Deadpool just has its second straight #1 weekend at the box office. A coup for all of us who enjoy Ryan Reynolds and wanted him to be in a successful movie for once. It is the biggest opening for an R-rated movie ever and it has the biggest opening weekend in February. By nearly $50 million. Now it did have the benefit of coming from an established, existing character from the established, existing Marvel Universe.
But if you look at the biggest opening weekends from February you will find: 50 Shades of Grey, Passion of the Christ, the Lego Movie and Hannibal rounding out the top 5. Yes, arguably all well-known characters, stories and/or brands. It seems weird to call Jesus “established” but say the name and most people will know to whom you are referring. There was brand awareness. Then all the way down at number 13 we have Daredevil, also from Marvel, but making $90 million less than Deadpool.
So while being a Marvel movie and having an established character help, evidently they don’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t the first R-rated superhero movie, it wasn’t based on a book that sold 125 million copies and, on top of that, February is typically an abysmal time for movies. It’s where movies like I, Frankenstein, Jupiter Ascending and Gods of Egypt go to die.
So what made Deadpool so successful in the cinematic equivalent of the elephant graveyard from the Lion King? Check below.
Don’t plug the Leak
Marvel studios wasn’t chomping at the bit to make a Deadpool movie. The character was featured in the Wolverine: Origins movie which on the whole, underwhelmed. A script was written which then leaked online. As it does, the enthusiastic response from fans was enough for the studio to greenlight the movie, in the form of test footage. Which then sat around for 4 years.
The footage then “accidentally leaked” online and, lo and behold, ended up one Deadpool’s Facebook page. The test footage was Deadpool’s MVP (minimum viable product). A way to show the studio what they wanted to make and a way to show the footage to fans on a relatively cheap scale, rather than filming an entire movie and cutting a trailer from that footage.
Did people want more? $132 million says yes. A script leak, a footage leak, sometimes you need to bend the rules to make your movie the way you want to make it.
Embrace the Brand
“You’re probably thinking “This is a superhero movie, but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a f***ing kebab.” Surprise, this is a different kind of superhero story.”
Instead of trying to be different things for different people – Deadpool embraced what it was – An over the top movie full of over the top characters. Violent. Abrasive. Not exactly the movie destined to make millions from product placement and cross promotion. McDonalds wasn’t looking for Deadpool Happy Meal toys, Subway wasn’t going to make collectible Deadpool cups.
So Deadpool played to their strength and embraced it. NSFW trailers, sarcastic commercials:
Plus the social media posts. Deadpool wasn’t pulling any punches, no matter the cost.
China is the world’s second biggest theatrical market. Action movies play especially well there, however, due to its graphic and violent nature – Deadpool cannot be shown in China. To film a watered down version to show in all markets would not service the movie – sticking true to the character and the story even if it meant losing their second biggest sales market.
Sometimes you need to know whether you’re a niche market. Niche to the tune of $491 million in less than two weeks. Some niches are bigger than others.
Anti-Marketing for the Anti-Hero
Though February is generally not a strong month for movies, there’s always a film or two marketed around the holiday of love and greeting cards – Valentine’s Day. The aforementioned 50 Shades of Grey fit their nicely and there always seems to a Nicholas Sparks movie (apparently he’s still a thing).
While Deadpool has a love story, it’s not your traditional Valentine’s Day fare and that’s the point. It was the perfect anti-Valentine’s movie one that people would go to see not because it was Valentine’s Day but in spite. Or, even better, both.
Play within Your Means
Deadpool was made for an estimated $58 million. A huge amount of money to win in the lottery, but a relatively paltry amount for a superhero movie in 2016. Avengers: Age of Ultron was made for $250 million, Man of Steel was made for $225 million, and Guardians of the Galaxy for $170 million. Avatar 2 will probably cost more than the annual GDP of Costa Rica.
Point being, movies are expensive and giving Deadpool a budget of $58 million was not a vote of confidence. It limited the ability of city-lifting/destroying action sequences as well as marketing costs. But restrictions can be freeing rather than limiting. Time constraints and money constraints can lead to innovation rather than failure.
Emojis, emoji billboards, Instagram posts, YouTube content. These weren’t ground breaking – any marketing campaign nowadays uses all these things, but it’s the way they used them. Unapologetically, all true to the character and the movie. It called attention to itself superhero movies as a whole. It was a breath of fresh air to the medium. They didn’t even pay for the Deadpool Twitter or Instagram handles. Which were already taken, but it didn’t matter.
By using what they had (which was not much) and relying on groundswell and content rather than co-promotion and Deadpool was able to, yes, have the number one opening ever in February. The biggest opening for an R-rated movie ever and the 17th best opening weekend of all time. 15 of which the top 16 being sequels to other movies.
Good reviews helped. Quality helped. Name recognition helped but what we saw with Deadpool was a campaign bound to be imitated. The sincerest form of flattery, but like the Mad Men-inspired Pan Am and Playboy Club, often missing the point of the originator and quickly forgotten. Until Deadpool 2.
“Here’s the thing. Life is an endless series of trainwrecks with only brief commercial-like breaks of happiness. This had been the ultimate commercial break. Which meant it was time to return to our regularly scheduled programming.”
– Wade Wilson (Deadpool)