How Iron Man 3 made a billion dollars

Tony Stark's third outing was more than just a movie, it was a pop culture event.

Money Maker... Iron Man 3 has now grossed over a billion box office dollars (Credit: Disney)

‘Iron Man 3’ has become the fifth highest grossing movie ever, and the 16th movie to make more than a billion dollars at the box office (around £650 million). Ten figures is a milestone in Hollywood – it’s a film that’s not just a smash hit, but a pop culture event with ‘four-quadrant’ penetration.

It was obvious that ‘Iron Man 3’ would succeed commercially, but the scale and speed of its success compared to its predecessors is awe-inspiring. It hit the billion dollar mark in just five weeks. By contrast, ‘Iron Man 2’ took almost four months to make the far more modest $623 million (£410 million).

[Iron Man 3 hits $1 billion at the box office]

However, some quick analysis throws up some remarkable similarities between ‘Iron Man 3’ and fellow billion dollar club alumni (in order from lowest to highest grossing: ‘The Dark Knight’; ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’; ‘Alice in Wonderland’; ‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’; ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Times’, ‘Toy Story 3’; ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’; ‘The Dark Knight Rises’; ‘Skyfall’, ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’, ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’; ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2’; ‘Marvel’s Avengers Assemble’; ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’). It also paints a slightly depressing picture of what it takes to make a smash hit movie in 21st century Hollywood.

Three’s the charm
Firstly, ‘Iron Man 3’ is a threequel. As we explored here, Part 3s have a reputation for being generally terrible, from ‘The Godfather Part III’, to ‘Spider-Man 3’. And yet, if you consider ‘Skyfall’ the third instalment in the Daniel Craig cycle of Bonds, then seven of the 16 highest grossing movies ever are threequels. Received wisdom is that interest wanes after the first sequel, but this is clearly rubbish, as also on our list is a ‘Part 4’ – ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’, and a ‘Part 8’ – ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2’. 

Marvel magic
Indeed, 13 of the 16 billion dollar films are prequels or sequels - franchise movies. Punters may moan that “Hollywood has run out of ideas”, but they actually like more of the same. Take ‘Iron Man 3’. The character of Tony Stark is now a pop culture icon thanks to the first movies and of course ‘Avengers’. It’s part of the wider Marvel universe that you’ve also seen in ‘Thor’ and ‘Captain America’. Almost everyone has seen at least one of these and they know what to expect. Since ‘Iron Man 2’, there’s been three Marvel Studios films. A recognisable universe, be it Hogwarts to Middle Earth to DC Comics, helps sell a movie immeasurably. The big exception? The two biggest movies ever – ‘Avatar’ and ‘Titanic’ - both directed by James Cameron, who makes his own rules.

Star power
One thing you don’t see too much on the billion dollar list is star power, though ‘Iron Man 3’ definitely benefits from it. Whereas the notoriously tight-fisted Marvel are happy to pay most stars a (relative) pittance and threaten to recast them, Downey Jr. is treated like a king and is now on $50 million a movie. He is Iron Man, his unique personality and real-life backstory perfectly augmenting the character. Tony Stark has also had much more exposure since ‘Iron Man 2’ thanks to the huge success of ‘Avengers’. The only other actor with this power is Johnny Depp, whose turns as Jack Sparrow almost single-handedly propelled two of the Pirates movies into the BD club. It also perhaps explains why his star vehicle ‘Alice in Wonderland’ also snuck in... and why he’s also on $50 million a movie. Interestingly Tom Cruise and Will Smith, two stars with a reputation for being box office bankers aren’t on the list.

['Idiotic' Iron Man 3 publicity stunt goes wrong]

Worldwide appeal
Enticing Americans into cinemas isn’t the key to a successful film franchise anymore. Huge success in the international market (including the UK) is the only path to a megahit. To prove our point, all but one of the billion dollar movies made more money overseas than they did in America (the exception is ‘The Dark Knight’). ‘Pirates 4’ is the most extreme example, making 75 per cent of its cash abroad. ‘Iron Man 3’ (at the time of writing) has already made twice as much money in international territories than ‘Iron Man 2’. Again, the success of the ‘Avengers’, along with the film’s much publicised Chinese connections, must have contributed to this.

Good reviews
Film critics sometimes complain about blockbuster movies performing well even if they get bad write-ups. However, around three quarters of the billion dollar movies got enough positive reviews to be rated ‘fresh’ on reviews aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. Stinkers like ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’ are outweighed by critical darlings such as ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Toy Story 3’. The good reviews for ‘Iron Man 3’ - it was acclaimed by many critics as the best of the series - must’ve helped it supersede its predecessors. To make this much money, repeat business and word-of-mouth, the by-products of strong reviews, are still vital.

Iron Man 3D
Finally, ‘Iron Man 3’ got the jump on ‘Iron Man 2’ simply because the later movie was in 3D. By our very rough calculations, 3D tickets can add around 10 per cent to your box office takings (a 3D ticket can be around 20 per cent more expensive, but often only half the receipts are for 3D showings). By this admittedly speculative maths, the format alone may have added more than $100 million to the bottom line. If it wasn’t for 3D, ‘Iron Man 3’ might not be a billion dollar movie.  Eight of the 16 movies to have reached 10 figures are in 3D, including four of the top five.