LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - If you believe the eye-popping tracking numbers, Sony and Marvel are sitting on an unlikely hit and kickstarting a franchise with "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance."
Ninety-one percent of men younger than 25 say they are aware of the movie, which opens on 3,000 screens on Friday. Those are strong numbers for any film, but remarkable for a sequel that took in $228 million globally in 2007 and drew scorn from many critics.
And "Spirit of Vengeance" cost an estimated $75 million to make, compared to the original film's $110 million price tag.
So how did Marvel and Sony revive the franchise for a potentially lucrative encore?
They utilized a mix of finely tuned traditional advertising and hyper-aggressive social media marketing. And they brought in the directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who have major fanboy cred.
The duo crafted the film to appeal to their young male target and they fueled early interest in the film with a special presentation at last year' Comic-Con.
But perhaps most important, they learned from their mistakes.
"They've taken the parts of the first film that everybody liked -- and nobody liked the first film -- and built this film around it," said a rival studio executive.
The executive pointed out that the marketing campaign has used star Nicolas Cage in a carefully measured fashion.
While Cage has heavily promoted the film in Europe and appeared on last week's "Saturday Night Live," he plays a secondary role to the film's effects and imagery in U.S. TV commercials. "Nick Cage is barely in them," the exec said.
Despite the strong advance tracking, Sony declined to talk about the marketing and is tamping down expectations.
The studio estimates the movie will open to somewhere in the low $30 million range over the four-day Presidents Day weekend, although other box office observers predict it will bring in around $35 million.
That's still less than the first installment of the franchise, which opened to $45.4 million over the same weekend five years ago, but a good enough start given the film's lower cost and the potential for a more leggy run.
Producer Ashok Amritraj's Hyde Park Entertainment co-financed the movie and is distributing the movie internationally. He admits the first film "wasn't quite as hot as we made it," but he's bullish on the new film.
"It's been a while since the first one," he told TheWrap, "and at this point domestically and internationally, it's tracking pretty well.
He's also been impressed with the marketing campaign run by Sony and Marvel, which includes traditional tactics and all of the social networking.
"The good thing with that is it's so interactive, you get a lot of feedback," he said.
Amritraj said that's especially important for "Ghost Rider," given that "our core audience tends to spend a lot of time on a lot of these sites."
He noted that visual effects have come a long way since the first "Ghost Rider." "The second thing is the 3D, which was non-existent in those days," he said.
Amritraj also gave credit to directors Neveldine and Taylor -- well-known for being budget-conscious -- for making a movie that he is convinced will resonate with younger viewers.
"They gave it a sort of energy that is very different than the first one," Amritraj said. "And I think they were the perfect choice because they have a lot of fanboys out there."
The movie stars Cage as Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider, a stunt motorcycle driver who has sold his soul to the devil.
In "Spirit of Vengeance," Blaze learns that the devil has fathered a boy and plans to take over the child's body, so Blaze protects the boy. Idris Elba co-stars.
Another rival marketing executive told TheWrap that the campaign for "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" makes the movie look a whole lot like a videogame -- ideal for the demographic.
That's also due in part to the frenetic style of Neveldine and Taylor. The very hands-on directors of "Crank: High Voltage" and "Gamer" directed the movie "maniacally," Amritraj said.
To film one scene, for instance, Neveldine held a camera -- and a motorcycle going about 35 miles per hour at the same time. Then he let go, turned around and got the shot.
Amritraj also recalled watching the filming of scene in which a stuntman jumps off a cliff --"a very steep cliff" -- and one of the directors jumps off as well. He filmed the falling stuntman who was pumping bullets into a car as he plummeted.
"That was really the director," Amritraj told TheWrap, "not a second unit director or a stuntman, but really one of the guys.
"It was hair-raising stuff," he said.
Now it's a matter of waiting to see whether "Spirit of Vengeance" will raise a moribund franchise from the dead.
(Editing by Chris Michaud)