Studios catch monstrous case of franchise fever
Posted June 7
Once upon a time hit movies -- "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- begat sequels. Today, studios have begun plotting out "franchises" and entire "cinematic universes" before even dropping the puck on a first film.
This month brings two examples of universe building, with "Wonder Woman" providing the strongest validation thus far for DC Entertainment/Warner Bros.' nascent efforts, while Universal seeks to kick off a "Dark Universe" (a label that's splashed across the screen) monster mash with "The Mummy," starring Tom Cruise.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is already plotting another monstrous universe populated by the likes of King Kong and Godzilla, who are destined to square off in 2020, even though the recent "Kong: Skull Island" proved far punier than its namesake at the box office.
Franchise fever obviously makes sense in a business driven by sequels, one that seeks to hedge against failure by replicating what worked before. As for emulating success, nobody has enjoyed a better run lately than Disney, thanks to its teeming "Star Wars" and Marvel acquisitions.
The increasingly global nature of the movie business has also helped make the strategy more viable, allowing some films that disappoint in North America to offset their performance in other territories -- witness the fifth "Pirates of the Caribbean" installment, or the huge international haul for "Fate of the Furious."
Small wonder that Hollywood is preoccupied with creating a "cinematic universe" of interconnected properties. The problem is that they appear to be putting the cart before the horse -- or in this case, the elaborate series of movies ahead of proof that people are clamoring for even one of them.
The impression, in fact, is that studios are in such a hurry to catch up with Disney that they lack the patience to do so organically, instead trying to essentially reverse-engineer franchises.
Marvel, it's worth noting, painstakingly built its theatrical foundation -- one "Iron Man," "Captain America" and "Thor" at a time -- leading up to "The Avengers."
By contrast, chief comics rival DC, in concert with parent Warner Bros., was in such a hurry it nearly tripped over its own capes. "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" proved so ungainly that it felt less like a movie than a franchise-creation tool -- a stepping stone to "Justice League," throwing in various members of the team, including Wonder Woman.
"Wonder Woman," which just premiered to better-than-expected returns, has somewhat redeemed DC. Part of that, though, could be precisely because the film stands on its own, allowing the uninitiated to get the story, as Vulture put it, and "not have to sit through Uber-geeks cheering at dog-whistle references to comics lore."
Admittedly, grousing about franchise creation's cynicism or lack of creativity risks looking hopelessly na-ve, given the business imperatives driving it. Yet even by that standard history is littered with cautionary tales about banking on the pieces of such elaborate constructs to fall into place.
Back in 2004, for example, Universal announced a multi-faceted monster franchise built around the release of the movie "Van Helsing." The film turned out to be a major disappointment, and the idea for an expensive NBC series inspired by it, "Transylvania," was scrapped.
Undaunted, after unwrapping "The Mummy" Universal has a number of Dark Universe projects in the works, including "Dr. Jekyll," "Frankenstein's Monster" and "Bride of Frankenstein."
It might work, even if "The Mummy" stumbles in the U.S. But as a dispenser of wisdom from the "Star Wars" galaxy counseled, exercising patience usually turns out better than choosing "the quick and easy path."