As franchise fever grips the studios, every film project becomes a projected “Harry Potter” and every executive covets his sequels.
It happened again the other day: I asked a producer friend what he was working on, and he responded gravely, “I’m developing a couple of serious franchises.”
Talk to the typical studio exec about his slate, and he, too, will tell you about his franchises. It’s tough to find anyone who admits to working on a simple movie.
Does all this suggest a confusion in semantics, or has there really been a sea change in the movie business?
I’d suggest the former.
Not that long ago, “franchise” meant the Dodgers. Bob Daly has a franchise. I have a friend who owns a Wendy’s. That’s a franchise.
So when does a movie supposedly become a franchise? Judging from the press releases, I’d suggest the following:
- When a studio has a surprise hit on its hands and wants to generate some sequels, it suddenly becomes a franchise. Universal was surprised when “The Fast and the Furious” took off, only to realize it didn’t have a deal with Vin Diesel. But who needs a star when you have a franchise?
Of course, Columbia has never been able to mobilize either a star or even a script for its projected sequel to “Jumanji.” So much for that franchise.
And then there was 20th Century Fox, which wanted to make “There’s Something About Mary” into a franchise. Instead it ended up with “Shallow Hal.”
- When a filmmaker acquires an obscure property but wants to surround it with some “Harry Potter”-like gravitas, he proclaims a franchise.
Paul Verhoeven recently optioned several Russian detective novels about a character named Fandorin — a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, he said — adding that they’re clearly the basis for a franchise. Good luck, Paul.
- When a coveted star wants to develop a character for a series of sequels, that, too, becomes an instant franchise.
Columbia optioned a project called “Shrink,” in which Jennifer Lopez would play a therapist. Hatched by a one-time illustrator for Marvel Comics named Rob Liefeld, the project is described as a cross between “Men in Black” and “Analyze This.” Clearly a franchise in the making.
Because of the franchise mania, it’s become downright gauche to acquire a plain old property anymore — it always has to be a series of properties.
Hence, Walden Media, owned by the ubiquitous king of exhibition Philip Anschutz, announced that it had purchased “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis to develop as a franchise for kids. Why option an ordinary book when you can acquire a whole set of “Chronicles”? The same rule applies to Miramax, which announced a new franchise based on the Bartimaeus Trilogy, which coincidentally is about a young wizard and his friendly neighborhood genie.
It took 10 years to shepherd “Spider-Man” into a movie, but not a week goes by that we don’t see an announcement of a new franchise based on a comicstrip.
After all, a comicstrip hero is perfect fodder for toys, theme park rides and other iterations of our pop culture. “Spider-Man” has already levitated the careers of everyone who’s ever been even remotely involved with its creation.
Of course, if comicstrips were ideal grist for film, why doesn’t anyone ever mention “The Phantom”? Or “The Shadow,” for that matter?
But, then, all sorts of wannabe franchises have been quickly banished from memory.
“Godzilla” was going to be reborn as a franchise until people saw the movie. The surprise hit “Speed” was slated to become a series of “Speeds” — until audiences had a look at “Speed 2.”
A lot of animated franchises were ditched along the way as well. Remember 20th Century Fox’s “Titan A.E.”?
Let’s face it: “Franchise” is a convenient buzzword to stir up wary investors. It travels well in marketing meetings. It looks good on press releases.
But maybe we should give it a rest.