Hollywood’s franchise frenzy

March 14, 2011

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

Hollywood franchises are a quintessential part of our understanding of the film industry and are key to its current and future states. Characterized by big-budget sequels, franchises connect audiences to previous experiences without the financial risk associated with original concepts.

Disney is the master franchiser — the studio’s success is not simply a product of hit films, but rather of visionary concepts and characters that can be taken in every direction.

My own interaction with Hollywood’s commercial focus on franchises is typical: I am a rabid consumer of the familiar, ready and willing to interact with characters I’ve already met and stories I’ve been told before. Going to the movies hasn’t always been about discovering originality, but often becomes a hunt for comfort in the blanket of the past.

That’s been a very simple strategy for a long time — for the past 30 years, Hollywood has had ultimate power to create and continue film franchises by bastardizing the original and releasing comically low-effort sequels. Audiences have consumed sequels like mad, myself included, because audiences are remarkably comfortable with what they’ve already seen.

A new polar studio strategy that pushes production toward either super-low or epically-high budgets while losing the middle ground stands to create a film industry that emphasizes franchises more than ever.

The five highest-grossing films of last year exemplify that. At the top was “Toy Story 3,” the conclusion of an animated film series emphasizing nostalgia and the fleeting nature of youth. Second: “Alice in Wonderland,” a re-imagining of the classic tale with which almost every age group is already familiar. In third and fourth: “Iron Man 2” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” respectively — one a typical sequel trying to one-up the size of the original and the other a book saga adaptation feeding on the ravenous tastes of teenagers. The fifth place film comes from the franchise of all franchises, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I”— essentially the surest of sure bets.

Thinking beyond simple theatrical grosses, though, consider the cost of producing so many of these installments. In most cases, cost is never recovered on theatrical release alone. The attraction of franchises isn’t simply that their films will make box office money. It’s that they will make money, create obsession, branch out across mediums and consumer goods and make more and more money long after the film’s release.

I have “Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar” calendars in my bedroom. No matter how much I like “The King’s Speech” or “Black Swan,” they won’t inspire fandom like that.

But franchises now aren’t necessarily like franchises of decades past. Before, sequels were universally inferior to their originals, lost in trying to recreate an existing story but characterized by consistent failure. In a risk-averse, recession-minded film industry, sequels like “The Dark Knight,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Toy Story 3”are the goal. These films not only increase the size of their original films, but creatively pursue entirely different courses in plot and thematic focus.

While sequels may still tend to disappoint, there is more hope for these films than Hollywood has ever seen.

In conjunction with those expectations, blockbuster franchises have chosen to hire “brand” directors — whether aesthetically auteuristic or not — to generate even further excitement. Christopher Nolan is the best example: The new “Batman” saga is essentially his, and unlike Tim Burton’s 1980s-1990s “Batman” films, it seems widely understood that the series couldn’t work without him.

J.J. Abrams, with TV successes in “Lost” and “Alias,” was hired to helm “Mission: Impossible 3,” and then given the reins of the reinvigorated “Star Trek.”

Hiring directors like Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) for the next “Wolverine” film and Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” shows a concerted effort by studios to maintain quality even far into franchises. Or, at the very least, it illustrates their desire to seem that way (don’t forget Marc Forster, director of “Finding Neverland” and “Monster’s Ball,” was at the head of the painful Bond flick “Quantum of Solace”).

Many people find trends like the ones described here to be worrisome — not only is Hollywood becoming more and more top-heavy, it’s taking its Oscar-nominated directors and corrupting them with sellout tentpole ideology.

But I tend to lean the other way. Franchise pictures become social capital, and more than simple commercial endeavors. Investing talent into those films could result in more well-made sequels, as we’ve seen in the past five years. Bringing this generation’s critically acclaimed filmmakers into the big blockbuster production mode represents the next step in Hollywood commerce and brings the chance for a new kind of blockbuster. While there may be no formula for a great sequel, Hollywood seems ready to at least attempt making franchises that endure with dignity.

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