Keeping to the familiar? Hollywood sticks to making sequels

Film Franchises Ensure Hollywood Success

Critics may complain that sequels lack originality, but audiences—and Hollywood studios—love them

When the third installment in the successful Jason Bourne series, The Bourne Ultimatum, opened in broad release on Aug. 3, it set an August record by earning nearly $70 million at the box office. This success probably did not come as too big a surprise to the executives at Universal who green-lighted the film. The first two Bourne films brought in $27 million and $52 million, respectively. The series star, Matt Damon, was returning, as was the director, Paul Greengrass. Like all successful film franchises, it used a winning formula to hit it big at the box office.

The concept of the film franchise, whereby studios mine two or more successive films out of an original hit, has been around for years, but it has only really been since the late 1970s that it has become a cinematic staple. The longest-running franchise is James Bond, who first appeared in 1962’s Dr. No. Since then there have been 23 Bond films, which have generated more than $4.5 billion in worldwide grosses, making it the all-time franchise money-winner. (The Lord of the Rings trilogy has had the best box-office performance, however, with three films grossing more than $2.9 billion worldwide.)

This summer has seen a slew of sequels, all of which have so far generated hundreds of millions of dollars. The biggest movie of the summer has been Buena Vista’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which has grossed more than $951 million worldwide since it opened on May 25. The second biggest movie was Spider-Man 3, with $890 million in worldwide grosses, followed by Shrek the Third at $727 million and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at $772 million. The biggest nonfranchise hit of the summer is Transformers, which made $594 million. (Don’t be surprised if a Transformers 2 hits theaters a few summers hence.)

Hitting the Target

The biggest franchises invariably have three components (besides the necessary bankable stars, big budgets, and crowd-pleasing scripts). They have a story line that allows the studio to extend the franchise beyond the initial hit (so no killing off the hero in the first episode). They have smart merchandising plans—walk into just about any supermarket, toy store, or fast-food restaurant in the U.S. and it’s a sure bet that Shrek, Spidey, Harry, or Captain Jack Sparrow is staring back at you from the shelves.

And the third component: They target the right audience. The Pirates franchise is highly entertaining but not exactly suitable for young children, and Buena Vista knows that the real money is in attracting teenage boys, who remain the biggest moviegoing demographic. And all of these successful films, with their PG-13 ratings or better, are calculated to be just gross, violent, action-packed, or risqué enough to appeal to millions of adolescent males around the world.

Of course, not all franchises can successfully spawn sequels or prequels. Most critics, audience members, and studio executives probably regret that movies such as Jaws: The Revenge, Son of the Mask, Caddyshack II, and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo were ever made.

Not a Bottomless Well

For that matter most critics probably bemoan the whole concept of a franchise as a shameless attempt to wring every last dime from a single good idea. But few if any of the blockbusters that led to successful franchises are considered high points in the art of filmmaking. They may contain the odd memorable performance, usually by a scene-stealing notable of the English stage, and some impressive special effects, sure, but they’re hardly the kind of film that makes it to the Academy Awards. (The first Shrek and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King are notable exceptions.)

Some franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter come to a natural end because they are based on books—although Hollywood ran out of Ian Fleming’s original Bond books years ago and has now begun recycling them. (The first, disastrous Casino Royale was filmed in 1967. The 2006 version was infinitely superior, in terms of both storytelling and box office, grossing more than $594 million worldwide since it was released in November.)

Other franchises, such as The Matrix, just run out of juice, and some become too expensive to make as the stars demand higher and higher paychecks, like X-Men. And then there are those, such as Die Hard and the Indiana Jones movies, which despite aging stars manage to return for one last victory lap. But some franchises—a Bond or a Star Trek—will keep on going until the studios stop making money on them.

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