Tales From The Box Office: Nic Cage's Ghost Rider Flopped Its Way To A Franchise 15 Years Ago

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

There are moments where it is easy to forget just how far we've come in terms of superhero movies over the last 15 years or so. It is easy to complain about the lack of a great modern "Superman" movie or the fact that it is taking so long to get the "Blade" reboot going. But these are relatively small nitpicks because, make no mistake, we've come a long way and comic book movies remain without a doubt the biggest thing in Hollywood right now, with little to no competition. We need look no further than 2007's "Ghost Rider" to understand just how much has changed in the last decade and a half.

The Nicolas Cage-led Marvel Comics adaptation celebrated its 15th anniversary this week and, in some ways, it marked the end of an era. The following year would see the Marvel Cinematic Universe kick off in earnest with the releases of "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk," sowing the seeds for the now-coveted shared universe approach to franchises. 

Today, we're going to look back at "Ghost Rider" all these years later — examining how it came to be, what went wrong, and how despite all that went wrong it still managed to get a sequel. Let's dig in!

The movie: Ghost Rider

Following the success of 2000's "X-Men" and especially 2002's "Spider-Man," it became clear that superhero movies had their place in blockbuster filmmaking. Gone were the days of "Steel" or "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." and in were the days of taking comic book adaptations seriously (or attempting to anyway). It would be several years before the likes of "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" helped to firm up the formula. The handful of years in between was sort of like the wild west, with many attempts made and many failures strewn about the timeline as studios attempted to cash in on what was surely thought to be a fad but, more than 20 years later, is just about the only thing sustaining the global box office with regularity.

This particular movie dates back to the early '90s, closer to the success of Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman," when Marvel was still chasing the ever-elusive white whale of cinematic success in Hollywood. "Ghost Rider" went through various iterations with various creative teams (as is so often the case with big movies that languish in development hell). It wasn't until 2003, following "Spider-Man," that things got serious under Sony's Columbia Pictures. The studio scooped up the rights and set Mark Steven Johnson, the man behind Ben Affleck's "Daredevil" movie, to work his magic with Johnny Blaze. As Johnson recalled in an interview with ComicBook.com, it was a dream job for a lifelong fan of comics:

"I was a fanatical comic book reader as a kid growing up. I was that six year old kid waiting at the drug story for the comics to arrive off of the truck. Marvel comics were a huge part of my childhood. My world really revolved around them. I was definitely a 'True Believer.'"

On paper, that's what you want. But in that same interview, Johnson describes Marvel movies at the time being the wild west, as the rights were scattered all over the place at various studios. Despite other actors supposedly being in the mix for "Ghost Rider," with Johnny Depp expressing interest in the role at one point, Johnson says that it was "always" Nicolas Cage for the lead role, insisting: "There was never talk of anyone else playing Johnny Blaze."

With a wild supporting cast in tow — including "Easy Rider" star Peter Fonda as the villain Mephistopheles, Eva Mendes as Roxanne Simpson, and Sam Elliot as Caretaker — production finally kicked off in 2005. It's worth noting that David S. Goyer, writer of "Batman Begins" and many other big DC movies over the last decade and change, had initially penned a draft of the screenplay that Cage quite liked. Reflecting back on the movie in 2018 with JoBlo, the actor said:

"'Ghost Rider' was a movie that always should've been an R-rated movie. David Goyer had a brilliant script which I wanted to do with David, and for whatever reason they just didn't let us make the movie. That movie is still a movie that should be made, not with me obviously, but it should be an R-rated movie. Heck, 'Deadpool' was R-rated and that did great. 'Ghost Rider' was designed to be a scary superhero with an R-rating and edge, and they just didn't have it worked out back then."

Ultimately that's not the movie we got. The "Ghost Rider" movie we did get (after suffering several delays) finally hit theaters in early 2007, resulting in a movie that wasn't a box office success, yet somehow resulted in a sequel anyhow: 2011's "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance."

The financial journey

Making its debut in theaters on February 16, 2007 (just in time for Valentine's Day weekend!) "Ghost Rider" attempted to revive the Marvel hot streak after the then-recent disappointments of "X-Men: The Last Stand," "Elektra," and "Fantastic Four." Carrying a $110 million production budget, "Ghost Rider" opened to a damn decent $45 million despite having to contend with a wave of negative reviews. It sustained domestically, finishing its run with a not-terrible $115 million, but international audiences didn't turn out to see Cage as a motorcycle rider with a death wish who sells his soul to the devil, becoming his personal bounty hunter. Worldwide, it wrapped up with a seemingly disastrous $228.7 million (per Box Office Mojo).

When factoring in marketing costs there is zero chance "Ghost Rider" made money in theaters. Plain and simple. Studios keep roughly half of box office ticket sales, which would hardly account for the budget in this case. A common rule of thumb for finding a movie's approximate break-even point is to double the production budget in order to account for the costs of marketing and distribution. Even if we assume the marketing budget was relatively modest (and it probably wasn't), this certainly didn't scream success — especially when coupled with the pure lack of positive buzz. And yet, a sequel happened anyway!

In 2011, Cage returned as Johnny Blaze in a more modestly budgeted sequel, "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengance." It made a whole lot less at the box office, rounding out its run with $149 million, which was admittedly less disastrous given the $57 million production budget. Part of what likely helped get "Spirit of Vengeance" made is the fact that "Ghost Rider" generated an impressive $104 million in home video sales (per The Numbers), not to mention cable rights and other ancillary revenue Sony probably benefited from in the age before streaming took over, back when DVD sales were far more robust. 

Still, "Ghost Rider" more or less flopped its way to becoming a short-lived franchise at a time when the tide was turning for Marvel and superhero movies in general. The film rights to the character reverted back to Marvel in 2013 and a version of Ghost Rider ultimately appeared in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." that was supposed to launch a spin-off before those plans went belly-up. The circle of life.

The lessons contained within

Most of the sins committed by "Ghost Rider" (in terms of the movie itself) have since been avoided by the Hollywood machine. Superhero movies are big business now and tend to be taken very seriously, and "Ghost Rider" feels like a relic of the past even though it was just 15 years ago. Comparatively, "Iron Man" still seems fresh and refreshing, despite the fact that it came out the very next year. There is no need to harp on any lessons here as it pertains to superhero cinema in general. Those lessons have been well learned!

However, in the streaming era there is utter desperation for franchise content that results in a lot of ambitious decision-making. Paramount has already given the green light to "Sonic the Hedgehog 3" as well as a live-action series, for example, before "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" even hits theaters — all because the first movie did well at the box office, though not outlandishly great. This is the era we're leaving in, and what the streaming wars have brought upon us all.

It would, in my humble opinion, behove studios and streaming services not to put carts before horses. Just look at what happened with DC Films in attempting to catch up to the MCU in a hurry instead of letting things evolve naturally. It got messy. Look at Universal attempting to cobble together a monster movie universe with the Dark Universe that got precisely (checks notes) one movie into its ambitious plans before closing up shop. 

On the flip side, look at what Lionsgate did with "John Wick." A one-off action movie was received well and the studio wisely decided to pull that thread further, resulting in one of the best action franchises of the modern era. 

There are right and wrong ways to do this. The main thing is not to double down on a bad idea for the sake of a franchise. Nothing about "Ghost Rider" screamed franchise and that iteration of it shouldn't have been a franchise. Credit where credit is due though, Sony was wise enough to heavily reduce the budget the second time around, which is something other studios could definitely stand to look at when crafting blockbusters in the post-pandemic era. Don't doom the film to fail with impossibly high financial expectations!