Reinventing the wheel

H'w'd tries to unearth tentpoles to replace geriatric franchises

When Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner signed on to take over the United Artists label of MGM, they pacted with a company that has staked its future on reviving old franchises and launching new ones.

Their deal will add luster to MGM — a company that is hoping to take off from the returns of “Rocky” and the James Bond pic “Casino Royale,” and dreams of making megapics like “The Hobbit.”

In other words, MGM is like just about every other studio. It needs franchises, the never-ending stories that are proven box office performers (unless Cruise and Wagner can prove otherwise).

But there are new doubts about the durability of some of Hollywood’s most successful series — Cruise knows this from Paramount’s latest “Mission: Impossible” — and whether some of the new ones in the works will have the same cachet.

Some studio execs even think the mega-franchise could be a fading genre. “The larger issue is that a franchise picture implies a four-quadrant movie,” says an exec from a studio that’s enjoyed big franchise success in recent years. “And I don’t know how many four-quadrant movies will exist in the future. Everything in our culture seems to not be geared to four-quadrant events right now.”

Despite the doubts, executives are looking for more. With many of the series either played out or aging, studios are on a furious hunt for a replacement crop, with execs and producers poring through comicbooks, fantasy fiction and kidlit — and even their own film libraries — for new franchise ideas.

In recent years, Hollywood’s biggest series have produced massive returns. Consider just seven of the largest: “Harry Potter,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Star Wars.” The 19 individual films in these series have generated $15 billion in worldwide box office. More tellingly, since 2001 one out of every nine movie tickets sold in the U.S. has been for one of these franchises.

“They have brand awareness and allow you to cut through the clutter of the marketplace,” says Warner Bros. Pictures production prexy Jeff Robinov.

Certainly sequels ranging from “Saw” to “The Santa Clause” are still healthy. But it’s the mega-franchises that are causing concern. As costs rise due to salary demands and ever-more-elaborate effects, audiences may be getting tired of the old reliables.

And yet the studio appetite for franchises — successful ones, that is — has never been so ravenous.

Even when a film like “Superman Returns” underperforms, a studio is reluctant to abandon the franchise. Last week, Warner Bros. announced that it is moving forward with plans for a sequel, inking Bryan Singer to produce and direct.

But all good things tend to come to an end: “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” have concluded. “X-Men” has ended (though spinoffs are planned). And others are getting long in the tooth.

After next May, the studios behind “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” will be pondering whether the numbers add up enough to justify fourth installments.

Of Hollywood’s current super-size sequel franchises, only Warners’ “Potter” franchise looks locked in for several more years: J.K. Rowling has written seven “Potter” books, and the studio is readying the fifth “Potter” pic for release next summer, leaving it several years before it works through Rowling’s tomes.

Those concerns, as well as serious misfires like this year’s “Poseidon,” are leading some studio chiefs, such as Universal’s Ron Meyer, to question whether it pays to be in the tentpole business. Calendar crowding in the prime summer and holiday seasons have left little room for error for opening a picture when studios are placing $200 million bets nearly every weekend.

“Every independent producer that pitches you a film says, ‘This is a franchise!’ ” says MGM chief operating officer Rick Sands. “But there are a lot of forces at work on whether something becomes a franchise, and obviously, one of the biggest factors is luck. If it were possible to predict the creation of a franchise, you would shoot three of them back to back, but no one does that because it’s not possible.”

For studios, the idea of life without franchises is worrisome. Since 2001, 22% of 20th Century Fox’s entire domestic box office has come from either “Star Wars” or “X-Men” films; in the last six years at Warners, the four “Potter” pics (out of the 125 titles it has released) have generated 17% of all its U.S. grosses.

“If you go through the top 20 movies of the last 10 years, you see that franchises can prove to be critically important anchors for a motion picture studio,” says Fox production chief Hutch Parker. “The things that qualify as a franchise become rarified air and it’s hard to find them.”

But such concerns show no signs of stopping the franchise search. So far, studios are returning to the kind of source materials that generated the current crop of super-franchises: comicbook heroes, kidlit series, their own film libraries and, of course, in very rare cases an original idea.

“Occasionally you’ll make a movie from scratch with the right idea and the right character that allows you to go on and make a sequel,” says Robinov. “But it’s tricky.”

Studios have to walk a fine line. Positioning pics as tentpole franchises and talking about sequels before the first one is even released may raise expectations too high. But at the same time, studios have to plan for sequels (such as locking in talent deals) before a foot of film has been shot on the first pic.

New Line chief operating officer Rolf Mittweg says contracts on big pics now typically contain terms for sequels. “The talent deals are done in that fashion because you don’t want to make a film with franchise potential and not have the deals in place for the second and third films.” (New Line, of course, learned the hard way the difficulty of deal-making for sequels when Chris Tucker held out on coming back for “Rush Hour 3.”)

For Warners — so heavily reliant on tentpoles — and the other majors, comicbooks remain the backbone of the tentpole franchise biz because they have brand awareness and are designed for serialization. But audience tastes are always changing.

There have been many missteps along the way, including “The Rocketeer,” “The Saint,” “Elektra” and “The Phantom.”

But one blockbuster like “X-Men” and the studios are once again sold on the idea that comicbooks are the fountain of the franchise.

Fox is betting heavily that a second “Fantastic Four” film will provide another franchise, while also investing heavily in exploring possible “X-Men” spinoffs like “Wolverine.”

Books also can be easy prey. Warners, for instance, has been downright blessed with the “Potter” series, a worldwide phenom.

Disney has high hopes that the C.S. Lewis “Chronicles of Narnia” book series will provide for more big pics after the 2005 “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” brought in $745 million worldwide. Lewis wrote six more books in the series, and the second film, “Prince Caspian,” is due in theaters next summer.

Based on the success of “Rings,” “Potter” and “Narnia,” other studios have been snapping up other youth-skewing fantasy literary series. But one or two hits does not a craze make.

That’s why competing studios will be paying close attention to how Fox’s dragon fantasy pic “Eragon,” which opens Dec. 15 and is based on the first book in a trilogy by Christopher Paolini, does at the box office.

Fox also is high on spinning an adaptation of “Jumper,” a kidlit series by Steven Gould about teleportation, into a film series. (The pic reunites “Star Wars” thesps Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson.)

At Shepperton Studios in London, New Line is shooting “The Golden Compass,” the first in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” young-adult fantasy trilogy. Later this fall, the studio will be putting “Inkheart” into production, the first of a trilogy by German author Cornelia Funke.

In recent months, Warners bought film rights to Philip Reeve’s children’s book “Larklight,” the first of a Victorian-era space adventure trilogy centered on a brother and sister.

Sometimes the search for the next big thing doesn’t go much further than the studio gates. So hungry are executives for fresh franchises, even old titles are being resurrected.

MGM is readying the release of a sixth “Rocky” movie on Dec. 22 (see story, next page). And Fox is high on a new “Die Hard” series, with “Live Free or Die Hard” in production.

“We’ve never wavered in our belief that the audience wants more of (Bruce Willis’) John McClane,” says Fox’s Parker. “The challenge was finding a story that could serve as a ‘first’ and not just a derivation of the previous film.”

Successful hits are also being looked at for possible serialization. Disney hit pay dirt last year with sleeper hit “National Treasure,” an action-adventure. The Mouse House hadn’t viewed the pic as a potential franchise, but the thinking has changed. Studio is hoping that a successful sequel to “National Treasure” will launch a series.

With the smash “Pirates,” Disney has gone back to its theme parks for inspiration, commissioning a script based on its “Jungle Cruise” ride. But the lackluster results of “Haunted Mansion” prove that making a ride into a successful film is, as they say, very much execution dependent.

Studios that haven’t been big franchise players in recent years, such as Paramount and Universal, have also been looking through their vaults for inspiration. Earlier this year, Par tasked J.J. Abrams with reviving “Star Trek” on the bigscreen, and U is busily developing everything from the “The Wolf Man” to “The Mummy 3” as potential tentpole series.

“Our biggest successes have been homegrown properties that have become popular enough to become franchises,” says Universal chair Marc Shmuger. “No one was going into ‘American Pie’ thinking this was going to be the next big comedy franchise.”

Strictly at the discussion level, creative execs at Warners have tossed about the idea of bringing “Tarzan” back — as one studio exec says, “In the old days, a serial like ‘Tarzan’ would be a franchise” — along with pursuing redos of “Westworld” and “Clash of the Titans,” all of which could spawn sequels if done right.

Every franchise aspires to the success of James Bond. The series has lasted for more than 40 years, earned $3.6 billion and defied all the rules about the dangers of changing casting. Daniel Craig makes his debut as 007 this month when Sony releases “Casino Royale.”

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