Summer Movie Preview: Hollywood Banks on Aging Franchises to Break Records

Summer Movie Box Office 2017
Gluekit for Variety

In Hollywood, nothing is more dangerous than an original idea.

These days, it’s nearly impossible for studios to justify greenlighting a big-budget movie and sending it out into the heat of summer battle without the armor of a film franchise. It’s too hard to find the right marketing hook to explain a film’s premise in a 30-second ad, particularly when so many people are skipping the multiplexes in order to settle in with Netflix. To combat the urge to stream, studios are betting heavily on the tried and true, offering up 15 reboots, sequels or spinoffs between May and August.

“As much as people like to decry the lack of originality in sequels, audiences tend to want to bet their money on more of a sure thing,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.

On paper, at least, Hollywood has assembled a veritable armada of “sure things.” There are follow-ups to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Transformers” and “Despicable Me,” as well as a “Wonder Woman” adventure and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” the final installment in the popular science-fiction trilogy. Nearly every weekend offers up a sequel, animated adventure or superhero pic — most with budgets in excess of $100 million. But it’s not just familiarity that’s ensuring big grosses. The films that break through, studio executives maintain, are the ones that put a fresh spin on a favorite genre. They point to the first “Guardians,” which benefited from a rock ’n’ roll vibe, or “Logan,” a brooding, hard-R take on Hugh Jackman’s popular Wolverine alter ego.

“Audiences are looking for creative storytelling with compelling characters,” said Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution for Fox.

It’s easy to see why studios are willing to place such big bets on sequels. Eight of the 10 highest-grossing films in both 2015 and 2016 were remakes or part of pre-existing franchises. So even though people may talk about how they want to see something revolutionary, they’re predisposed to shell out for something generic.

Success in today’s movie business is weighed in franchises. That’s what’s driving Disney to record heights. The studio’s control of the Avengers and “Star Wars” universe, as well as its continued animation dominance, allows it to turn nearly every film it releases into an event.

The problem is that other studios lack the deep vault of intellectual properties that Disney enjoys. That’s left them dusting off even the moldiest of brands, from outdated action figures to geriatric Saturday-morning cartoons, in the hopes of finding something that can spawn sequels and merchandising opportunities. And because films take years to develop and produce, studios have to try to anticipate the zeitgeist rather than respond in real time to shifting tastes.

This year’s lineup aims to break the domestic box office record established in 2013.

Not every big summer bet pays off. The cost of special effects and star salaries tends to rise with each installment, as do expectations. When audiences tire of a particular series or it becomes overly ripe, their disenchantment can mean lots of red ink. The hope is that this band of new releases will perform better than last year’s. In 2016, audiences turned their back on several pricey sequels and reboots. Big-budget flops such as “Ghostbusters,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” and “Independence Day: Resurgence” lost tens of millions and led to widespread anxiety that “sequelitis,” a terminal disease that leaves once potent franchises on the slab, had struck.

Yet the movie business is heading into beach season this year with the wind at its back. Domestic ticket sales are up 5%, buoyed by hits such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Fate of the Furious.” Stateside revenues hit record levels in 2016 even as the foreign box office waned, and some analysts believe that this summer could be the first to breach $5 billion in ticket sales.

“We’re going to see a bigger summer than last year,” said Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners. “It’s a deeper slate of films.”

Last summer got off to a bumpy start, with revenues down roughly 10% into the middle of July. But the season ended up essentially flat with the previous year’s because of an unusually robust finish. “Suicide Squad” opened in August and finished its run with $325.2 million domestically, while “Don’t Breathe” and “Sausage Party” also scored. This year, August is a dead zone. “The Dark Tower,” a Stephen King adaptation, is probably the month’s biggest release, but its dense plot makes it a risky proposition, and other films, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” seem like modest performers at best. If the business has a chance of shattering that $5 billion mark, it will need to do most of the record breaking in the first three months of the summer.

As studios devote more resources to tentpole films — blockbuster productions that prop up their slates — the land grab for the right release date has grown more feverish. Last week, Fox, Disney and Universal staked out the debuts of nearly 40 high-profile films in an effort to snap up prime real estate.

“The entire calendar has become more competitive,” said Jeff Goldstein, head of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. “People are bombarded week after week with compelling content.”

Goldstein notes that a bigger gap exists between the films that score, racking up hundreds of millions around the globe, and those that vanish in a weekend. “There’s a greater divide between the haves and the have-nots,” he said.

This chasm between popular success and commercial ignominy points to a recurring problem that the movie business faces — replenishing the well. Some of these familiar movie characters are looking a little gray around the temples. This summer brings a new installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a family series that first sailed into theaters 13 years ago, as well as “Cars 3,” the latest in another set of kiddie films that are in their second decade. Those movies seem like babies compared with “Alien: Covenant,” a prequel to a franchise that kicked off when Jimmy Carter was president. In an effort to grow more youthful, Sony is sending Peter Parker back to school in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” rebooting its wall-crawler franchise for a third time, with Tom Holland putting a more adolescent spin on the masked avenger.

Sometimes nostalgia can be potent.

“Star Wars,” with origins dating to the 1970s, has become a multigenerational smash, with each installment eagerly anticipated by grandparents, parents and children. But in the case of last summer’s “Ghostbusters” or “Independence Day” follow-ups, it might have been wiser to check the expiration date.

And while novelty presents a risk, it can work in a film’s favor. Focus Features’ “Atomic Blonde,” a Cold War thriller with Charlize Theron as a spy with a license to shatter bones, has the markings of an offbeat breakout. Buzz for the film has been building since it premiered at SXSW.

“The action is stylized, yet so real, and you have a visceral reaction to every punch — and there are plenty of them,” said Nick Carpou, domestic distribution head at Universal, Focus’ studio parent.

That’s not the only film trying to beat the odds and break through the clutter. Universal’s “The Mummy” will try to kick off a new cinematic universe filled with monsters and fantastical creatures. But in order to justify that kind of commitment, it can’t just turn a profit; it needs to be a box office juggernaut. Other films, such as Warner Bros.’ “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and EuropaCorp’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” will also try to draw crowds without the help of a Roman numeral in their title. If none of these movies succeeds, summer could end without any studio managing to launch a new franchise.

“I’m not seeing anything this summer that can sequelize or build a new franchise,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “If we end the summer on a downturn, then a fundamental change may need to happen.”