Wednesday, April 21, 2010

For the Love of the Franchise

I feel the need to clarify my position on franchise films, after the the post on my misgivings toward "The Avengers" the other day. I love good franchise films, but I think they're hard to pull off and the handling of some of the more popular ones frustrates me to no end. By franchise, I mean films that are about the same major characters, your "Spiderman," "Planet of the Apes," and "Star Wars," films. The actors are not necessarily the same, and the individual entries don't always progress in a linear fashion from picture to picture, but the audience knows that they're getting the same universe with certain common rules and tropes. There are so many variations and incarnations of the oldest franchises like "Sherlock Holmes" and "Tarzan," we don't even think of them as franchises anymore.

Arguably the most successful modern one is "James Bond," a great perennial that's survived multiple decades and six actors in the title role. It was announced at the beginning of the week that the latest film, the twenty-third, was being put on indefinite hold while the financial woes of MGM get sorted out. A frustrating development, perhaps, but where this could spell the doom of other properties like Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" films, "James Bond" has survived far worse - the six-year gap between "Licence to Kill" and "GoldenEye," the fickle whims of George Lazenby, dueling official and unofficial "Bond" films in 1983, and several subpar outings like the bizarre "Die Another Day." Even if MGM's death throes go on for years, it won't kill the franchise. "Bond" is practically bullet-proof.

Not every franchise follows the "James Bond" template, though many of them try. "Harry Potter," by contrast, is a rare, wonderful example of a film series with a single story that has progressed in sequence over the course of six films to date with two more on the way. Maintaining consistency by retaining nearly all of its core actors, and rarely straying far from its source material, the "Potter" films make up a remarkably cohesive whole. Similar to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the franchise is finite by design, though Warner Brothers did manage to squeeze out an extension by splitting the last film into two installments.

But what would have happened if the first "Harry Potter" film stumbled out of the gate? Or the fourth? In Hollywood a director is only as good as his or her last picture, and the same holds true for franchise films. It seems like the instant a big corporate-branded picture runs into trouble these days, the studio executives run for the reboot or spinoff buttons. In some cases franchises do run their course, like the "Star Trek" films in the late 90s that saw interest and quality drop off over successive films. After a much needed break, it rebooted last summer into one of the biggest hits of the year.

Increasingly though, there are cases like "Spiderman." Everyone seems to agree that the latest film was a misstep, though it made millions at the box office and certainly has enough goodwill in reserve to carry on for another picture or two. But FOX, deciding the damage was done, scrapped the entire existing series, including three potential future films. Their plan is to start over with a reboot in 2012, a scant five years after "Spiderman 3" and barely a decade after the first "Spiderman." There have been reboots of flops before, like the "Hulk" and "Punisher" films, but to remake a massively successful film series while it's still fresh in the public consciousness is tantamount to self-cannibalism.

The reason why franchises are so prevalent right now is because they're stable brands for film companies, easily marketable and predictable performers. It's easier to sell a familiar superhero like "Batman" than it is to sell a crime thriller starring an A-lister now, so the drive to sustain and make use of high-profile franchises is a high priority. Unfortunately the alchemy is never as easy as it looks. Tales of the multiple attempts to relaunch "Superman" as a franchise have been far more entertaining than the films themselves. The itch to continuously capitalize on the proven successes like "Spiderman," however, has lead to troubling decisions like rushing into the planned reboot. With so much on the line financially, it's no wonder why execs get nervous at the first sign of failure and try to cut their losses and move on in a different direction. Of course reboots aren't the only option these days. "X-Men" spun-off "Wolverine," "Terminator" and "Star Wars" explored prequels, and there's the massive Marvel Films crossover experiment in the works.

In most cases, I think the best antidote to a bad franchise film is time. Sony has just announced a new sequel to the 1996 film "Men in Black," which spawned the awful "Men in Black II" in 2002. After eight years, the embarrassing particulars of the second film have mostly faded, though the original film remains popular enough that viewers are still familiar with the property. A new film after all this time is a gamble, but it's worked before for "Indiana Jones" and "James Bond." Even dear old "Rocky" had a great last hurrah. I wish the execs would keep that in mind, since I think the Sam Raimi "Spiderman" films and an awful lot of other stymied franchises out there still have a lot of mileage left in them.

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