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Hollywood’s franchise shortage

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Over at Variety (which is now FREE for everyone to read, btw), a recent article captures studio exec fretting over the dwindling supply of potential mega-franchise properties, like LORD OF THE RINS and JAMES BOND:

Some studio execs even think the mega-franchise could be a fading genre. “The larger issue is that a franchise picture implies a four-quadrant movie,” says an exec from a studio that’s enjoyed big franchise success in recent years. “And I don’t know how many four-quadrant movies will exist in the future. Everything in our culture seems to not be geared to four-quadrant events right now.” Despite the doubts, executives are looking for more. With many of the series either played out or aging, studios are on a furious hunt for a replacement crop, with execs and producers poring through comicbooks, fantasy fiction and kidlit — and even their own film libraries — for new franchise ideas.


(Our answer: JOHN CARTER! JOHN CARTER! JOHN CARTER!)

Variety editor Brian Lowry picks up the thread with some fretting over the lack of viable new superhero franchises:

STRICTLY SURVEYING comic books, once you exhaust major stars at Marvel and Time Warner-owned DC Comics — Spider-Man, X-Men and the Hulk in the former’s arsenal; Superman, Batman and perhaps Wonder Woman in the latter — the pickings become decidedly slim. Marvel is taking another pass at the Hulk after Ang Lee’s overwrought stab, rolls out “Ghost Rider” next year and has “Iron Man” on the launchpad. Based on the track record of films like “The Punisher,” “Hellboy” and “Constantine,” none of these figure to give “Spider-Man” a run for his money.

With most of big guns already discharged, that raises the specter of marching into battle with titles like DC’s the Flash and Green Lantern or Marvel’s Captain America and the Black Panther. And while those spandex-clad heroes might make the pulses of comic aficionados beat faster, they’re unlikely to flourish (outside the confines of Comic-con, anyway) a la “X-Men” or “Batman Begins,” regardless of how well they’re executed. No wonder Warner Bros. is planning a “Superman Returns” sequel despite its unspectacular box office flight: At least with the Man of Steel, people know what to expect and won’t giggle at the costume.


The article is a pretty accurate gauge of where Hollywood stands on the future of the superhero. The only newish slamdunk on the horizon would appear to be Hugh Jackman as WOLVERINE, more properly categorized as a spin-off. Wonder Woman should do well, but movies starring female heroes–even the greatest one of all — never match the grosses of Men in Tights.

The dangling carrot in all of this — and the reason why cartooners seeking options should keep plugging away — is the MEN IN BLACK factor. It doesn’t matter how obscure and undistinguished the original comic was — it was a concept that could be spun into boffo box office by a skilled movie creative team. It’s a sure bet that Hollywood’s D-boys and girls will keep scouring indie comics for their IP potential, and Marvel and DC will still be able to get movie deals for comics that sell barely 20K a month.

Hollywood’s power nerds from Steven Spielberg to Guillermo del Toro also hold a lot of clout. Bigger directors and better producers get better talent, and more attention.

On the other hand, you have Tinsel Town’s rapidly developing allergy to ginormous budgets that will never be recouped in today’s world of lowered expectations. The death of the HALO movie would be today’s example. Thriftiness is a new and unexpected virtue throughout Hollywood, as studio execs realize that coddling aging stars like Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey while paying them $20 mil and giving them a cut of the gross for the privilege of doing so is not as cost effective as it once was.

So will there be new franchises? Of course there will. Human beings crave new legends and heroes. They’ll make them on their own if they have to.

Will there be new superhero franchises? Not as easy to guess. Ang Lee proved that grafting on the my-father-never-liked-purple-pants emotional subtext was not the way to make a dumb action flick. (To a slightly lesser effect, Bryan Singer proved this with SUPERMAN RETURNS.) However, REALLY dumb action flicks have limited appeal as box office megastars, either (cf most of Marvel’s OTHER superhero movies).

Does, say, Green Lantern or Iron Man really have a compelling story and timeless theme that audiences beyond the core captive nerd squad can relate to? The greatest superhero movie success story of all the recent movies is SPIDER-MAN, which has the clearest message and the most joyful filmmaking. At the end of the day, superhero movies will only be as good as the source material — or the talents of filmmakers who can hammer the raw material into something more exciting, and in Hollywood that’s in pretty short supply.

  1. What would be nice to see actually is a push forward for more animated features to take over the superhero movie franchise. Mask of the Phantasm just came out way too early on as far as public demand went. How much ass would it kick for Bruce Timm to get another shot at the big screen now? It would be great to turn The Incredibles into a pioneering hallmark for animated superhero features, not an anomaly.

  2. What’s a “four-quadrant movie?” And why should anybody outside of Hollywood care how many quadrants a movie is in?

  3. >What’s a “four-quadrant movie?â€?

    I believe that’s the current buzzword for a movie that appeals to everybody: men, women, boys, and girls.

    But in today’s entertainment world which is marked by nothing so much as fragmentation (which makes viable all sorts of “long tail” marketing viable, to use another buzzword…) it seems a bit futile to pin your hopes on finding a generalized blockbuster; the culture’s just moving away from those sorts of things, so they’ll just be rarer to find.

  4. They’re also mining the hell out of Fantasy books right now. Just like with the glut of animated fare, the number of fantasy films coming out in the next couple of years is going to annoy the hell out of everyone. They’ll cannibalize the box office receipts so there isn’t a clear winner or loser which will annoy the studios in turn.

    When will they learn that originality keeps people coming back to the movies? Sequels just coast on the originality of the first film.

  5. With respect to John Carter, isn’t that public domain material now? Since licensing income streams are likely an important consideration in the “franchise” decision, would a studio commit significant resources to develop a franchise if its licensing income could be impaired by competition from non-infringing “copy-cat” products, even though it would be kick ass?

  6. Some of the reasons presented there are why I think Marvel’s in trouble when it comes to movies. They don’t have anything other then superheroes. The lack of diversity in their publishing arm makes their move into Hollywood risky.

    They need to adapt to the times and follow DC’s lead. Creators want to own their work and they want it noticed. DC and Marvel have the branding to get it noticed. DC is willing to allow creators to own (or partially own in some cases) these non-superhero works in exchange for first refusal for the film rights (or something like that). Marvel is not, which is part of the reason why they don’t have much outside of superheroes.

    Marvel needs to recognize this sooner rather then later. Based on the apathy of audiences to Marvel’s properties other then Spider-man, X-Men, and Blade, they are in trouble if they don’t.

  7. Hmmm… Someone let Disney know that if they made a solid big-screen sequel to their “Tarzan” movie based on ERB’s Tarzan in Pellucidar books, they might have a potential hit. Tarzan. Lost worlds. Dinosaurs. Ape men. Dinosaur men. Sabertooth men. Adventure. Golly, don’t these people read?

    Heck, here’s the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pellucidar

  8. >>The death of the HALO movie would be today’s example. Thriftiness is a new and unexpected virtue throughout Hollywood

  9. Blade if anything shows that Marvel has properties that might not have been the biggest successes in the comics world but still did well (in the Men in Black vein).

    There is still plenty of potentially good Marvel books to come. Personally, I’m looking forward to Ant-Man and Iron Man. Lesser known books could do well. Catwoman and Electra didn’t fail as films because they are lesser known characters, they certainly had some quality source material to draw from – it was all down to execution.

    I think the most exciting area for comic book adaptations is in the non-superhero genre.

    We’ve already had Sin City, History of Violence, Constantine, Road to Perdition, Ghost World, Men in Black, Hellboy, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (er, ignore that one), V for Vendetta and 300 on the way.

    We could easily have books such as Y: The Last Man, Walking Dead, Buttonman, Bone, Preacher, Black Hole, Powers, Fables joining that list.
    Personally I’m just waiting for Scott Pilgrim to be the next Harry Potter style phenomenon.

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