Special Features – The Franchise Wars

Anghus Houvouras on Hollywood’s ‘Franchise Wars’…

The franchise wars.  A phrase used by a young Sandra Bullock in the movie Demolition Man used  to explain why all restaurants are now Taco Bell.  It’s a clever idea:  The concept that massive conglomerates ended up in brutal combat eviscerating one another until only one bloody, battered survivor remained.  Twenty years later the franchise wars have been declared. But it’s not happening at the drive thru. 

It’s happening at the cineplex. We are now living in the age of the film franchise wars.

There are three elements that have led to the film franchise wars.

1. Hollywood Studios apprehensive to produce unknown quantities
2. Consumer reluctance to spend money on the unfamiliar
3. An increase in product being released to the marketplace forcing franchises to cannibalize one another.

If you’re willing, join me on an exhaustive look at the current state of the big budget blockbuster and why we’ve already seen the first shots fired in an ongoing battle for box office dominance.  Let’s begin.

1. Hollywood Studios apprehensive to produce unknown quantities.

Man of Steel 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: Episode VII, Avatar 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Terminator 5, Die Hard 6, Jurassic Park IV, Independence Day 2, Finding Dory, Mission: Impossible 5, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Ant-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Adventures of Tintin 2, Bond 24, Bourne 5, Snow White and the Huntsman 2….

…all slated for 2015.

Daunting, isn’t it?  I got tired just typing that sentence.  2015 looks to be ground zero in a film franchise war that is rapidly changing what kind of movies we see while exhausting the very foundation of what works about franchises. 

Some would say this franchise war is already well underway.  This year has seen the release of Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, The Wolverine 2, Fast & Furious 6, Kick-Ass 2, The Hangover Part III, Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, Grown Ups 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Star Trek Into Darkness and RED 2 as well as The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Thor: The Dark World, Riddick, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to come.

In order to discuss film franchises, one must accept two universal truths.

There are only two kinds of big budget movies out there today: Franchises and Potential Franchises.

The two most discussed failures of the Summer have been two movies with an obvious attempt at creating a franchise.  The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim.  One film was universally praised, and the other universally panned.  Yet both films stalled out when it came to launching a potential franchise.  Though there are some speculating that international grosses could potentially make a second Pacific Rim film a reality.  I believe those are the same people holding out for a new Firefly movie.

Hollywood Studios have always searched for box office potential in existing properties.  Going back to the well to try and leverage more cash from a preexisting concept.  One of the movies that helped establish this new model was The Matrix.  1999’s most pop culture conscious movie was a surprise phenomenon. Hailed as a unique and original film with mind blowing visuals, The Matrix was the one of the most talked about films of the year in a line up that included the first new Star Wars movie in nearly two decades, the found footage phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project, and the twist ending that launched the career of M. Night Shyamalan with The Sixth Sense

The success of The Matrix seemed like a no brainer for Warner Bros.  Take the characters and the ideas of the original and green light two hugely budgeted sequels to expand the world even further. Two sequels released in May and November of the same year. Audiences were hyped for a second Matrix film.  At least they were until they saw it.  The reaction to The Matrix Reloaded was tepid at best.  And yet, because of the success of the first movie the second cleared over 700 million dollars worldwide.  The third film, The Matrix Revolutions, took the brunt of diminishing audience expectations and made a little more than half of Matrix Reloaded.  Still, the sequels cleared a billion dollars plus theatrically. 

That taught studios a valuable lesson about turning a film into a franchise: over saturation can hurt the bottom line but still put a film into profit.  Studio logic would soon adapt to the idea that a known property was still a break even proposition even if reaction was decidedly mixed.  Once a studio has established a popular movie, the subsequent sequels could still be financially viable even if they were piss poor photocopies of the original.

Pirates of the Caribbean took a similar approach several years later.  After audiences cheered for Captain Jack Sparrow, two sequels were put into production.  Both sequels were met with a collective shrug by critics and audiences.  The movies still made Disney a lot of money.  Even a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, devoid of attachments to the original trilogy, was able to haul in a boat load of cash, though even the most ardent fan of the films will readily admit it isn’t very good.

The strength of one good film is enough to keep a franchise afloat.  Don’t believe me?  May I present you with Die Hard.

The original Die Hard is a classic.  Easily one of the best action films ever made. It’s success and subsequent classic status led to a sequel: 1990’s imperfect but still entertaining Die Hard 2: Die Harder.  While not the creative and financial success of the original, it was still enough to keep the series on the burner over at Fox.  Five years later they delivered an enjoyable but painfully formulaic Die Hard with a Vengeance.  Many felt there was little gas left in the tank and the series lied dormant for many years until studios began to dig into the vaults and look for anything with a recognizable enough brand to warrant new installments.  And so we ended up with the painful Live Free or Die Hard and the agonizing A Good Day to Die Hard.  Each of these films existing because of the simple truth that there is still goodwill to be mined from the 1988 original and point two in our analysis:

2. Consumer reluctance to spend their money on the unfamiliar.

The concept of a standalone Summer film almost seems quaint in a day and age where everything is being sized up for franchise opportunities.  Every big budget film includes an ellipses.   Anything that generates revenue is a potential franchise.  Even if that revenue is negligible.   G.I. Joe is a franchise that hasn’t generated a lot of profit for Paramount, but since it provides a very solid and obtainable number.  It’s a low risk wager for studios desperate to maintain a rapidly diminishing bottom line.  By studio logic the $150 million dollar minimum it takes to mount a blockbuster is better spent on the familiar.

That is the kind of logic that could see Pacific Rim get a sequel.  The same logic that got Prometheus a proposed sequel. The same number crunching that brought audiences Wrath of the Titans.  A movie doesn’t even need to be a major hit anymore.  It simply has to create enough brand awareness and not lose a significant amount of money.  Break even for a blockbuster is enough to consider further installments.  Studios are increasingly willing to go back to the well for films that don’t even generate strong profits because they are reluctant to gamble house money and can walk away from the table without losing their shirt.

In Poker terms: Hollywood is playing the long game.   And you can’t win a long game by making risky, over sized bets on unproven hands. 

If Pacific Rim, R.I.P.D. and The Lone Ranger have taught the studios anything, its that new franchises are a difficult proposition.  Studios not only seem wary of new product, they seem almost institutionally averse to the concept.  Audiences are doing little to contribute as movies without some kind of tether to a known concept are doing poorly at the box office.  Combined with an obscene level of competition in the marketplace means that movies don’t have time to build an audience before another half dozen films are being rushed into theaters.  With the sheer volume of options the ticket buying public if opting for the familiar.

What you would call “new” studios call “unproven”.  And for every new idea that succeeds, there are a dozen failures eating up operating capital.  When audiences reject something unfamiliar, those with the rubber stamp opt for the devil they know, rather than the devil they don’t. The upcoming Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is a fine example of that logic.  The first film was practically a break even proposition and yet a sequel exists because it is a safer bet.  Finding 225 million dollars of worldwide box office for an untested property is a gamble studios are less and less willing to take. 

Audiences are voting with their ticket purchases, and their apprehensive attitude towards anything unfamiliar is emboldening the Hollywood studios to embrace a franchise mentality to an almost ridiculous degree.  Even when the studios are trying something ‘new’, it’s a previously released young adult book series or a preexisting property with brand awareness that has existed in another medium other than film.

3. An increase in product being released to the marketplace forcing franchises to cannibalize one another.

Just look at recent weekends where franchises like RED 2 is battling Despicable Me 2 and Grown Ups 2 at the box office.  Yes, these movies appeal to different audiences.  The people buying tickets for RED 2 aren’t the same group lining up to see Despicable Me 2.  However, it does have an impact on the kind of movies we’re getting to see with studios simply filling every conceivable opening with an established franchise.   These are harmless scraps between studios with no real stakes because they are seeking different quadrants.

The aforementioned cluster fuck of 2015 is where the franchise wars are going to get ugly.  Where Avengers 2, Batman/Superman, and Star Wars are going to start taking their toll on one another.  Where the same audiences and quadrants are pursued.  Where talking up a film won’t be enough: they’ll have to start shouting louder and louder to be heard.  And as these films are packed so tightly next to one another, the amount of time spent discussing them will be reduced exponentially.  A film will barely have two weeks to open and then be swallowed up by the advertising budget of the next major blockbuster swinging into theaters.

Cinematic cannibalism.  Simply put, these movies are going to start eating each other.  And with budgets pushing past $350 million dollars when combined with marketing costs, these films will have to fight like hell to get to that break even point. 

And that’s the real danger of the franchise wars: So many franchises flooding the marketplace that only a handful will be economically viable causing the others to collapse.  Right now the studios are content with breaking even theatrically and finding profit in the ancillary markets (Blu-ray, Television).  But those ancillaries are shrinking. The film budgets increasing.  At some point fighting to break even will take it’s toll.

Disney can take it on the chin with The Lone Ranger because Iron Man 3 made a billion dollars.  John Carter’s losses don’t feel so bad when looking at the spreadsheet on AvengersDespicable Me 2 helps the sting of R.I.P.D.’s stinking failure.  Old franchises save studios when the attempt to launch a new franchise fail.  Existing franchises provide the economic leverage to try and launch the potential franchise.  Franchises sustaining franchises.

That logic cannot sustain the industry.  While I’d like to make a plea for more original blockbusters, it feels kind of like wasted effort.  Original summer blockbusters have a hard time returning on their investment.   Sure, every few years we get a gem like District 9 or Inception, but those are very much the exception. 

Studios invest in what they know will sell tickets, even if the amount is just enough to warrant a movie’s existence.  Audiences prefer the comfort of the familiar.   But the film franchise wars are very real and eventually there will be casualties.

For some franchises (both established and potential) 2015 could very well be a bloodbath.

Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon.


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