“The crucial ingredient is surprising fans in a good way,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “You want to break their expectations.”
Absence does make the heart grow fonder and finding a way to make the familiar feel fresh is essential. Analysts argue that for a revival to succeed, studios either need to let sufficient time pass between installments, cook up a blisteringly original take on the material or some combination of both.
Thirteen years separated installments in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, and in that time a generation of moviegoers, weaned on summer blockbusters with the first film in the dinosaur series, had come of age and was eager to share the magic of watching a velociraptor feast on park-goers with its own children. In the process, an unorthodox, multi-generational smash was born.
In the case of “Terminator: Genisys,” it has been only six years since 2009’s “Terminator Salvation” looked at the fallout from Skynet’s robotics experiments, while eight years lie between the latest “Fantastic Four” and 2007’s “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” An even shorter gap helped cripple Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which hit theaters with a whole new wall-crawler a mere five years after “Spider-Man 3” debuted.
Of course, part of the reason for this rush to reboot is rights issues. Characters like the Fantastic Four, Wolverine and Spider-Man are licensed by studios and if they do not go into production on a movie featuring the heroes within a certain time frame, the rights revert to Marvel and by extension its parent company Disney. Time is a luxury many can’t afford.
For its part, Fox doesn’t believe that more space between the reboot and the franchise it was reviving would have resulted in stronger box office.
“I don’t think it was too soon,” said Chris Aronson, the studio’s distribution chief.
He said it’s not clear whether or not there will be more “Fantastic Four” adventures or if the characters will be repurposed and used in a supporting capacity in Fox’s “X-Men” films and their spinoffs.
“We have a lot to look forward to in our comicbook character universe,” said Aronson. “We may find different ways to feature these characters in the future, but it’s early and we’ll have to see what form that takes.”
Timing may not have been the only fatal flaw. After all, “Vacation” had 18 years between Griswold family outings and it still stumbled. Being irredeemably bad, as most critics argued “Fantastic Four” was, matters more than the distance between two sequels.
To its credit, “Fantastic Four” did try to find the perfect alchemy of respect for its source material and a willingness to take creative risks. It cast talented actors like Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller, brought in a young and edgy director in Josh Trank and tried to embrace a darker tone than the earlier, campy efforts. On paper, it seemed like the right approach. Trank made a stir with “Chronicle,” his low-budget superhero deconstruction, and matching indie talent with big studio fare, as “The Dark Knight” trilogy did with Christopher Nolan, historically reaps dividends.
Still, the story Trank told was not substantially different from the 2005 adventure. Once again, audiences found out how a science experiment gone wrong created a foursome blessed with awesome powers. It was all preamble and seemed to exist solely to set up future sequels.
It didn’t help when reports of a troubled shoot and Trank’s erratic behavior leaked out. His relationship with the studio deteriorated to the point where the director essentially disavowed the film on Twitter the day before it opened.
“When you have an indie filmmaker come on who doesn’t do these kind of movies, you have to get him fully invested and not saying negative things,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “That’s tough to overcome. Fangirls and fanboys might not listen to a 50-year-old critic, but they’ll listen to the filmmaker.”
He noted that “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow became an important ambassador for the film, going as far as to surprise audiences at screenings of the picture.
The problems that crippled “Fantastic Four” have bedeviled other reboots. “The Amazing Spider-Man” was yet another look at a dweeby tween who gets a bite from an arachnoid and becomes a masked vigilante. The girlfriend may have been changed — Gwen Stacy got swapped in for Mary Jane Watson — but the story of a young hero balancing dating with crime fighting was indistinguishable. Sony, the studio behind the “Spider-Man” films, is back at the drawing boards, relaunching the film for a third time, although this installment will feature an age-appropriate actor who looks like he wouldn’t set off Amber alerts while walking a high school’s halls.
For a time, origin stories were all the rage. They seemed like a novel way to re-introduce well-known characters to moviegoers — explaining how James Bond became a womanizing alcoholic, why Batman wears his cowl or when Kirk met Spock.
“These origin films have become so tiresome to people,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You can’t do that every few years and expect it to differentiate your movie.”
That dramatic approach may be reaching a tipping point, however, despite the fact that the coming years will find big screen dramatizations of the early years of the likes of Han Solo, Robin Hood and King Arthur. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” starts in media res with an older Bruce Wayne fully committed to being Gotham’s avenger, and the screenwriters of the new Spider-Man film have suggested they won’t be revisiting the nibbling spider.
Certainly, that method paid off with “Jurassic World,” which put new characters like Chris Pratt’s animal trainer in the familiar environs of Isla Nublar, seemingly setting the stage for more adventures in genetic experimentation. It’s early, but J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” seems to have found the right balance by mixing in old favorites like Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca with a younger crop of rebels, storm troopers and droids. And “Ghostbusters” has discovered a fresh angle by jettisoning one group of male scientists for four of the funniest female comedians working today.
Audiences are wise to money grabs. Studios may need to do a better job changing the packaging.