"I'll Be Back"? The 'Terminator' Dilemma: When to Admit a Franchise Is Dead

Terminator Illo - H 2015
Illustration by: Dan Woodger

Terminator Illo - H 2015

Soft returns for the movie and release dates set for two sequels confound Paramount and Skydance as "bubble" movies — not flops, not quite megahits — require tough decisions: "Sometimes you are left scratching your head."

A version of this story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

He'll be back. Or will he? In September 2014, David Ellison's Skydance Productions and Paramount boldly dated the next two installments in the rebooted Terminator franchise for 2017 and 2018, even though the first film in the planned trilogy, Terminator: Genisys, was 10 months from opening.

But now Genisys, which cost $155 million to produce and tens of millions more to mar­ket, is underperforming at the box office -- it had earned only $80.6 million domestically and nearly $200 million overseas as of July 19 -- underscoring the tough decisions franchise-mad studios face with what might be called "bubble" movies, decent performers whose returns don't trigger an automatic sequel but whose backers aren't quite ready to give up. Terminator could join Pacific Rim, Godzilla, Snow White and the Huntsman and Jack Reacher as recent bubble movies that scored sequels. On the other hand, franchise plays Prometheus, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader did fine but have not scored a follow-up green light.

"Sometimes you are left scratching your head," says Rentrak box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "If a movie doesn't kill at the box office, why move ahead? Studios will build franchises sometimes without the blessing of the audience."

Terminator: Genisys presents a tricky conundrum. Ellison has been especially enthusiastic about Terminator (Skydance paid $20 million for rights) and made the trilogy a priority. But opening over the July 4 holiday, the fifth film in the franchise failed to lure its target demo of younger males. Worse, critics attacked director Alan Taylor's convoluted storyline and the upending of previous Terminator mythology. "There is no question that the market was affected by reviews, which nicked early word of mouth," Paramount vice chair Rob Moore said after its opening weekend. The film has yet to open in China, where it launches Aug. 23, but without a muscular performance there, Genisys might top out at $375 million to $400 million worldwide -- not an outright flop but not enough to quell nerves at Paramount.

The studio and Skydance declined to comment on the status of the Terminator sequels or a television spinoff that was announced. But one Paramount source admits the planned follow-ups aren't a given: "We will definitely need to see the holds globally to confirm that people like the film." Complicating matters, Skydance didn't cast any well-known movie stars in Genisys other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, 67, so the sequel probably would need to add a proven draw or rely again on Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke and Jai Courtney.

"If they are going to make another one, something has to change," says MKM Partners analyst Eric Handler. "You either have to make a better film or make it cheaper. They tried to bring in elements of the first film, but it didn't work. It's going to be very difficult. They are going to have to cater to the international market."

Those foreign grosses, which now account for two-thirds of studio tentpole returns, increasingly are cited as key in determining whether a bubble movie is sequel-worthy. For instance, 2013's Pacific Rim, made for $190 million, was considered a disappointment in the U.S. with $101 million but grossed three times as much overseas and is getting a sequel. Still, reliance on international performance is somewhat problematic because studios see a smaller cut of the box office than they do from U.S. theaters. Perhaps for that reason, insiders say that Legendary Entertainment, which is fully financing Pacific Rim 2, will spend less on the sequel, due Aug. 14, 2017, via Universal.

The danger, of course, is that a studio abandons a franchise too soon, leaving millions on the table. Universal's Fast & Furious movies faced extinction after the fourth installment failed to grow, but the decision to make a fifth film led to a revitalized property and, eventually, this summer's $1.5 billion-grossing Furious 7 (at least two more Fast movies are planned).

Ellison and Skydance have their own experience with a rebooted franchise in Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible, whose fourth film, 2011's Ghost Protocol, re-energized the series with $694 million globally. They will test the strength of the Mission franchise when Rogue Nation hits theaters July 31. Fox faces a similar test with its Aug. 7 reboot of Fantastic Four, whose sequel already has been dated for 2017.

"Any movie that can be sequelized is money in the bank," notes Dergarabedian. The tough part, of course, is knowing when to hit the terminate button.