'Spider-Man' Fatigue: What's Behind Sony's Release Date Retreat

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Garfield Lifting Car - H 2014
Sony Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Garfield Lifting Car - H 2014   

The once-invincible franchise moves to the back burner after "Amazing Spider-Man 2" barely tops $700 million.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It came as no surprise Wednesday that Sony announced it is moving into comic book superteam territory with The Sinister Six, the Spider-Man studio's answer to Disney's Avengers, Fox's X-Men and Warner Bros.' Justice League. All are franchises that spin off "universes" of multiple movies.

What came as a shock was the fact that in the process of dating Sinister Six, Sony bumped its next Amazing Spider-Man installment back by two years, from 2016 to 2018.

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The unexpected move puts an unwelcome spotlight on Sony's web-slinger, once considered the most robust comic book property in Hollywood. But after this summer's disappointing Amazing Spider-Man 2 showed signs of franchise fatigue, the Marvel superhero has moved from the fast track to the back burner. ASM3 has been shifted from June 10, 2016, to an indeterminate date in 2018 (Uncharted, based on the hit PlayStation video game, will take its place). ASM4, which was scheduled to open May 4, 2018, is off the schedule altogether, with Disney quickly scooping up the prime date for an untitled Marvel movie, likely Avengers 3.

There's no shame in $705 million at the box office. But when the film in question is part of the Spider-Man franchise — the fifth-highest-grossing film series and the most successful comic book franchise of all time — that's cause for concern on the Sony lot and for Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal, who has masterminded the franchise since it began with Spider-Man in 2002.

Spidey has been on a downward trajectory ever since the five-film franchise reached its apex in 2007, when Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3 earned $891 million worldwide. Rebooted and rebranded The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, the property was put in the hands of newbie director Marc Webb, with the studio shaving nearly $30 million off the budget from Raimi's third outing. But the belt-tightening has come at a price. Amazing Spider-Man earned $758 million, while May's follow-up has topped out at a disappointing $201 million domestically, earning a far more heartening $504 million internationally (including $94.4 million in China).

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"If I could sum up in one thought the reason [for the slide], it's competition," a Sony source says. "Captain America being out a month before us domestically might have, to some extent, satisfied the pent-up demand for a superhero movie. And there was a lot of competition after we opened as well."

But reviews for Amazing Spider-Man 2 were lukewarm (just 53 percent fresh on Rottentomatoes), and some fans have complained that the "reimagined" Spider-Man movies are too similar to the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films they rebooted. Webb has taken his share of blame, as have go-to tentpole writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who ended their longtime partnership days before Amazing Spider-Man 2's release. Stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone remain largely unscathed, though Stone won't be back for a third outing (those who saw the movie know why). Jamie Foxx, whose Electro appears to die in AS2, likely won't return either for AS3 — but he might for The Sinister Six, which is set for a Nov. 11, 2016, release.

If competition proved to be Peter Parker's biggest obstacle in 2014, he was poised to face an even more daunting 2016. Within four weeks of ASM3's original June 10 release date, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse all are slated to hit theaters. With that lineup of foes, Sony decided it needed more time to help the superhero reclaim his mojo. (Garfield will be at least 34 years old before his next scheduled appearance in a Spider-Man movie.)

"They are trying to build a global brand, and the property is still quite strong in a lot of the key overseas markets," says Phil Contrino, vp/chief analyst for BoxOffice.com, noting India, the U.K. and China as bright spots. "When it comes to rebooting a franchise, you're never more than one movie away from really breaking out. The potential is still there for this version of Spider-Man."

Privately, Sony admits it is seeking to freshen the brand but has no major overhaul plans, with Webb expected to return to complete the trilogy (as Raimi did with the first three films).

But if ever there was a year that Sony needed a Spider-Man on the upswing, it's 2014, following last year's dismal summer, which included box-office duds After Earth and White House Down -- and immediate calls for cost-cutting. In May, Sony Corp. CEO Kaz Hirai made clear that the climate of austerity would continue and promised that Sony Pictures would slash $300 million by the end of the fiscal year that runs through March 2016. Days later, Sony Corp. made the unusual move of promoting Nicole Seligman to the role of entertainment president. She will report to Sony Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton but not to Pascal. Longtime marketing-distribution head Jeff Blake will exit Aug. 1.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 crossing the $500 million mark overseas meant it was on par with Spider-Man 3's foreign performance. It also outperformed Man of Steel's $668 million in 2013. Still, the domestic haul is troubling and must be considered a factor in the delay.

"I would have liked Amazing Spider-Man 2 to make a lot more money for us than it did, but it made a lot of money for us anyway," Pascal said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

A source said the film's final tally fell $100 million below internal predictions. It opened to a solid $91 million but dropped a staggering 61 percent in its second frame (the second-week drop has been seen across the board with the exception of Planet of the Apes). "It's part of how brutal the summer can be," Contrino says. "You open to whatever you open to, and then you just get gutted. Spider-Man opened, and then the following week Neighbors took a chunk out of it. Then Godzilla. Then X-Men. Before you know it, you've run out of gas really quickly."

E-mail: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27