Okay, let’s get into the money, because that’s the only thing that matters.
Superman: The Movie made 7 million dollars in its opening weekend in December 1978, and it was the #1 box office draw for 11 weeks, all the way into early March ’79. The total domestic box office was $134 million, making it the highest-grossing film of 1979.
To give you a sense of scale, there were only seven movies in the 1970s that grossed more than $100 million, and Superman was in the top five: Star Wars ($307m), Jaws ($260m), Grease ($160m), Animal House ($141m) and Superman ($134m), followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind ($116m) and Kramer vs. Kramer ($106m).
So, yeah, it was a big hit, and a big deal. So, the question is: why didn’t they make any other superhero movies for basically a decade?
I mean, they did, but they were just increasingly disappointing Superman sequels, plus two low-budget Swamp Thing movies and a disastrous film based on Howard the Duck. It was ten years before Warner Bros. finally made a Batman movie, and then it was another ten years before Sony and 20th Century Fox got into Spider-Man and the X-Men, and studios finally caught on that this was a profitable line of business.
We now recognize superhero movies as essentially a bottomless gold mine, and Superman: The Movie made the 1979 version of a very big pot of gold, so what was holding movie studios back from grabbing up comic book IP and churning out copycats?
Well, one reason was that everyone involved spent several years telling everybody how difficult and expensive it was. Everyone in Hollywood knew that it took forever to figure out the flying, and the budget was out of control, and unless there was some kind of miracle, Superman was destined to become an epic, history-making flop.
So when it did actually miraculously turn out to be a hit, it was considered a lucky fluke, which it basically was. This movie managed to catch lightning in a bottle, and even the people who made it were never able to repeat it. So nobody wanted to be the dumbass who said, hey, that looks easy, sign me up for one of those outrageously expensive leaps into the unknown.
And it really was outrageously expensive — at an estimated cost of $55 million, Superman was the most expensive movie ever made, and it held that record for ten years, finally getting knocked out of the top spot in 1988 by Rambo III.
The interest in comics-based films also declined after 1980, when there were two unsuccessful movies based on comic strips. Flash Gordon just barely broke even at the domestic box office, and Popeye was an embarrassing flop.
And studios discovered, in the early 80s, that it was possible to make blockbuster money on less expensive and less risky projects. Obviously, the Star Wars sequels did amazingly well, and there was also Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, which made $390 millon off a $20 million budget, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982, which cost $11 million and earned an astounding $792 million.
So despite Superman’s huge success, it may have been perceived as more of a cautionary tale, rather than an inspiration. A proposed Batman movie drifted around from one studio to another for years, with Tom Mankiewicz attached to the project for a while. It mostly got held up over questions of how “dark” it should be, a theme that will start haunting this blog around 1995 and never go away.
So for our purposes right now, the legacy of Superman is basically that they went on to make more Superman movies, and starting on Monday, I’m going to dive into the thrilling and complicated story of how they made, unmade and finally stitched together the mad patchwork that they called Superman II.
As for the first movie, I think the only unfinished business that we have left is the lawsuits, which are plentiful and amusing.
As I’ve discussed in I’m sure far too much detail, the Salkinds were not fiscally responsible business partners. The overall game that they were playing with Superman was to promise that everybody would get percentages of the movie’s profits, which weren’t supposed to exist. The Salkinds were never able to produce a strict accounting of the budget for the film — partly because they were hiding it, but mostly because they literally didn’t know themselves how much money came in and went out. So if you’re supposed to get 3% of the profits on the movie, then they would say that there aren’t any profits, because dumb ol’ Richard Donner spent it all on retakes and opinions.
Mario Puzo, who wrote the first two drafts of the extremely redrafted script, had Ilya Salkind served with papers at the Washington, D.C. premiere. So Puzo was already pissed off at not getting a large enough share of the box office, and the movie hadn’t even come out yet. The premiere was actually a fundraiser for one of Rosalynn Carter’s charities, so there was absolutely no money to argue about yet. And now Ilya has to stand around with a lawsuit in his hand, like a chump.
Ilya and Puzo were on the same plane going home, and Ilya said, I thought we were cool, why did you serve me with a lawsuit? And Puzo said that this is Hollywood, everybody gets sues when a big movie comes out.
But that wasn’t quite true. The real answer to that question is that Puzo wrote The Godfather, and he recognized mob-style financial shenanigans when he saw it, so his lawyers were first on the scene.
Two days after the movie’s release, Marlon Brando also sued the Salkinds for $50 million, claiming that he wasn’t getting his full share of the yet-to-be tallied movie receipts. He actually filed a restraining order trying to bar the producers from using his likeness — including the footage in the film, which was currently playing multiple times a day in 500 movie theaters around the country. Sadly, the restraining order was denied.
Los Angeles lawyers spent months in 1981 traveling to random European resorts to get depositions from Alex Salkind, and he would tell them that he couldn’t disclose anything, because of the business-secrets laws of Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Panama, where all of his shady businesses were incorporated. It all dragged on into 1982 until they came to some kind of a settlement, by which point they were all exhausted and couldn’t really remember what they were fighting about anymore.
And with that, I am officially done with Superman: The Movie, and we are leaving 1978 behind. Next up is Superman II, which will take us to Paris, Niagara Falls, and the moon, with devastating consequences for everyone.
Lois Lane will jump out of a window, Clark Kent will fail to purchase hot dogs twice in a row, and a trio of supervillains will exhale continuously for three minutes. There’s a crisis in Arctic interior design, a Save My Baby lady, and the very first open-world sandbox video game, which everyone loses. Everything will fall apart, and get put back together again in the wrong order, and I’m excited to move on to a movie that I am not completely sick of yet. See you on Monday!
The new storyline begins in
2.1: Things That Richard Donner Probably Shouldn’t Have Said
— Danny Horn