Reading breathless box-office coverage isn’t a great way to get a grip on the motion picture business, but last weekend, “Ant-Man” became the 12th consecutive Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to open at No. 1 domestically. That stat was thrown around a lot, and it made me wonder how difficult the feat was. (Note: Disney — which owns ESPN, which owns FiveThirtyEight — owns Marvel.)
It’s pretty tough! First of all, there are only four franchises tracked by Box Office Mojo with 12 or more feature-length films: Marvel, Star Trek, Friday the 13th, and the James Bond movies. The opening-weekend data I have only goes back to 1982 — thus we can’t evaluate the Bond streak before “Octopussy.” But of the 12 most recent films in the franchise, only seven opened at No. 1. And neither of the other two franchises managed to pull off a dozen consecutive No. 1 openings.
So I looked at the top 50 career grossing performers and directors to see if any of them could compete with Marvel.1 Surely there must be a Tom Cruise or James Cameron streak that can?
Actually, no! Among that group, the longest streak of consecutive movies with No. 1 opening weekends was eight, belonging to both Jim Carrey and Will Smith.
Smith’s streak runs from “Men in Black II” in 2002 through “Hancock” in 2008.2 Carrey’s streak was a productive patch from “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” in 1994 to “The Truman Show” in 1998.3
The runner-up is Eddie Murphy in the 1980s, during a furious period of production in which a string of seven of the actor’s films hit the top spot at the box office — from “Beverly Hills Cop” in 1984 through “Another 48 Hrs.” in 1990. Cruise had six consecutive films between 1992 and 1999 that won No. 1. Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Ian McKellen (with two separate streaks!) had winning streaks of five movies.
I figured the directors might have been better at hanging tough with Marvel, but it’s not even close. Cameron, Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis tied for the longest streak of films with No. 1 debut weekends, with six each. For what it’s worth, Michael Bay could have had a streak of 10 winners if he hadn’t made “The Island,” but he’ll have to deal with two streaks of five winners instead.
Granted, looking beyond the top 50 grossing actors and directors could unearth people who can beat these records — a streak of eight winning movies for the actors and six for directors.
But my point is that it’s a pretty big win that Marvel is pitching a perfect game, and it’s much harder than I originally realized. Those top 50 grossing performers and directors aren’t schlubs; you’d be hard-pressed to think of actors and actresses who aren’t on that list and have the output, consistency and total gross to compete with Marvel.
There have been some pretty solid risks taken by Marvel, too — “Guardians of the Galaxy” was an unknown quantity, and “Ant-Man” sneaked past “Minions” with very little room for error.
Again, it’s possible the continuation of streaks like this may be self-fulfilling. For whatever reason, people care about these records and schedule film releases accordingly. Warner Bros. is coming out with the highly anticipated “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in March, but the film was originally scheduled against “Captain America: Civil War” on May 6, 2016. The urge to win a release weekend cleanly may have been a motivation for that move and may signal that streaks like Marvel’s (essentially meaningless but nonetheless impressive) will become more common.