Hollywood has always loved banking on big franchises like the “James Bond” movies and “Star Wars.” But the addiction has reached new extremes.
Warner Bros. is producing a trilogy of spinoffs from the “Harry Potter” series called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The first one, due to arrive this fall, focuses on Hogwarts textbook author Newt Scamander. “Rocky” star Sylvester Stallone is creating “Creed,” a story about the grandson of Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed. And Sony Pictures has contemplated a series of movies merging the “Men In Black” series with “22 Jump Street” starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, according to e-mails leaked last December during the cyberattack on the studio’s databases.
The result, say many observers, is a slate of movies that endlessly recycle the same characters and franchises, to the exclusion of practically anything else. It’s a huge bet by Hollywood that it can revive box office sales, down 5 percent in this country in 2014 compared with last year, and compete against the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which constantly are giving people reasons to stay home on the couch rather than go to the movies. And with elaborate plans for trilogies and spinoffs going into the next decade, the industry is counting on the fact that audiences won't get tired of it all.
After decades of practice, the studios have perfected the art of bankable brands, known as “tentpoles.” Five years after Disney bought the Marvel comic franchise, the deal is reaping millions of dollars in rewards. Over the next three years, Disney will release 21 such films, up from 13 in the previous three years. The franchises include “Toy Story 4” and a third Captain America film.
This year, the street racers of the “Fast and Furious” movies will come back in their seventh installment. Agent Ethan Hunt returns for the fifth time in “Mission Impossible.” Disney’s relaunch of “Star Wars” will be the seventh in the franchise, with at least two additional sequels. There are plans for a fifth “Ice Age” film.
The result is more of the same — over and over again. When was the last time you saw a romantic comedy on the big screen? Or a sweeping big-budget period drama?
There hasn’t been a “significant romantic comedy in the market for two to three years,” said Michael Lynton, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment at an industry event in New York last September. “That category or genre has been abandoned by Hollywood for the time being. And that goes for a bunch of different genres.”
Hollywood, he said, needs to take more risks.
“Ultimately, the audience wants to be surprised. They want to see something they haven’t seen before,” Lynton said.
“We need a varied slate of movies that open 52 weeks a year, not just tentpoles,” said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners. “We are leaving out huge audiences, women, different ethnic groups.”
Yet moviegoers in the United States and abroad are clearly enjoying the blockbusters, reliably coming back for more. The “Planet of the Apes” franchise that began 40 years ago scored another hit last year with its eighth production.
“There is a real risk in moving toward a place where an entire industry defines itself by who can make the most comprehensive long-term plan,” said Mark Harris, author of “Five Came Back,” a book on World War II movie directors, who also is a film reporter for Entertainment Weekly. “That’s hard because then you can’t be responsive to the moment, and there are fewer resources there to make a movie just because it’s a great movie, not because it can generate five sequels.”
Disney’s movie studio has practically mastered the art of the franchise. At Disney alone, the Marvel comics-inspired “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Big Hero 6” were among the most popular films of last year, bringing in a total $797.2 million.
Chief executive Bob Iger has done this through a buying spree of companies with already popular entertainment brands, such as Lucasfilm, Marvel Entertainment and Pixar.
“While there is no sure thing in a creative business, we believe the proven appeal of our brands and franchises reduces risk and maximizes our unique ability to create significant long-term value by leveraging successful content across our diverse array of businesses,” Iger said in an earnings call last November.
The strategy has paid off for Disney, whose stock has increased 300 percent under Iger. Last year, Disney saw a record in profits, up 21 percent to $13 billion.
Disney hasn’t scored with every franchise. In 2013, “The Lone Ranger” flopped in theaters and forced Disney to take a $190 million loss.
“It’s purely about the numbers. You hedge your bets by producing less movies that are big franchises,” said Phil Contrino, an analyst at Boxoffice.com. “But there is too much blame on the studios for this. The public is buying this stuff, and so far, there is no dip in the superhero genre. It’s almost bulletproof.”
And franchises, with their continuing story lines and evolution of characters, provide an artistic outlet standalone films can’t provide. The trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was an event in itself, viewed more than 52 million times on YouTube, and was picked apart by tech sites and movie critics.
“It’s about the characters. If you are interested in Marvel and Iron Man, you are invested in the character and what happens next. That’s the way it’s always been, as far back as Dickens,” said Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the scripts for the “Twilight” film series and is co-founder of Tall Girl Productions.
But independent film producers and writers say Hollywood’s obsession with franchises is making it constantly harder to make movies that don’t fit the usual mold. Golden Globe best picture nominee “Selma” struggled for years to get financing until Oprah Winfrey stepped in. Other wealthy patrons of movies have filled in where big studios no longer participate. Megan Ellison, daughter of Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison, backed Oscar winner “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her” and “American Hustle” through her production firm Annapurna Pictures. Former BET executive Sheila Johnson financed “The Butler,” and Reese Witherspoon backed “Wild” and “Gone Girl.”
The dearth of opportunities in film is one of the reasons Rosenberg’s production company is helping train movie writers for TV.
“The number of pure feature movie writers is dwindling down,” Rosenberg said. “In features, you can write something, and in 10 years, maybe, it gets made. You can’t make a living on that.”