year and second-biggest September/October launch, behind It’s $123 million opening weekend in 2017.

Yes, a lot can change, for better or worse, over the next three weeks. I would expect the critical consensus to be a bit more mixed as more critics see the Todd Phillips-directed film, but Warner Bros. has a history of releasing “big” R-rated movies to blockbuster numbers. Think, offhand, The Matrix Reloaded ($91 million in 2003), 300 ($70 million in 2007), Watchmen ($55 million in 2009), The Hangover ($44 million in 2009), Magic Mike ($39 million in 2012) and American Sniper ($89 million in 2015).

Okay, so Zack Snyder’s Watchmen crashed after its opening and earned just $185 million worldwide on a $130 million budget, but a $55 million debut for an R-rated, 2.5-hour action drama based on a comparatively cult comic book was something of an accomplishment. Of note, Joker is a straight-up drama, lacking the gee-whiz shaggy-dog charm of Deadpool or the action thrills of Logan, so we’ll see how it holds up after its debut. If the Joaquin Phoenix flick really does find itself in the Oscar race, that’ll give it extra legs compared even to Venom which earned a decent 2.665x multiplier for a $213 million domestic finish.

A 2.665x multiplier from a $90 million launch would give Joker a $239 million cume. Considering that It Chapter Two (which earned $4 million yesterday for a $109 million six-day cume) may end up closer to $200 million than $300 million domestic, Joker could once again make a DC Films flick the biggest grosser of the year for Warner Bros.

As much as we spent much of 2016 fretting about the critical and audience reactions to Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, and yes the poor reception to Dawn of Justice did hurt Justice League, the DC Films, or really DC Comics, brand has been relatively reliable in terms of (comparatively) huge global grosses. Superman ($300 million worldwide) and Superman II ($108 million domestic) were Warner Bros.’ biggest grossers in 1978 and 1981, while Batman ($411 million global), Batman Returns ($262 million worldwide), Batman Forever ($334 million worldwide) and even Batman & Robin ($238 million) ruled the Dream Factory in 1989, 1992, 1995 and 1997 (1997 was not a good year for WB).

Even Superman Returns was their top-grossing movie in 2006, earning $394 million worldwide (on a $270 million budget). Batman Begins ($374 million worldwide) was Warner Bros.’ third-biggest grosser, behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ($475 million) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ($897 million, the year’s top grosser). In fourth place for WB that year was Keanu Reeves’ Constantine, which earned $231 million to become the biggest non-Superman/Batman DC Comics flick until Wonder Woman.

The Dark Knight became the fourth movie ever to top $1 billion (including $533 million domestic and no play in China) in 2008, while The Dark Knight Rises ($1.084 billion) narrowly out-earned The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ($1.021 billion) to become Warner Bros.’ biggest 2012 release. However, DC Films’ Man of Steel ($668 million) ended up behind both Gravity ($723 million) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ($958 million) in 2013.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was Warner Bros.’ biggest global grosser, with $873 million, in 2016, while Suicide Squad was third with $747 million just behind Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ($814 million). Wonder Woman was a massive smash in 2017 with $821 million while Justice League was a massive disappointment with $658 million.

The Gal Gadot flick was tops for WB that year while the Super Friends movie was behind Wonder Woman and It ($700 million). And even with a terrific 2018 slate filled with one-and-done or non-franchise titles like Ready Player One, Crazy Rich Asians, The Meg and A Star Is Born, James Wan’s Aquaman still rode that year-end wave toward a $1.148 billion global gross, becoming the first non-Disney/non-Universal release in 3.5-years to cross $1 billion.

Partially thanks to some earlier WB movies that underperformed or outright flopped, the Dream Factory (which, for the record, should be just fine next year) is counting on two R-rated “scary movies” about killer clowns to come to the rescue. If Joker really does open over/under $100 million, then it probably will end up earning more than whatever It Chapter Two does in North America.

If It Chapter Two follows its predecessor’s 46/54 domestic/overseas split, it’ll end up somewhere between $435 million and $490 million worldwide, or somewhere between Detective Pikachu ($431 million) and San Andreas ($494 million in 2015). If, and this is a big “if,” Joker plays identically to Venom sans that $269 million in China, it’ll end its run with around $585 million worldwide.

Barring a rejection overseas on par with Solo: A Star Wars Story, Joker may very well end the year as Warner Bros.’ first or second-biggest grossing movie. That will continue a streak going back to Superman: The Movie, whereby a big DC Comics movie based on a character audiences want to see (sorry Jonah Hex or Catwoman) has been the biggest (or among the biggest) global grosser for Warner Bros. in its respective year.

Green Lantern and Superman III ($59 million in 1983) are arguably exceptions to the rule, but Joker probably won’t be. Nor will, presumably, Wonder Woman 1984 in 2020 or The Batman in 2021. After a lousy 2019, WB’s two biggest villains will be the heroes the studio needed. That’s a punchline worthy of the Clown Prince of Crime.

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I've studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all

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