Universal has confirmed that Len Wiseman has dropped off Universal’s reboot of The Mummy franchise, which will get a new round of movies after the last reboot trilogy grossed north of $1.25 billion worldwide before running out of steam. Do we need another Mummy? I wouldn’t think so, but apparently we do need to reopen that sarcophagus, especially since studios are whiffing badly in attempts to create new intellectual properties. They instead seem bent on running tried and tested past successes into the ground.
Leaving The Mummy might be the best thing for Wiseman, a props man who got off to an impressive start as a director by launching the ambitious Underworld. He helped hatch that series, which added some real flourishes to the vampires and werewolves genre. Since then, Wiseman has gone through a succession of sequels (Live Free Or Die Hard) and remakes (Total Recall), becoming a symbol of a time where Hollywood studios place too little emphasis on originality and instead prize utterly familiar product studios hope might put up big global numbers. Wiseman needs an original movie, and fast.
Why does Hollywood go back to the well so often on tired retreads? Because, as this summer has proven, it’s damn near impossible to create new intellectual properties that are not based on bestselling book series with vast reading audiences like Twilight Saga or The Hunger Games. Some of this summer’s non-sequel misfires, like After Earth, The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D., surely deserve to be one-offs. But even worthy, imaginative films like Pacific Rim have it rough. They get measured and dismissed quickly, not helped by the fact that press coverage has become reliant on imprecise tracking service estimates that give journalists a touchstone to dismiss movies even before anyone has seen them. Early low tracking on Pacific Rim fueled advance stories that the movie would be a flop, which it wasn’t. When The Wolverine‘s opening weekend didn’t match high advance tracking estimates, journalists bashed the movie (which is quite good), and not the faulty tracking services that overestimated the opening weekend numbers in the first place. Pacific Rim also wasn’t helped by a marketing campaign straight out of Transformers, and it wasn’t until too late that Warner Bros switched to spots that showed the movie had heart and wasn’t just a collision of robots and over-sized alien monsters from beneath the sea.
If there are two originals this summer worth sequel-izing, I would nominate Pacific Rim and World War Z. Despite being real crowd-pleasers, these will not be easy decisions because their high production budgets require each to do upwards of $400 million worldwide before serious sequel talk even begins. WWZ passed this threshold and is at $475 million, while Pac Rim is at $226 million but playing strong in Asian territories including China. All of this raises the currency of worn franchises like The Mummy.
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If you actually look at some of the films that grew into lucrative franchises, many came in with low expectations and were happy accidents rather than pre-programmed franchise launches. The Terminator, for instance, is a big franchise for Paramount, Annapurna and Skydance, after Megan Ellison bought for $20 million or so. I can remember James Cameron telling me that his backer on the original, Hemdale, drew a clear line in the sand and told the director to end the movie at the point where Michael Biehn’s Reese character sticks an explosive in the semi-tanker and dives into the dumpster. Cameron had to beg and borrow for the money to shoot the final scene. Would The Terminator have been memorable without Sarah Connor crushing the cyborg in a hydraulic press in that automated factory? Maybe not. There are a million stories like these. Marvel under Kevin Feige has been the most prolific hit-making success story in Hollywood, but this came only after decades of futility when Marvel was horribly mismanaged, made bad deal after bad deal and wound up in bankruptcy.
The Fast And The Furious was almost entirely out of gas before Universal smartly brought in Chris Morgan and Justin Lin, who tinkered under the hood and and much to the surprise of everybody, restored it into Universal’s most valuable franchise outside of Jurassic Park. They smartly added energy by bringing back Vin Diesel and adding Dwayne Johnson and others. The studio is now looking for another big star to join the next film in a small role and then be a big part of the film that follows. Denzel Washington just turned down that opportunity, but they’ll undoubtedly get somebody important by the time The Conjuring helmer James Wan starts shooting the seventh film. And this summer’s World War Z went in with a blueprint for multiple movies, and shot an ending that lent itself to an easy sequel. Trouble was, nobody liked the final scene where Brad Pitt slays zombies in a giant battle in Russia. In what seems all too rare these days, Paramount spent $20 million to shoot another, far more satisfying climax that made the movie great. But the studio created a challenge for itself to move forward, and I’m not sure where they go with the storyline if they actually make a sequel.
I think that Hollywood is going to have to reconsider its all-or-nothing formula for launching new intellectual properties. These films have to be nurtured, and maybe that’s not possible with all the overspending and the $125 million it takes to launch a studio tentpole film on a global scale. The current batch of summer originals cost too much, and it’s clear that audiences are on to the fact these 3D conversions are just a revenue-raising gimmick on most films. There has to be a way to hatch new franchises without putting so much pressure on them that sequel potential gets snuffed out when they don’t immediately do smashing global business on opening weekend.
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