It’s been true for a long time, but it seems that 2016 offers more proof than ever that major studios are reluctant to make a film that’s not based on existing intellectual property. Everybody in Hollywood envies Disney, which doesn’t just have the animated films that are its traditional bread and butter, but also Marvel, Pixar, “Pirates Of The Caribbean” and “Star Wars,” as well as an ever-expanding series of live-action remakes of its classic properties. And most studios are attempting copycat versions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe model of an extended, interlocking franchise, be it Universal‘s monsters or Paramount‘s “Transformers” and Hasbro toys projects.
Increasingly, the production of anything that isn’t a giant franchise film, or reasonable or desperate attempting to launch one, is being neglected. Mark Harris wrote in Grantland in 2014 that sequels and franchise movies weren’t just the biggest thing in the movie business, but that “they are the movie business.” And on the Scriptnotes podcast, “The Devil Wears Prada” scribe Aline Brosh McKenna tells John August that “the people who we came up with, our school of screenwriters, by and large are working on some kind of branded entertainment. It’s much more difficult to get things through now that are original scripts.”
But what happens if sequels, franchises and IP aren’t the magic bullet that studio executives believe them to be? This past weekend saw “Alice Through The Looking Glass,” a sequel to the 2010 billion-dollar hit “Alice In Wonderland” that basically everyone in and around the business saw as a safe bet, shock by opening wildly under expectations. It’s the latest in a recent run of brand-name disappointments, but looking at the release schedule, it seems very unlikely that it’ll be the last.
In many ways, it’s completely understandable why Hollywood has become so reliant on pre-existing IP and brands. It’s more expensive than ever to market a movie, and seemingly even harder to connect with an audience, particularly the young male crowds that have been the industry’s bread and butter over the last thirty years. But making “Spider-Man” or “Battleship” or “Prince Of Persia” theoretically skips you ahead a few steps, because your audience is theoretically already aware of the name (especially internationally).
Furthermore, branded entertainment often carries the potential of merchandising and other alternate revenue streams that are potentially lucrative (Pixar’s “Cars” series sold $10 billion worth of merchandise in just five years off the first film alone) in a way that, say, “Money Monster” or even “The Martian” probably doesn’t. And in a business where job security is virtually non-existent, it’s easier for a studio big shot to justify a flop to his corporate board if it was the followup to a hit or an adaptation of a well-loved property than a gamble on an original project would be.
Of course, a lack of imagination from producers is nothing new. 80 years ago, the top-grossing movies were based on novels (“Camille”), plays (“These Three”) or even poems (“The Charge Of The Light Brigade”). But the last five years have seen no more than two of the year’s top ten domestic grossers being anything other than a sequel, a franchise film or a remake. Of this year’s top 10 so far, only Disney’s “Zootopia” has no ties to other movies or mediums.
But if you look closely, for every brand-name movie that’s performed well this year, there’s another that’s disappointed and another still that crashed and burned. There have been triumphs: “Captain America: Civil War” continues the run of unbroken success for Marvel, Disney’s “The Jungle Book” remake will cross a billion dollars before long, and the R-rated “X-Men”-tied “Deadpool” has taken close to $800 million internationally.
But a bunch of other franchise movies, while likely to turn a profit and unlikely to get anyone fired, certainly don’t show the upward swing that studios want from a followup. Last weekend’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” opened $25 million below its predecessor “Days Of Future Past,” and took less than half what “Deadpool” did. And while “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” has improved on “Man Of Steel” by about $200 million with its $871 million total so far, that’s still nearly $200 million behind the last two ‘Batman‘ films, and will likely prove only marginally profitable for Warner Bros. (“Ride Along 2” and “Kung Fu Panda 3” also made significantly less than their previous entries).
And then there are the disasters. “Zoolander 2,” “Allegiant,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” and now “Alice Through The Looking Glass.” They’re all films greenlit off the back of hits, and all look certain to gross at least half what their predecessors made: “Allegiant” is at $176 million versus $297 million for “Insurgent,” ‘Winter’s War’ has $160 million in the bank against the $396 million that “Snow White And The Huntsman” took, and ‘Looking Glass’ will be lucky to make half of the billion dollars that “Alice In Wonderland” earned.
And there have been plenty of disappointments in the recent past as well. “Taken 3” grossed $100 million less than either of the two films before it, “Terminator: Genisys” made less than the very first film in the franchise when adjusted for inflation, “Ted 2” took almost a third less than its predecessor, and “Magic Mike XXL” did half.
It’s not just sequels, either: last year saw “Pixels,” “Vacation,” “Fantastic Four,” “Poltergeist,” “Man From U.N.C.L.E,” “Pan” and “Point Break,” all of which were remakes or reboots of existing series, become financial disasters for their studios. Not every remake or reboot can be “The Jungle Book.” So here’s the dirty little secret that no one in Hollywood wants to acknowledge: with the exception of the occasional “Karate Kid” or “Ocean’s Eleven,” remakes almost always flop spectacularly.