Superman 1.100: One Hundred and Thirty-Four Million Dollars

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!

Monday:
The new storyline begins in
2.1: Things That Richard Donner Probably Shouldn’t Have Said

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

41 thoughts on “Superman 1.100: One Hundred and Thirty-Four Million Dollars

  1. It”s perhaps fitting that we’re stuck under a ten-year winter storm. I can look out the window and pretend to be in the Fortress of (real) Solitude. I can think about all the hookers and blow the Salkinds bought. I’d meant to go back and review SED 1-100, and now there’s not much else I can do.

    Congrats on the first movie and good luck on the rest!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lest we forget the Salkinds were responsible for the most accurate (and funniest) version of Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” starring, amongst other luminaries, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Raquel Welch (not a musketeer), Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee,Faye Dunaway, etc. Then they ripped it into “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers,” trying to get two for the price of one, and all the actors hit their speed-dials for their lawyers. They were not only crooked, they weren’t very good at it.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. A key point I think needs foregrounding is the extent to which the difficulty and expense were FX driven. Even Star Wars went into theaters with multiple shots containing really ugly, painfully visible matte lines. Compare the aliens trashing buildings shots in Avengers and Pal’s War of the Worlds (yeah, that was ’53 not the 70’s, but the point probably still stands). It’s the limitations of what you can put up on the screen even with the expense and difficulty rather than those per se that I suspect limited the appeal of doing superhero movies.

    Regarding the money shenanigans, never attribute to the Salkinds what can be explained by standard industry accounting games. See the wiki pages on Buchwald v. Paramount and “Hollywood accounting”.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Well done, Danny. This was an impressive first step in this immense journey, and I’m looking forward to revisiting “Superman II” through your eyes. I remember it with even more fondness than the first movie, despite some of its more cringe-producing moments.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Having never seen it before, and knowing nothing about it, I somehow had the idea that Swamp Thing came out between Superman and Superman II. Now I feel like a chump for watching the first 20 minutes on Tubi. I guess I’ll save the remaining 70 minutes for a couple months from now or whenever your first post about it is imminent.

    ——–

    > the people who made it were never able to repeat it

    It would interesting to see what Donner’s original version of Superman II would have looked like (I don’t care for Michael Thau’s “Donner Cut” any more than Lester’s version). And I’m fascinated to hear that Tom Mankiewicz was attached to Batman for awhile.

    What I’m getting at is that “the people who made it were never able to repeat it” because the creatives responsible for making Superman: The Movie *good* (Donner and Mankiewicz, primarily) never made another superhero movie.

    I’m looking forward to Superman II being picked apart. As mentioned, I’ve never cared for any version of it, so I’m here to see it raked over the coals.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Remind me how you feel about Superman III? I know we’re pretty much on the same page about II, but I think III is so much better.

      Like

  6. OT: but when I renewed my viewing of StM in 1997, I remember wanting to see it in Widescreen. Unfortunately, although Letterbox VHS was becoming a thing, it wasn’t done for any of the SUPERMAN films. We didn’t have a Laserdisc player, and the films wouldn’t see a DVD release until mid-2001. I got a taste of sorts on Easter 1998, when American Movie Classics aired a Letterbox SUPERMAN II at Midnight (AMC had this thing for broadcasting the cropped version during the day and Letterbox version during the night; several examples were THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, 55 DAYS AT PEKING, etc.). Then in Spring 2000, AMC finally broadcast StM in Letterbox during the night, of which I recorded it. Still have the recording.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Congrats on finishing the first film! I’m glad I found this blog as I’m still making my way through DSED.

    I wonder if some of the resistance to further superhero movies was the costumes and how not to make them look silly. It was considered hard to make spandex look good on people and not ridiculous. Christopher Reeve made it work, but we end up with Batman in armor and the X-Men in leather costumes, all just trying to avoid the spandex.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yup, that was a HUGE consideration. (rim shot)

      The choice to make Superman an earnest dork really helped with the fact that he was wearing a skintight leotard–his genuine desire to be a Good Hero helped mute the amusing factor. But many of the more outrageous, campy outfits in superhero comics were designed for just that–comics, where big, bold and brassy made for eye catching panels that sold issues.

      When the movies had to come up with 3D versions of those costumes, it was an exercise in humility, to say the least.

      Like

  8. >>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?

    Pumaman was made in 1980 and the Return of Captain Invincible came out in 1983.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE is a musical comedy (and 1981’s CONDORMAN is basically a comedic spy adventure, where the title character is actually just the creation of the star who cosplays as him because why not) so I’m not sure it really fits with the others even if it stars an actual superpowered hero played by Alan Arkin singing tunes by Richard O’Brien and basically becoming a mostly more toned down ROCKY SUPER PICTURE SHOW. There’s brief flying but basically nobody had to be concerned about anything being believable (though Christopher Lee as the villain added a ton of credibility, the rest of the cast was entirely “who’s here in Australia?”) And there’s an actual rap attempt in which the President of the United States just keeps repeating “Bullshit!” over and over in different combinations for half a minute.

      PUMAMAN feels more like they were trying to do SUPERMAN but it only came out in Italy (which has about as many odd comic-related or bonkers horror flicks as it has pasta dishes).

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I was surprised that “Kramer vs Kramer was the 7th highest grossing film of the 1970s. How long has it been since a domestic drama with no special effects was in the top 10 highest grossing movies of the decade? 1988’s Rain Man, I think. “Forrest Gump” had CGI, though it was subtle. All Kramer vs Kramer had was Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman.
    Moviegoers now seems to prefer fantasy over reality. I can’t blame them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. i honestly can’t remember. rain man sounds about right, but at the same time feels impossible. boogie nights popped into my head but that’s hardly a domestic drama. magnolia, maybe? still on the showy side though. hmm. it’s a tough question, but a good one!

      i wonder how much longer the superhero phase can possibly last? i think it’s beginning to burn out, though i could be wrong. people really do seem to love the spectacle.

      there comes a point where you’re just remaking the same film over and over, and it’s tricky because many of these stories end up being so similar to one another. the superheroes of DC are, lots of times, near carbon copies of the ones at marvel, fans don’t mind because they’ve waited so long to see their favorites. for me it was finally getting to see the x-men, flawed as those films were.

      i’m at the point that i’d honestly love to see a return to more realistic filmmaking, like we saw in the seventies, but i’m not sure that time will ever come round again.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Like movies being split and splintered into thousands of streaming services now, genres weren’t quite the ironclad ghettos they later became, after the smaller B studios were shut down or got absorbed by the big boys. Everybody made everything and what would now be an “indie” was a big studio release, like K vs K, because they just did everything. Until Jaws, the idea of the Summer Blockbuster, for example, was a nice surprise, not a yearly budgeting goal.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. A few months ago, I couldn’t imagine anyone having 100 things to say about Superman: The Movie. Yet I’ve somehow left comments on all 100 of these posts. That proves that you’re not only an insightful critic and a remarkable wit, Danny, but a fine teacher as well. It’s just amazing that you do all this writing and give it away free, I’m very grateful.

    I think TheJio makes a key point above. Fans really do want to see costumes that are faithful to the images in the comic books, and there aren’t many people who can manage that the way Christopher did. Especially considering that Hollywood in the 70s was the age of the antihero- preposterous as the idea of Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman as Superman may sound, those were the big box office names. You could have suggested Burt Young and gotten a respectful hearing.

    Kosmo13, I know you’re teasing, but I want to thank you- I always smile at the thought of Pumaman. It’s tied with The Girl in the Gold Boots and the Devil Doll as topic of my favorite MST3K installments.

    Liked by 6 people

  11. Final word: Has anyone noticed the movie doesn’t play the full version of John Williams’ theme? Both the Opening and Closing edit a part out (differently).
    Nevertheless I’ve always enjoyed the closing credits (at the time one of the longest, clocking about 7 minutes) and its Love Ballad. It’s fine without the lyrics.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s something magical in the way the music trails off at the end of the credits and the words “Next Year… Superman II” appear on the screen in moderate-sized lettering. It feels grand, confident, and yet somehow modestly understated all at the same time to promise a sequel in one year in such a quiet manner. And it happens at the very very end of the credits, after much of the audience is probably no longer even in the theater.

      Like

  12. I recommended the “Hollywood accounting” wiki article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_accounting) before reading it in detail. Having read it I’d urge everyone to take a look to see just how…”creative”…the industry is. For instance, in 2009 Lucasfilm was claiming that _Return of the Jedi_ (which at that point had grossed over $572 million worldwide against a production budget of $32.5 million) had yet to make any profit.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Donnor decided to look at the source material and ask, “What if this is modern mythology? What does it have to show us about the human condition? What is the most respectful way to present it with verisimilitude, given the magic in the storyline as the basis for magical realism?”

    He then made a respectful, earnest, serious tribute to this mythology. Part of the mythology includes some wacky slapstick goofiness, so his film included some wacky slapstick goofiness.

    I think Donnor saw himself not as making a comic book film, but as being part of a filmmaking legacy adapting myth and miracle for the screen: Douglas Fairbanks as Thief of Baghdad, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, 2001, A Christmas Carol, Jason and the Argonauts.

    Richard Lester saw the Superman source material as suggestions to be deconstructed and blended into a chop-suey salad of slapstick entertainment and gee-whiz fun. Instead of having a whimsical party onscreen with the Beatles, how about a whimsical party onscreen with Superman and his buddies and foes?

    It took ten years before anyone recognized another comic book as a Modern Myth to Take Seriously with Batman. Five more years til an original comic book style story got the same approach with The Crow (horror plus superhero), then five more til The Matrix (cyberpunk with superheroes) and then X-Men the next year.

    Eight more years until the next Very Earnest Comic Book Mythology movie with Iron Man, to launch the wave of hit superhero films continuing to the present day.

    Other movies along the way had some other type of story – family, romantic comedy, gloomy antihero, etc. “with a superhero” included, but were not really superhero films as we think of them today. The handful of straight-ahead comic book superhero films like Rocketeer and Phantom didn’t try to be Big Earnest Epic Mythologies like Donnor’s Superman.

    Loving the series, Danny. What a great first hundred episode run! I know I’ll enjoy your takedown of the few great bits and many sloppy-seconds in the theatrical version of Superman II.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. just going on record as a massive, massive fan of swamp thing, which is a very strange movie that just works for me and is loads of fun. how wes craven got involved has always been a bit of a puzzle, but i was glad he brought along david hess, one of my favorite bad guys ever. add best evil dad ray wise as friendly, smiley science guy alec holland and louis jordan, who i find to be genuinely creepy, and you’ve got an afternoon’s fun.

    and flash gordon? well. that’s just straight up, god’s honest truth, the best movie of all time. if you’re me, anyhow. timothy dalton playing errol flynn playing prince barin was yet another huge crush. what a cutie.

    i can still to this day, recite the entire film. it was one of the first things i ever taped on the betamax (thanks for backing the wrong horse dad!) off hbo.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Remember how scandalous it was when it came out that young, naive Sam had put “(not so) little Flash” on display in a _Playgirl_ spread 5 years earlier?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Flash is superb yes. And Timothy Dalton? He played another Errol Flynn clone in Rocketeer. And played the Rhett Butler role in the Gone with the Wind sequel. He was absolutely born 50 years too late – he’d have been a screen god in the actual 1930s!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Not big on superhero movies, myself–but I LOVE Superman 1 and 2. After watching 3 once, however, I basically and happily “forgot” it existed.

    I grew up fundie and didn’t see either of these movies in the theater because that was eeevil, while TV and VCRs were perfectly okay (not sure why).

    So first time I saw 2, it was in the “old library” at school, where we watched movies every now and then, like Dragonslayer (now there’s a good movie for elementary school kids) and Back to the Future.

    As for 2, we got as far as Zod telling Jor-El “Kneel before Zod…” etc. A quick Google search tells me that he says next, “YOU WILL BOW DOWN BEFORE ME! BOTH YOU, AND THEN ONE DAY, YOUR HEIRS!”

    ….But to a class full of little American kids, it sounds like, “And then one day, YOUR A$$!” So the entire class proceeded to jeer and giggle.

    Then the bell rang.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Superman: The Movie was a big hit, but Star Wars was a bigger one. All the studios scrambled to get their own Star Wars out, which might help explain why superhero films were overlooked for a while. Paramount even scrapped their reboot of Star Trek and their UPN network to get a big-budget motion picture into production. A Google search for 1979 sci-fi films will show how many films came about because of the money that Star Wars generated. Everyone wanted some, but few managed to get it.

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    1. That’s the thing! In December 1978, Superman didn’t feel like The First Big Comic Book Movie. It felt like part of the post-Star Wars sci-fi trend.

      One of the big hits of that trend, to be sure, but very much Part of the Star Wars Crowd.

      Liked by 1 person

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