Here comes Hollywood, fresh off a dreadful year at the box office and ho-hum Oscars, hobbling into summer with a slew of … well, the same old stuff. Marquees will once again teem with titles like Mission: Impossible III, X-Men: The Last Stand, and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Next summer already has spots reserved for Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3, the third Pirates of the Caribbean — and possibly Rush Hour 3 and a third Bourne outing. Meanwhile, Harry Potter is about to matriculate for the fifth time, this summer’s Superman Returns marks the fifth big-screen iteration since 1978, a new Batman (the sixth since 1989) is in development, and so on. Crack open the Centrum Silver: The industry’s most familiar and dependable franchises are getting old.
And as we know, in Hollywood it’s risky to show your age. (The Fox movie studio, in fact, has performed plastic surgery on its franchise sequels, swapping out the numeric ”X3” title of its upcoming summer blockbuster for X-Men: The Last Stand and changing the name of Ice Age 2 to Ice Age: The Meltdown.) Even the best franchises tend to wither when extended past their prime. Often, the trouble kicks in the third time around. Over the past 10 years, the box office of part 3s has dropped an average of 21 percent from that of part 2s. Sometimes the falloff is precipitous: Witness Blade: Trinity (36 percent), Friday After Next (42 percent), The Matrix Revolutions (51 percent), Home Alone 3 (82 percent), and Free Willy 3: The Rescue (89 percent). Even the rare case of a box office uptick — Austin Powers in Goldmember or Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, say — rarely leads to a fourth.
So as it fits its most precious franchises for dentures, Hollywood must be pretty nervous, right? Well, not really. The economic potential of franchise films is still irresistible to the studios. Often dubbed ”tentpoles” for how they can prop up a studio, these films remain a surging business in the post-Lord of the Rings era. Since 2002, franchise films have accounted for more than 20 percent of theatrical revenues (around $2 billion a year), up from 13 percent during the preceding three-year period. They can inject cash into each synergistic cranny of studios’ corporate empires, from videogames to TV networks to websites. Thanks largely to such cross-promotional efforts, Warner Bros. has earned an estimated $4 billion in total worldwide revenue from four Harry Potter films. Universal has cashed in by spinning Jurassic Park, The Mummy, and Van Helsing into theme-park gold. Disney went the reverse route with Pirates, squeezing hundreds of millions from a property that began as a Disneyland water ride and is promoted anew at the company’s theme parks.
Then there’s the home-viewing market. Event-movie DVD releases can mean major business — for example, 2003’s American Wedding, the third film in the American Pie series, scored $104 million in theaters, and a whopping $166 million on DVD. Better yet, more of those receipts fall to the bottom line, since studios typically control upward of 80 percent of DVD sales versus roughly 50 percent of theatrical revenues, which must be shared with movie theaters and gross participants.