Will Hollywood Franchises Destroy Originality?

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Like it or not, it’s about time you get used to seeing the same characters when you go to the theaters. This year we will see a record breaking release of 35 sequels, displaying Hollywood’s increasing reliance on franchises as a way to mitigate the chance of box office losses.

In the past three years, there has been a noticeable uptrend in sequels. In 2011, Hollywood released 30 sequels, which was a record at the time. While the number went down slightly in 2012 to 27, that number ballooned once again this year to 35 on the heels of films such as Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, and upcoming The Wolverine. The increase in franchises and sequels is a systemic strategy in Hollywood as studios rush to stockpile marketable franchises.

No studio displays this push as clearly as The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS). Along with the successful Marvel films and the animated films of Pixar, Disney acquired Lucasfilm at the end of last year, the company behind the Star Wars films, and has lofty plans for the popular series. The newest rumors have Disney releasing episodes of the new sequel trilogy every two years along with stand-alone films released during the gap years — that’s five sequels in five years.

Over at Viacom Inc.’s (NASDAQ:VIA) Paramount Studios, the production of Mission Impossible 5 and Star Trek 3 is already a given — and why wouldn’t it be? Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol made $209,397,903 domestically and $694,713,380 worldwide; Star Trek Into Darkness has made $223,674,724 domestically and $444,474,724 worldwide.

And Time Warner Inc.’s (NYSE:TWX) Warner Bros., fresh off the success of Man of Steel, is currently exploring options of a Justice League film — the DC comics equivalent to Disney’s The Avengers. Warner is also seeing box office success with The Hobbit films as they mull whether or not they want to reboot Batman for the third time in its modern iteration.

To say Hollywood is enamored with franchises and sequels is an understatement, but the problem is a lot more complicated than Hollywood just being lazy. At least some of the problem has to do with Hollywood’s recent obsession with the blockbuster. Because of the huge danger of having such a big budget film fail — something Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently spoke about when they talked about an impending “implosion” in the film industry — Hollywood has increasingly looked to franchises as a way of defending itself from box office disaster.

Call it a “built-in” market if you will, but it’s not infallible. Just take a look at Comcast Corp.’s (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal film Battleship — released in 2012, the film made only $65,173,160 on a $209,000,000 budget after many viewers appeared to actually be turned off by the idea of a board game film. Next year, a similar strategy will be explored when Warner releases the animated The Lego Movie.

The reason Spielberg and Lucas’ premonition of a “big meltdown” doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore is because we’ve recently seen that the idea of a built-in market isn’t necessarily safe. The failure of films such as The Lone Rangerwhich was supposed to have a built-in market, might be a tipping point in showing that the franchise might not be sustainable for movie studios. With box office disasters like Disney’s John Carter still fresh in the minds of those running the studios, Hollywood isn’t likely to bet on new concepts either.

If the cracks are starting to show, we’ll know soon enough whether Spielberg and Lucas were right in their predictions. ”There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm,” Spielberg said. And with sequels and franchises continuing to roll out as a rapid pace, we’ll likely know within the next several years whether a new paradigm has been created from the ashes of old Hollywood or if we only go to the movies to see the same characters over and over again.

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