Conventional wisdom is that a name brand makes a creative investment safer than an unknown original, therefore Hollywood favors franchises and adaptations of intellectual property. This is fabulous for me because I get to see franchises that otherwise wouldn’t continue. But as this year has proven, Hollywood has been doing franchises wrong. Just having a franchise is not enough. It has to be the right franchise.
On the surface, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them may seem like an unusual example. It’s hard to feel bad for a $75 mil opening and it won’t threaten the other four movies they’re still going to make. However, for the Harry Potter franchise it’s merely treading water, not building a new franchise. Plus, I wasn’t finished writing this Freditorial until now. Here is how Hollywood should be thinking of franchises.
1. It Has To Be a Good Idea
It’s not the familiarity that makes franchises appealing. It’s the idea. The name tells them the idea and it works best if it’s a high concept. So the Harry Potter Franchise tells them there will be kid wizards learning magic. That sounds like something people will want to see, at least for the eight films that were, you know, about Harry and not some grown-up. Star Wars remains a concept people want to see: warriors fighting with light sabers and having space adventures. We’ll see it holds up for non Skywalker/Solo stories but it should.
Superheroes are high concepts. The names Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman tell people what their powers will be even if they never read a comic book. Not to mention when you team them all up. The Avengers was a good idea even without all the setup, because just telling people that Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor were in the same movie was bigger than the name. Actually “more than one superhero” was enough regardless of which Avengers they chose. Civil War took to next level. They fight.
Transformers are cars that turn into robots. That’ll always be something people want to see. G.I. Joe isn’t quite unique in the realm of military action franchises. Heck, even the Before franchise is relatively high concept. Jesse and Celine will talk about deep stuff for 90 minutes.
The classics worked this way. Nightmare on Elm Street, you knew Freddy would have cool dream terrors every time. Friday the 13th was reliable enough for killing teenagers in creative ways. We’re finally getting a new Friday, Saw and Halloween, but we should be getting more Final Destination too.
Just having the name of a hit doesn’t mean people still care. Independence Day was a hit because of its one time high concept. Aliens destroy the world on July 3 and our national holiday becomes international. That’s not repeatable. You tell people, “this time we fight the aliens again!” and nobody cares. Not to mention it lacked the marketing of the original and without Will Smith, it was too little too late. The makers of Inferno needed only look at the book franchise for indicators. None of them were the phenomenon that The Da Vinci Code was.
The Legend of Tarzan did surprisingly well but still it’s the wrong franchise because it’s outdated. Tarzan is a jungle man raised by apes. That’s great for pulp novels or early cinema that can be inexpensively filmed in jungles or sound stages, but we’re way past that now, even if you do performance capture apes. It’s the wrong franchise for that technique too. It works for Planet of the Apes because that’s about apes taking over, not just being apes. Now, The Jungle Book is still a good franchise. A kid surviving with jungle animals is high concept, and the animals frankly looked better.
Battleship, Emojis and Tetris are not things where people wonder about their mythology. Battleship could’ve done it if they’d embraced the absurdity of making a board game movie but they didn’t dare be that self aware. By all means write the most amazing Emoji and Tetris movies and prove us all wrong, but you’re working uphill and that defeats the purpose of a franchise.
There has yet to be a good movie based on a video game. Warcraft told the one story in the entire MMORPG that no one cared about (and with video gamey visual effects). “Best video game movie ever” is still a title up for grabs, but sure, try the one that’s just shapes and blocks.
Remember when Disney started making movies of all their rides? Pirates of the Caribbean was successful so they thought any ride would work. Even Tomorrowland, based on an entire section of Disneyworld, isn’t what people want to see (although make a coherent movie out of Tomorrowland maybe and we’ll revisit.)
2. Or Characters We Love
Franchises aren’t exclusively about ideas. There is the matter of characters we love and want to see again and again. The Fast and the Furious franchise has that above all the awesome car chases, and that series learned just how important its characters were when they tried to do one with all new characters. Tokyo Drift has improved retroactively because of the way subsequent sequels informed Han and Sean Boswell. James Bond, Die Hard and Indiana Jones are a mix of character and formula. Rocky is definitely about the character but Creed coming from Apollo’s son is a brilliant approach.
People definitely love the Nemo characters and Finding Dory made their favorite the star. People want to see Jason Bourne more than some other dude, but having him repeat the same formula was still tired. Star Trek is a conundrum. Trekkers don’t really want the aggressive action of the new Treks but the general audience doesn’t have enough affinity for the characters to justify the budget. The solution may be that Trek works best on television. Or try getting the Next Generation back together for one more mission like The Expendables and see if nostalgia kicks in.
The Mechanic was not a beloved character. Really any Jason Statham could be The Transporter, but if you don’t have the rights it might have been a better idea to start something new than go back to that well. No one wanted more Huntsman. Snow White and the Huntsman did well because of initial interest in a badass action Snow White but people didn’t like it ultimately. They certainly didn’t go, “What I really want is to see more of that Huntsman.” But to be fair they didn’t want more Snow White either, no matter how much Charlize Theron vamped as the wicked queen.
When the characters are the franchise, it is imperative that you remember who the characters are. While fans watch a movie over and over, the actors generally move on to the next project and don’t think about them again until they’re asked for a sequel. This leads to actors (and filmmakers too) forgetting who the characters were in the first place. With 20 years between Dumb & Dumber and Dumb & Dumber To, the lovable well-meaning idiots became aggressive psychopaths.
It doesn’t always take 20 years to forget your characters though. Now You See Me 2 only took three years to forget who its characters were, and it was even the same writer. This week, Billy Bob Thornton didn’t forget who Bad Santa was, but his sequel forgot what made him bad. Even with a book by Helen Fielding behind it, Bridget Jones’s Baby forgot who she was.
3. Or Interesting Filmmakers
Remember when the Alien and Mission: Impossible franchises hired a different interesting director for every film? The new take became as big of a draw as the franchise itself. Even hiring Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan to do Batman and Sam Raimi to do Spider-Man were more interesting for the filmmaker than the characters.
Lego may have that. The Lego Movie is beloved not for the popular toy but the incredibly creative take of the filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. We’ll see if the other directors can maintain it in the sequels. Nothing against bringing back great directors for another go, but it’s no guarantee to make the audience happy. Everyone wanted Sam Mendes back after Skyfall but they hated Spectre. They still like the Russo Brothers though.
It’s hard to distinguish filmmakers in the larger franchises these days. The Marvel movies are so of a piece, it’s only snippets of James Gunn and Scott Derrickson that poke through. Let’s hope we see some Ryan Coogler in Black Panther, and for God’s sake, please hire some women! Although even the Wonder Woman trailer looks like the same ultra-serious slow motion grimdark that was established in the DC franchise before Patty Jenkins got there. That’s just a trailer, so I’m still hopeful.
4. Battling The “Perfect Ending”
One thing I’ve learned as Franchise Fred is people don’t actually want more of something they like. They want less because they’re afraid they’ll stop liking it, which is likely, being fickle creatures humans are. They love when TV shows end definitively and do shorter seasons with no filler episodes. They like trilogies but not really any more unless it’s a trilogy of trilogies like Star Wars.
So if you’re going to continue a franchise you start fighting against your audience. It’s your job to convince fans they will still like the new one. The more episodic it is, the more palatable, like James Bond. The Fast and the Furious is walking a fine line between episodic and continuing story. They will have to pass the torch at some point, probably after 10 but not necessarily.
You can defeat people’s idea of a definitive conclusion. No one wanted more Rocky after Rocky Balboa but making him a mentor to Apollo’s son was something they didn’t expect. That’s the other thing. The creators have to think of something no one else thought of. If we all thought of it, it’s just fan fiction.
You definitely have to make each sequel a definitive movie. Leaving the ending open is not the way to make people want more. Terminator Genisys, which I liked, needed to convince people to stick with it decades later. That’s not the time to dangle threads for a sequel they’ll never make. Batman v Superman pushed that too. Marvel even got called out for Age of Ultron. Look where splitting the finale of Allegiant got them. Tell the whole story each time, then figure out what comes next.
5. No One Wants a Remake
Either you like the original and are attached to it or you don’t know the original so it doesn’t have any name value. The handful of remakes people like actually evolved the original: The Fly, The Thing… Or made it a musical like Little Shop of Horrors and Hairspray.
No one wants to see another Ben-Hur. No one. Or any biblical movies at all it seems, like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah, though maybe there will be an appetite for a good, culturally authentic biblical epic. The reason can’t be: We have CGI chariots now.
Point Break went so far as to update the story with new extreme sports, and I took it as a thrilling movie on its own merits, but audiences didn’t actually want to see a new Point Break. Maybe if it were Keanu Reeves’ Point Break division and he were training a new group of extreme recruits…Yet The Magnificent Seven, if you pick the right seven… Since that was a remake to begin with, there’s precedent.
6. But If You Must Reboot…
Reboots are a recent and better alternative than remakes, starting over with a new direction. They’re still new enough that people haven’t been burned, and it says “we’re not redoing it. This is just different.” And when the whole idea of reboots began with Batman Begins, Casino Royale and Star Trek, that’s a great indicator of good possibilities. Planet of the Apes is working so far, but that also falls under the high concept of “let’s do it without ape suits this time.”
Ghostbusters did everything right, and by all the accounts that matter, it was a success. It made $128 mil from a $40 mil opening weekend, people who saw it generally liked it and we now see little girls cosplay as ghostbusters. If they spent too much on the production and marketing, that’s an accounting problem. The unfortunate sexist ghostbros may say to some that the audience for Ghostbusters didn’t want a reboot. That would be the wrong message and that’s not an audience you want to serve. Something tells me a sad shell of a Ghostbusters 3 even with Bill Murray forced to play along would have done worse.
Perhaps the best way to reboot or remake is on television, because that fulfills the notion that it’s a new idea: seeing a classic movie as a longform episodic story. See how well Westworld is doing, and Bates Motel made it to five good seasons. Hannibal was brilliant on television too.
7. The Prequel Conundrum
The verdict is still out on prequels. A lot of them do well if they’re attached to big enough franchises like Star Wars or Marvel (Agent Carter, which I guess wasn’t successful enough. But X-men: First Class was). This takes me back to Fantastic Beasts’ $75 million opening. No one’s complaining and they’re going to make more sequels. Not so much with Pan.
It seems counterintuitive to me. It’s a story we already know versus moving forward. It would solve the problem of the “perfect ending” since it’s not contradicting it, but then there’s no reason for it to exist since it’s going to end up where we started. Unless, perhaps, it’s a standalone adventure like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which few franchises have repeated.
The Future of Franchises
I think Marvel and Star Wars are safe. Even DC will always bounce back, sooner or later. These are characters people want to see done well and they’ll keep trying. The Fast and the Furious is the most lucrative franchise since James Bond and I expect it to span generations.
Will Saw work again? I hope so. Will 35 years of fandom make Blade Runner 2049 a hit? I really hope Vin Diesel turns xXx into another Fast and the Furious since there’s precedent. It’s been longer though. I hope he remembers who Xander Cage was. We may see fewer revivals of long dormant franchises, like the now cancelled Stargate remake (from the makers of Independence Day.) But maybe not. Dumb and Dumber To was still a hit.
Or you can just make a movie so awesome it doesn’t even matter what franchise it belongs to, like Mad Max: Fury Road.