The care and feeding of tentpoles

When franchises stumble, give 'em the reboot

Ask any studio production chief about his plans for 2010 and you get the same answer: I’ll start with a franchise movie and build out from there.

It’s reassuring to know that everyone is on the same page, but here’s the question: Is it the right page?

The assumption is that any studio can dream up a new franchise if it sets its mind to it. That’s a big leap of faith — especially given the phenomenon of “Avatar,” which has clearly raised filmgoers’ expectations about both special effects and story. The audience is going to demand more; the assembly-line tentpole may not work anymore.

The standard procedure for developing tentpoles is to go foraging among either new videogames or old comic-books. Yet the most robust source of franchise material historically has been novels, from James Bond to Harry Potter. Disney, for one, doesn’t trust books (except “Alice in Wonderland”), and hence purchased Marvel Comics in the hope of dusting off some old superheroes. It also has a long-standing deal with Mr. Franchise himself, Stan Lee, to help in the archeological dig, but no greenlights have come of it as yet.

Studio veterans know that for every “Batman” hit there’s been a “Phantom” or a “Shadow” flop and for every “Spider-Man” there’s been a “Watchmen.”

Franchise films need a strong central character to sustain their sequels, and when the narratives run out, their producers habitually try to start them over. So Sony, having shut down the current incarnation of “Spider-Man,” will revisit him in his formative years, like “Batman Begins.” The next “Shrek” will also go back in time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Harry Potter” returned in kindergarten or if the girls from “Sex and the City” went back to junior high.

In their effort to build new franchises, the studios have begun to abandon their cardinal rule of avoiding star casting. The old theory: Spend the money on effects, not on gross participations — hence the huge profits on “Harry Potter” and the early “Spider-Man” and “Twilight” movies. As the sequels have kept coming, of course, the casts have become exponentially more expensive.

Robert Downey Jr. has demolished the studio formula. He got a hefty payday on “Iron Man 2” and, given the success of “Sherlock Holmes,” will surely double his action. There’s a delicious irony to the fact that an actor with a past of substance abuse would emerge as the king of all superheroes. Downey may conceivably become as rich as Harrison Ford, the dour superstar who, at 67, remains the ultimate franchise winner.

Ford went from “Star Wars” to “Indiana Jones,” with side trips into Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Even when Ford had time off between franchises he bounced into hits like “Witness,” “The Fugitive” or “Air Force One.”

I spent time with him last week and asked how he felt about the franchise business.

“I never expected to be a franchise hero,” Ford said. “And I never expected Hollywood to become fixated on franchises.”

Now that he’s producing as well as acting, Ford has cast himself in his new movie, “Extraordinary Measures.” It’s a poignant movie, but Ford will get his wish: It will never be a franchise.

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