Summer movie success hinges on franchises

The new films in cinemas this summer could be a sign of what you will be seeing for years to come.

Can the robots--versus-sea monsters tale Pacific Rim become a franchise? Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros Pictures / AP Photo
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Hollywood is banking on the future this summer - and not just a future where Captain Kirk orders warp speed or Tony Stark builds a better Iron Man outfit.

Though some film franchises seem to live on forever, most come with a shelf life, leaving studios always hunting for new ones.

The new stuff this summer could be a sign of what you'll be seeing for years to come if movies such as Brad Pitt's zombie fest World War Z, Guillermo del Toro's robots-versus-sea monsters tale Pacific Rim and Johnny Depp's buddy Western The Lone Ranger connect with audiences. There's also that orphan from Krypton in the latest Superman revival, Man of Steel, who seems ripe for a new franchise in this age of superhero blockbusters.

Man of Steel's distributor Warner Bros has had tremendous franchise success with Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, The Dark Knight and The Hangover, the finale of which came out last month.

The studio tried reviving the Krypton kid with Superman Returns in 2006. The movie's nearly US$400 million (Dh1.47bn) worldwide box office receipts were OK, but in an era of billion-dollar blockbusters, it didn't warrant more of the same with that cast and crew.

As Sony Pictures did with last summer's The Amazing Spider-Man, a fresh beginning for that superhero after three smash films, Warner started over on Superman, with no guarantee Man of Steel will do franchise-worthy business.

Superman at least has an audience and track record. Hollywood's bigger risks this summer are costly action spectacles with little or no big-screen history.

Warner's Pacific Rim has a visionary creator in the filmmaker del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy), but he has yet to deliver a monster hit. World War Z has Pitt and is inspired by the best-seller about a global zombie outbreak, but Paramount had to delay it from last year for a month of reshoots that included a new ending. Still, it seems to have connected with audiences and appears poised for a sequel. Clayton Moore's The Lone Ranger has lived on for half a century in TV reruns and the new film reunites the crew behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Depp, Disney, the director Gore Verbinski and the producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

But the Wild West generally has been on the out for decades, while fans have to wonder if Depp's Tonto, opposite Armie Hammer's masked Lone Ranger, is just his latest exercise in costumed weirdness. Audiences bought Depp's Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter but they didn't buy his bizarre vampire in last summer's dud Dark Shadows.

"This has been a big, expensive Western, and if it doesn't do well, it's probably going to be one of the nails in the coffin of big, expensive Westerns," says Hammer, best known for a dual role as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Yet Depp, Verbinski and Bruckheimer are "like a franchise factory. They know what sells popcorn. They know how to put bums in the seats".

The thing that's always lacking with new ideas, no matter how big the stars, is audience goodwill for what came before. Robert Downey Jr was a huge question mark with 2008's Iron Man. But last month's Iron Man 3 was almost a guaranteed good time after what he delivered before.

JJ Abrams' take on Star Trek was a gamble in 2009. But the sequel, Star Trek into Darkness, was hotly awaited after the first one took off.

"Starting something new, you're taking a huge risk," says the World War Z director Marc Forster. "When you have a built-in audience, you can take bigger risks knowing it worked before."

Audiences weren't excited by most of the new worlds they saw last summer. The 2012 record box office year faltered during its busy season, when franchises such as The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises soared but newcomers such as Battleship and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter flopped.

This summer's newbies have promise - on paper, at least. Among them: Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx's terrorist tale White House Down; Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds's back-from-the-dead cop story R.I.P.D.; and Matt Damon's futuristic thriller Elysium.

Elysium's writer and director Neill Blomkamp, who scored a summer 2009 hit with District 9, says he's not set against the franchise business but that he prefers developing original ideas.

"From my perspective, the only reason that those kinds of decisions get made is really just a fiscal reason. How do we as a publicly held company get money this year? Well, let's make films we know are going to generate profits because audiences like them and we can make sequels," Blomkamp says. "That's not always the best place to start off if you want to make something newer or a little different. I want to see new stuff. I want to make new stuff."

The director of White House Down, Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow and 2012), has never been big on franchises, either, though he's developing ideas for follow-ups to his 1996 blockbuster Independence Day.

"I can see how the whole business is more and more determined by franchises. I know why. That kind of marketing and just making the films is so expensive. What you're buying yourself is already a known name that also already has fans," Emmerich says. "There are some crazy people out there such as me who try to do original movies. There are some terrific sequels, but most of the time, it's more of the same."

Among the summer sequels and prequels (The Wolverine, Fast & Furious 6, Grown Ups 2, Monsters University, Despicable Me 2 and The Smurfs 2) are newcomers that include the Seth Rogen and James Franco apocalypse spoof This Is the End and the cartoon tales Epic, Turbo and Planes.

Who knows which ones will connect with crowds and return with a "2" or a "3" after their titles years down the road?

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