Blockbuster blitz masks franchise fatigue

As franchises fade, does the universe need another retread?

The arrival of autumn always brings an abrupt change to the movie business. The megaplexes belong to the likes of “The Social Network” and “Hereafter” not to another iteration of “Transformers” (that happens next July). Filmgoers are suddenly allowed to discover movies rather than be assaulted by them.

To be sure, studios become downright antsy when brand recognition takes a backseat to artistry. Surprise hits defy the hard-and-fast rules of the tentpole business. Corporate marketers don’t like surprises.

But they can look for comfort to 2011, when a record inventory of sequels, prequels and assorted franchises will again rule the day. Disney will mobilize its next “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Universal (and Paramount) will unleash “Cowboys & Aliens,” and Warner Bros. will finally exhaust its “Harry Potter” oligopoly (its seventh and next-to-last Potter film will bow this November).

And that’s just for starters.

Fox has its own stash of cut-rate tentpoles (call them tentsticks, or tentstickles) in the form of a new “X-Men” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Dreamworks Animation (releasing through Paramount) will unfurl “Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom” (how can any Kaboom pic misfire?). And then there’s Sony, whose summer 2011 slate includes the animated “The Zookeeper” and “The Smurfs.”

The 2011 franchise derby finishes with a bang later in the year with sequels to “Mission: Impossible” (rebooted and possibly retitled) and “Sherlock Holmes,” not to mention the long-awaited “Adventures of Tintin” from Steven Spielberg.

Given this arsenal of firepower, the distributors figure not only to be satisfying their audiences but downright nuking them. But there’s still one abiding concern: They’re running out of franchises.

As the Los Angeles Times pointed out recently, studio executives are turning their attention to rebooting their franchises rather than simply recycling them. The process consists of a total reinvention of branded movies, complete with new storylines, new casts and even new titles.

“The Wizard of Oz,” the 1939 classic, is being rebooted and may even star Johnny Depp, fresh from the rebooted “Alice in Wonderland.” “Planet of the Apes” and even “Total Recall” are getting reboots as well.

It’s hard to tell where the rebooting process will take us. Will we ultimately rediscover “Gone With the Wind” — this time with a young Rhett Butler assembling his munitions business while secretly giving a damn about a feckless Scarlet? Will we find ourselves tracking some teenage Corleones sewing their wild oats in Sicily while studying for their MBAs (Mafia Business Administration?)

The rebooting onrush may inspire formation of a new wing of the film preservation movement, which will focus not only on the sanctity of old films but also the dignity of old stories.

In its zeal to reinvent and reboot, Hollywood has dedicated itself to “thinking out of the box.” Which brings us to a disturbing question: Has anyone really defined “the box”?

My question is prompted by a reading of Stephen Hawking’s new book, “The Grand Design,” which effectively undermines our presumptions about the world we live in. For one thing, Hawking reminds us that we dwell in a multiverse, not a universe.

The concept of a single universe, writes Hawking, the noted physicist, fails to recognize an infinity of dark energy, super black holes, sprawling galaxies and the probability of alien civilizations not imagined by either Spielberg or George Lucas.

In the same vein, while Hollywood may be emboldened by 3D, Hawking reminds us that cosmologists now think not in terms of three but rather at least 10 dimensions.

If this seems jolting, Hawking points out that the true miracle of our multiverse is its unpredictability. “Recent advances in cosmology and quantum theory allow new universes to appear simultaneously from nothing,” he writes. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ out there.”

The inevitable question: Is Hawking trying to reboot the biggest story of them all?