Fresh franchises take on tentpole torpor

'Carter,' 'Hunger Games' look to reinvigorate weary auds

Now that the awards season is history, mainstream Hollywood can refocus on what really matters: the care and feeding of tentpoles. Fawning over “The Artist” can get tiresome when there are $200 million franchises rolling off the assembly line.

Not that Hollywood needs a wakeup call, but the arrival Friday of “John Carter” dramatizes how a primetime release can seem at once delicious and daunting.

“The summer release corridor is paved in gold, complete with gold potholes,” warns the veteran distribution chief of one studio. And this summer may prove to be especially stressful.

Here are some of the challenges confronting Hollywood’s marketing soldiers of summer:

• Since some franchises are disappearing (“Harry Potter”) and others winding down (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), can new franchises be created with mega-advertising blitzkriegs (“John Carter” or “The Hunger Games”)?

• Despite formidable time lags, can franchises be retooled and rebooted like “Men in Black” after 10 years, “Spider-Man” after five or “Alien” (via “Prometheus”) after 33? (The “Alien” series dates back to 1979.)

• How many reiterations can billion-dollar animated franchises survive? Consider “Madagascar” or “Ice Age.”

• While novels can serve as reliable source material for future hits (think “Hunger Games”), will games (think “Battleship”) provide a solid foundation for the sequels business?

These and similar questions are all the more relevant at a time when the young audience is showing diminished loyalty to the multiplex because of the recession, rising prices and competing media. And the ante keeps climbing — witness production costs of over $200 million for “Battleship” and “John Carter.”

And there’s a further question: Are the imaginations of Hollywood’s sci-fi filmmakers staying abreast of a real world that’s already talking about gubits and quantum computers?

Now the upbeat news: Admissions already are up 22% this year. Distributors report wider acceptance of 3D — some 70% of filmgoers are opting to buy 3D tickets over 2D on some pictures vs. 30% two years ago. Further, an elite cluster of films shape up as potential giant hits worldwide — think the next “Dark Knight” and “Ice Age.”

Each major has at least one entry in the tentpole sweepstakes: Sony with its rebooted “Amazing Spider-Man,” Fox with “Ice Age,” Universal with “Battleship,” Paramount with another “G.I. Joe” and Disney with its superhero megamix, “The Avengers.”

The future of a particular franchise carries important consequences for its corporate parent. The newly merged Lionsgate-Summit believes that its bestselling trilogy of novels, “The Hunger Games” might match the $2.5 billion “Twilight” franchise (some 23.5 million copies of the novels are in print in the U.S.) Still, the novels deal with scenes that could prove troubling for audiences — children in a future society are picked at random to fight to the death. It’s not just vampires this time, its kids murdering other kids.

Given the high stakes, the franchise films business can itself seem like a killing field. The prospects for a fourth “Bourne” were hurt by battles involving Matt Damon and Tony Gilroy so “The Bourne Legacy” enlisted Jeremy Renner as its star. The “Spider-Man” series was delayed by creative fights. James Cameron himself has cited the “story crisis” in germinating 3D franchise films, suggesting that some are built on shaky foundations (Cameron’s 3D “Titanic” will be re-released in June).

Nonetheless, some franchise films will prompt high creative expectations as well as hopes for financial returns: Witness “The Dark Knight Rises” or “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” While the critics doze through superhero pictures, these franchises in particular will stir attention from cineastes as well as cult followers.

Still, a wide gap existed between the film cultures of awards season and those of the tentpole industry. The sensibilities are as contrasting as the numbers. The award winners manage to capture a character or an insight and thus magically find a receptive audience, however small. The secret of the tentpole business is to build awareness for a product and then hammer a youthful worldwide audience into demanding it immediately.

I suppose the only common denominator is the camera. And hopefully the audience.

Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Peter Caranicas/Cynthia Littleton wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson