Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: I am a collector of movie cycles. When I started in the movie business, Hollywood was in its ’70s indie cycle (but not comfortable with it). That soon transmogrified into the blockbuster cycle, as movies like Jaws started opening wide. Then we were overtaken by the ‘high concept’ cycle (lower budgets, still wider openings) which soon became the tentpole cycle thanks to Tim Burton’s Batman and its kin. All this has now devolved into the franchise cycle, given the fact that ‘franchise’ is a word that makes congloms more comfortable.
The concept of a ‘franchise’ suggests a continuum of product that cannot be disrupted by annoying details like ‘imagination’ or ‘uniqueness’ and that can be readily exploited through merchandising, theme parks, etc. The majors have even come up with some examples of seemingly foolproof franchise product – the Jurassic, Fast & Furious, Avengers and even Mission Impossible franchises, for instance. To be sure, in doing so, the majors have also hatched some franchise wannabes that stalled out once they escaped the assembly line – Fantastic Four, Tomorrowland and Terminator Genisys, for example. So I guess the big question is: Will Hollywood’s obsessive quest for the foolproof franchise become self-destructive, like most obsessions? Given the volatility of the global market, does this sort of product exist in sufficient quantity to justify the quest?
FLEMING: We saw yesterday the stakes of the movie franchise business when Disney announced at D23 it would launch Star Wars attractions in its Hollywood Studios and Orlando theme parks, months before anyone has laid eyes on the JJ Abrams-directed relaunch film–no pressure, JJ! This summer gave a glimpse of where studios are going with summer product. Starting with Furious 7 (because Hollywood now marks the summer calendar in April), and winding down through the failed franchise re-launches in Terminator Genisys and Fantastic Four, and an under-performing Man From U.N.C.L.E., I can’t remember a summer that was so preoccupied with sequels, reboots and attempts to launch franchises. By my count, there was really only one original really successful attempt at a live action franchise launch and that was San Andreas, which did $468 million in global gross and will most certainly warrant a sequel (Marvel’s Ant-Man is on the bubble with $332 million WW), and on the animated side is Pixar’s Inside Out. As for the reboots and sequels, some soared, and some went splat.
The big lesson here is that even though staking out a summer weekend with a big title might make studio chiefs and their parent companies feel better, this game is anything but foolproof, the word you used. There are lessons to be learned all over the spectrum, but this one is most important. You look at the soaring summer successes and they would be Furious 7, Jurassic World, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Minions. Well, on Furious 7, Universal took its time figuring out how to rescue its biggest franchise and overcome unimaginable tragedy when Paul Walker died in a fiery car crash. Jurassic World was postponed, because it simply wasn’t good enough and vets like Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall knew it, and keeping that film in development until it was ready allowed them to really announce Chris Pratt as Hollywood’s next big leading man (and they’ve got options for him to appear in the next sequel). With Mission: Impossible, they paused until Tom Cruise, JJ Abrams and Christopher McQuarrie figured out an ending that was as good as the rest of a picture that was pretty seamless and fun to watch.
Contrast that to Fantastic Four where Fox inexplicably allowed a director with one found-footage sleeper hit on his resume gloom up a venerable Marvel franchise with four of the more interesting young actors in town. The movie got off to a terrific start (the early scenes were as good as anything in the last two Spider-Man films) but fell apart midway through and grew flatter with each scene. It became the rare superhero casualty and while director Josh Trank has a scarlet letter on his back for disowning his film on Twitter and destroying its opening weekend, Fox bears some of the blame. The studio should have fired him when execs hated the dailies and they knew Trank was directing these energetic actors to be gloomy and dour so as not to replicate the corniness of the last FF iteration. Energy was lacking, and there was an alarming lack of cool stuff inherent in the characters. This version of the rock man The Thing looked visually so cool, but there was no horrifying interaction with the human race that would make him feel shame; Reed Richards barely used his stretching abilities, and The Human Torch…well, I’ve made my point. Aren’t superhero movies supposed to be fun? I am getting the feeling that Fox wasn’t compelled to rush because of the ticking clock that comes with every Marvel property that doesn’t reside at Disney. Rather, the studio needed a summer movie. They should have heeded the lesson of World War Z, and said, screw perception.
If the movie is broken, do not release it until you fix it, as hard as that is. If that means sacking the director and pulling it off the release calendar, do it. These films cost too much money and look at what Fox is left with. A big writeoff, and a tarnished intellectual property in Marvel’s wonderful Fantastic Four universe—I feel confident that done properly, depicting the battle between Silver Surfer and Galactus is far more cool and epic than Ant-Man or another iteration of Spider-Man. I don’t know how the rights work, but Sub-Mariner crossed over into the Fantastic Four world in the 1960s, and is far more interesting than DC’s Aquaman if you ask me. Fox has options on four terrific young actors in Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara and Jamie Bell that the studio now might not be able to use. I don’t think this movie deserved the blanket condemnation it got, and it is remarkable how quickly that built when Trank turned on it. I don’t see Fox giving the rights back to Marvel, as has been suggested, not when they could stoke the embers with a TV series or make a good movie with some real imagination that maybe places the focus on an ancillary character. Beg Bryan Singer to take it over; his first X-Men was probably the best example of how to tell a great story and lay the foundation for an enduring franchise. The first Captain America was okay, but it was far from hip until Joe and Anthony Russo got hold of it and turned the sequel into a towering success and Captain America into a rock star. You look at the first Wolverine film and it was roundly panned. And yet, all the characters introduced from Wolverine to Deadpool and Gambit will live on in other superhero movies. Just as is the case in the comics, it’s very hard to kill a superhero, even in Hollywood. But they came very close here.
BART: How easy it is to forget: You don’t even mention Tomorrowland, which was billed as an important franchise-starter (starring George Clooney) and which (expensively) didn’t work. And dropped off the Fleming landscape.
FLEMING: I forgot about it. That one falls into the category of un-fixable. Sometimes you are going to rely on proven talent like Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof, and it’s just not going to work. Too often, we see neophytes getting plucked from small successes to be thrown into the deep end. Some of them are going to drown (Cautionary note to Cop Car director Jon Watts as he takes on the new iteration of the Spider-Man franchise).
BART:I disagree with you on Mission’s ending – I think Anthony Lane of The New Yorker had it right when he wrote that Mission ran out of ideas and inspiration at the end. The last section of the movie was labored.
FLEMING: Since we are at the end of the summer cycle, it’s a good time to look at the summer tent poles that are on the bubble, after they under-performed for one reason or another and made it a tough decision for backers to decide if there is any reason to try again. The two most fascinating examples here are Mad Max: Fury Road, and Terminator Genisys, and they are spectacular contrasts. In both cases, the costs were astronomical, and the global grosses are comparable (Mad Max is at $370 million, Terminator at $322 million) especially as the latter will get a berth in China and the former did not. But everybody, myself included, absolutely loved Mad Max: Fury Road and too many disliked Terminator Genisys. Consider that Mad Max: Fury Road got 98% audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes while Terminator Genisys got 26%. So even though its backer Skydance and studio Paramount are waiting for the China opening before deciding if there’s another movie worth making, remember you only keep 25% of the China receipts and this movie will have to gross $150 million in that region for anybody to even think about committing to more.
And if they do, you can bet they’ll go back to the drawing board because once again, moviegoers didn’t love yet another attempt to tinker with the mythology contained in James Cameron’s first two near perfect films. Without Big Jim—who at one time wanted to make more Terminator films, but disavowed the whole thing after he shared his plans with Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna and they swooped in and grabbed control of the franchise rights in bankruptcy court years ago—this great franchise hasn’t had the same kind of rudder, something to bear in mind as Neill Blomkamp blasts off with the next Alien film.
BART:Before you express disappointment of the summer, consider its best movie: Inside Out. Here was a Pixar movie that accomplished many things. It provided children (especially young girls) with some amazing insights into their complex, fast-changing emotional life. It reminded adults of some important precepts about how to nurture the best in their kids (and grandkids). And finally, it was truly entertaining for kids and adults together. How many movies accomplish all of that? And, yes, it was a big hit.
FLEMING: After watching over and over those classic 2D animation films from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Disney while my own children were small (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, there was a great one each year), I don’t watch these animated films anymore so I’ll take your word on Inside Out. Back to the summer films on the bubble: I spoke with several studio execs about it and they all said it comes down to deciphering what the audience wants. On those grounds, a Mad Max: Fury Road sequel or a spinoff focusing on Charlize Theron’s Furiosa character (which is being discussed) is inevitable if George Miller wants to make one. I hope Tom Hardy is game to come back as the title character and that Warner Bros (or some other studio, since Miller owns most of these rights) allows him to fully exercise his mad genius in another picture. To me, this film — along with Mission: Impossible and Straight Outta Compton–was the highlight of the movie summer. I think this one and Spy were so good they should have fared better at the box office. That latter title is the equivalent of the first Austin Powers film, which got discovered on video and launched a juggernaut franchise. Spy had a 94% Rotten Tomatoes score and it did $234 million globally, which is certainly a nice profitable film on a $65 million budget. Once the rest of the world discovers it on DVD and VOD, demand will be there for more Spy stuff. So while Fox whiffed on Fantastic Four, the studio this year may well have minted two new franchises, with Kingsman: The Secret Service being the other. As for some of the other films: they pretty much took the stuffing out of the Ted franchise, and you can put a toe tag on both Entourage and Magic Mike XXL, and Vacation has given no real reason why we need another. The future of Ant-Man will depend on whether Marvel has bigger fish to fry, but they’ll put the likable Paul Rudd in other franchises and try to build his character that way. If they haven’t yet gotten around to giving Mark Ruffalo his own Hulk movie, how big a priority can more Ant-Man be?
BART: One other thing I can’t let you get away with here. The underestimation of how difficult it is to delay the release of a movie. It is an excruciating experience at a studio – I have lived through it. The delay suggests failure, and the media can’t wait to announce it. The merchandising people go crazy. The exhibitors go crazy. The agents and managers go crazy. And what movie do you substitute? I remember when The Godfather surrendered its prime Christmas date all hell broke lose. And Harold and Maude was jammed in as the substitute. It had no ad campaign. And it was wrong for Christmas. Still The Godfather was a huge hit. And Harold and Maude ran in some theaters for more than 12 years, relying on word-of-mouth. Remember that ancient concept?
FLEMING: I feel your pain and the struggle of all execs who make such tough calls. But since it is my favorite American movie of all time, The Godfather deserved whatever extra time Francis Coppola needed to make it a masterpiece, and you proved my point. Going through the effort and expense of marketing and releasing a stiff also has to be painful. I believe there was a salvageable film in Fantastic Four. It wasn’t The Godfather or even World War Z, but the first half of that movie was fun to watch. I cannot imagine a worse outcome for Fox than the one the studio got for the $200 million or whatever the studio paid to make and market a major flop.
BART: The corporate hierarchs who run the movie business have become increasingly resigned to the fact that they serve two distinct markets – the kids who want superhero pictures and the adults who still want what Hollywood traditionally gave them – adult drama and comedy. If these two markets can be bridged, technology could hold the secret – virtual reality, giant screens and, yes, even 3D. Hollywood managed to trash its initial 3D forays but some intriguing releases are on the horizon that aim higher – Robert Zemeckis’ new film The Walk, Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon and Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest. Further, Michael Cieply reminds us in The New York Times that IMAX and other wide screen venues are now attracting a growing number of serious filmmakers. Ron Howard’s 19th century adventure, In the Heart of the Sea, was shot in 3D. Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu is utilizing newly designed digital cameras and other advanced technology in The Revenant, a wilderness movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. RealD’s 3D empire now encompasses 27,000 theaters and IMAX encompasses 1,000. That’s too much space to waste on superhero movies. The intriguing questions: Can intimacy be matched with spectacle? Can immersive capitalize on intelligent? Maybe there’s a future for “big” movies after all.
FLEMING: I still see 3D mostly as a gimmick to siphon a few extra bucks out of the wallets of moviegoers. The exception is, again, Cameron, who honed his own technology and turned Avatar into one of the most amazing and immersive things I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Ang Lee took the baton from him with the triumphant Life Of Pi, and I hope Robert Zemeckis does the same with The Walk. But these will be exceptions, limited to the few 800 pound creative gorillas (Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Cameron) who play can you top this with one another. But what you and Cieply are talking about aren’t franchises, they’re mostly one-off films that Hollywood hates making because risk is so high. You consider all of the hardships endured by Inarritu and his cast on The Revenant and it makes me salivate over seeing how that sacrifice translates to the screen. Same with The Martian, Everest, In The Heart Of The Sea, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. After this déjà vu summer of regurgitation and retread, it will be nice to see new ground broken. You wish more of it would happen in the summer, which will continue to be the domain of sequels and retreads, both good and bad. That said, I will be first in line for the 007 film Spectre and hope that Abrams’ Star Wars revival undoes the bad taste left by George Lucas’s last three prequel pictures. A whole wing of two theme parks is riding on it. No pressure, JJ.