film reporter

Tough to build a franchise, tougher to build a new one

Whenever a studio talks about creating a new franchise, I always think of the joke about the studio that has hit hard times and decides to call in a consultant. Executives turn over everything — financials, marketing plans, scripts. After weeks of analysis, the consultant says: "I've identified your problem. Stop releasing flops and only release blockbusters."

No matter how much a studio might want a franchise, that doesn't mean they can have one. A movie can't be called a franchise until after the first one becomes a hit. And sometimes not even then; just because you copy a success doesn't mean you'll produce another one. As Discovery Films' Andrea Meditch says, "People always tell me they have the next 'March of the Penguins.' But the next 'Penguins' won't look anything like that movie."

If that's true on the documentary side, it's doubly true on big-budget features. Unless it has the qualities of a "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings" — buckets of fans, source material, a serial structure — no amount of wishing can will a franchise into existence.

Of course, studios still want franchises just like children want candy, and for similar reasons: They're familiar and they provide a reliable rush. This creates a rather unavoidable problem. If you want a franchise but don't know if you can get one until after you've spent $150 million, you're in a bind. You either don't do them or you risk a mint trying.

This conundrum of pursuing a franchise where it's unclear one exists — call it the Matrix Dilemma — explains why so many studios resurrect old (read: actual) franchises. There's no guarantee these movies will spawn sequels either, but the story lines made money at some point, and that increases the odds considerably. So enter James Bond in 2006, John McClane in the summer or Indiana Jones and Speed Racer this summer. (Michel Gondry's upcoming "Be Kind Rewind" smartly skewers remake culture when video store employees re-create '80s comedies like "Ghostbusters" and customers prefer the low-budget remakes.)

But something more ambitious is on the minds of a few studios at the moment: the creation of a new franchise.

Paramount has taken a bet on the children's book series "The Spiderwick Chronicles," which it is releasing today. It's the same day Fox is putting out Doug Liman's teleportation pic "Jumper." Although marketing departments are wisely not billing either of these films as franchises, that's basically the goal. At the "Jumper" premiere this week, one wag wondered why instead of the unresolved ending, the studio didn't just swap in the trailer for "Jumper 2."

Fox chief Tom Rothman encapsulated the higher stakes. " 'Jumper' is an original; it's not like other tentpoles," he says. "There's something challenging and rewarding (about that)." The challenge is hard to argue with. Failed attempts litter past slates. Remember Val Kilmer's "The Saint"? Exactly. And "The Golden Compass" proves that a set of popular books and epic action don't always make a franchise. Sometimes they just make a more expensive dud.

But give credit to those who try for taking the long view. Old franchises are by definition self-cannibalizing; you can only extend or revive one for so long before you run out, or end up with a "He-Man" remake.

In the meantime, studios will continue the revivals until there's nothing left, or enough time has passed for a new one. Twenty years from now, a producer will try to remake "Transformers." And someone will say, "Why do you have to tinker with a classic? The 2007 version was perfect."
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