Click to viewIn an alternate universe, we're all obsessing about the impending release of The Matrix V and Chronicles Of Riddick 9. Even as we're drowning in retreads of things that launched in the 1960s, just think of all the more recent works that tried - and failed - to launch a franchise. Why is it so difficult?
It's easy to feel like we're awash in franchises already, until you look at all the movies and shows that have tried to become franchises and failed in the past 20 years. I'm not talking about movies that never had a sequel, or TV shows that got canceled after one season. I'm talking about wannabe franchises which had one successful movie - and then a sequel that woofed. Or a TV show that had a few good seasons, and then flamed out, or failed to make the transition to movies or spin-offs.
After all, just having one successful TV show or movie doesn't make it a franchise. It's the endless spinning out into different formats, or the perpetual motion machine of prequels, sequels and tweakels. (I made that last word up, but it'll be a real thing within a few years.)
Your Star Treks and Transformerses are grandfathered - they're not necessarily any better than newer TV shows, movies and games that have tried to become an ongoing entity, spinning out endless permutations. They're just older, and they have nostalgia on their side, on the part of Slurpee-buzzed kids aged 18-49.
This isn't just an academic question, given the number of first-time sequels on their way. Everything from The Host to Iron Man to Wanted has a sequel in the works. Some of these sequels will do a Dark Knight and be more successful than the first film. Others, though, will evaporate after their initial success.
Really, we all bemoan the plague of sequels, but so many of them are best viewed as abortive franchise attempts. Who saw Cube 2? Species 2? Remember Timecop 2, or the Timecop TV series?
I'm also leaning towards calling the 28 Days/Weeks Later movies a failed franchise. The sequel made roughly half the domestic box office of the original, and when I interviewed Danny Boyle, he made it sound like the studio suits were hesitant to pony up the money for a third movie.
So here are some random observations on the etiology and symptomology of sudden franchise crib death:
It only takes one flop to derail a fledgeling franchise. Take X-Files, which did spawn one hyper-successful movie and one spin-off series... only to get frosty box office for its snowy second film.
Actors have looser contracts nowadays. Thanks to Meredith for mentioning this one. These days, A-list actors may be less likely to be tied down for a sequel when they do one movie. So, when Marvel decided to do Iron Man II, it had to pony up a lot more money to get Robert Downey Jr. to come back. Of course, this is probably a case-by-case basis, and plenty of sequels still do get made.
Switching formats seems to be a way to create a successful genre phenomenon nowadays. A movie that becomes a TV series (Stargate), or a TV series that spawns a movie (Firefly) looks more like a franchise. Especially since Stargate II never came out, and Firefly got cancelled.
You can pander to fans with cheaper formats. If you're just trying to appeal to a small but rabid fanbase of a particular movie or TV show, it's cheaper to put out comics or DVD releases, rather than keep doing sequels or spin-offs. That way, you get an ongoing franchise - sort of - but it flies below the radar of most audiences. (Thanks to Lauren D. for this idea.)
Nowaday's pop culture is less open-ended. A show like the original Star Trek had a very simple premise that went in a different direction every week: they're on a spaceship. One week, they're on the 1920s gangster planet, the next they're having a dogfight in space with an alien vessel. These days, it's all about "arcs" and "mythology," which means that newer would-be franchises are less newbie-friendly and harder to spin out endlessly into new permutations.
Everything comes around again, of course. In thirty years, we'll all be talking about the new Riddick remake, starring someone who wasn't even born when Vin Diesel was famous. An elderly Joss Whedon will be cursing the suits who are remaking Firefly without his involvement. And X-Files: The Next Generation will be set on a spooky space station.