Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim. Photo: AP

First among sequels

Franchise fever breaks out as Hollywood eyes this summer’s blockbuster box office with a view to spawning profitable follow-ups, writes David Germain

Hollywood is banking on the future this summer – and not just a future where Captain James T. Kirk orders warp speed or Tony Stark builds a better Iron Man outfit.

Even 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-vs-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.

“Introducing a new audience to a new idea about Superman is great and fertile ground, because there is so much to be explored,” says Amy Adams, who plays Lois Lane opposite Henry Cavill as Superman in director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. “There’s such a rich comic-book history and so many ideas that have not been touched on over the years.”

Man of Steel distributor Warner Brothers Pictures has had tremendous franchise success with the Harry Potter films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit The Dark Knight and The Hangover, whose finale is due to arrive in Hong Kong cinemas in June.

The studio tried reviving the Krypton kid with Superman Returns in 2006. That movie’s nearly US$400 million worldwide box office receipts were okay, 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 that Man of Steel will do franchise-worthy business.

There are some crazy people out there like me who try to do original movies. There are some terrific sequels, but most of the time, it’s more of the same
Roland Emmerich, director

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 filmmaker del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), but he has yet to deliver a monster hit. World War Z has Pitt and is inspired by Max Brooks’ bestseller about a global zombie outbreak, but Paramount has had to delay it from last year for a month of reshoots that includes a new ending.

Clayton Moore’s interpretation of 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, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

But the Wild West generally has been on the outs 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 asses 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 Jnr was a huge question mark with 2008’s Iron Man. Now, he’s looked upon as being a guarantee after what he’s delivered before.

J.J. Abrams’ take on Star Trek was a gamble in 2009. His sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, is hotly awaited after the first one took off.

“Starting something new, you’re taking a huge risk,” says World War Z director Marc Forster. “When you have a built-in audience, you can take bigger risks knowing it worked before. That’s not a guarantee it’s going to work again, but doing something more original I find more exciting and interesting.”

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

This summer’s newbies have promise – on paper, at least. Among them: Will Smith’s sci-fi adventure After Earth; Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx’s terrorist tale White House Down; and Matt Damon’s futuristic thriller Elysium.

Elysium writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who scored a summer 2009 hit with District 9, says he’s not set against the franchise but 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.”

White House Down director Roland Emmerich has never  been big on franchises, either, although he’s developing ideas for follow-ups to his 1996 blockbuster Independence Day.

“Working in this town for 22 years, 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 like 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 Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy The Internship, the Seth Rogen-James Franco apocalypse spoof This is the End, and animated 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?

Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann at least can make a pledge about his summer offering.

“I can pretty much tell you there’s not going to be a Great Gatsby 2,” Luhrmann says of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire.

“There are a lot of ‘3s’ out there. That doesn’t mean to say Iron Man 3 can’t be great. It can be fantastic, but it’s the third one. Whereas, there are a few first-timers out there, and that makes for a nice smorgasbord. We all look forward to a good summer franchise picture, but there better be a few births out there, too.”

Associated Press

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: First among sequels