X-Men: Days of Future Past didn't just have one of the biggest Memorial Day openings ever. The seventh X-Men movie also had the best opening since X-Men 3 in 2006, nabbing $110 million over four days. Does this mean that "franchise fatigue" is over? Or just that the right movie can overcome it?
Industry watchers talk a lot about "franchise fatigue," and it's a serious concern in a time when studios are pushing out more and more sequels and reboots. Over time, popular series seem to wear out their welcome — until Future Past, the X-Men movies seemed to be on a steady downward trajectory. And Marc Webb's Spider-Man films haven't done as well domestically as the Sam Raimi trilogy.
With studios trying to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe and create "shared universes" of tie-in films, the notion of franchise fatigue is scarier than ever. Will we eventually see an Avengers movie tank? Or a Star Wars film? Could audiences eventually decide that "more of the same" just isn't that appealing any more?
The History of Franchise Fatigue
Where does the concept of "franchise fatigue" come from? Nobody seems to know who coined the term, but it's mentioned in the 2004 book Open Wide, in reference to the Terminator series, which peaked with Terminator 2. The producers of Star Trek used it to explain why Voyager and Enterprise were less popular than The Next Generation on television. It seems to be a longstanding term of art in video games.
"I've read old industry articles that could be described as 'franchise fatigue' going all the way back to the works of Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges," says analyst David Mumpower with Box Office Prophets. "The industry has always possessed a certain level of cynicism regarding the freshness of ideas and concepts."
The rise of the summer blockbuster in the late 1970s inevitably led to the question of whether series could get run into the ground. The 1980s were a dark time for the James Bond films box office-wise, especially the two Timothy Dalton movies. The Star Trek movies hit a pothole with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and then declined after First Contact.
Meanwhile, there's one type of movie series that's immune to "franchise fatigue," according to Doug Stone with Box Office Analyst: series with a defined conclusion instead of an open-ended storyline. Like the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games movies. As long as those films stay reasonably true to their source material and quality remains high, they won't suffer from oversaturation. (One example of a series that faltered? The Narnia films.)
And then there are the actual "franchise killers" — movies that are so unpopular they actually put a bullet in the head of a series. Star Trek V was nearly one of those. Batman and Robin damn near killed the Batman movies. Mumpower calls Batman and Robin "the first true comic book movie franchise killer."
In fact, Mumpower tells io9 that "for all of its box office success, X-Men: The Last Stand was a franchise killer, in that Fox did not feel comfortable creating another true X-Men film for five years afterward. The declining box office performances of the Wolverine standalone films, in combination with the overall performance of X-Men: First Class, demonstrate the dissatisfaction consumers felt with the product."
The bottom line about franchise fatigue, according to Mumpower: "Consumers are tricky in this regard because they vote with their wallets, and those votes overwhelmingly indicate that comfortable concepts are their favorites. Still yet, they expect originality within the sameness."
The real reason why Days of Future Past bounced back
There are lots of possible explanations for why Days of Future Past broke the X-Men movie slump: A popular storyline from the comics, the return of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, strong early buzz and good trailers.
But Mumpower says the lion's share of the credit belongs to X-Men: First Class, which recharged the series after the "franchise killer" of X3. Sure, First Class didn't perform well at the box office, but its "impeccable quality" helped rebuild consumer confidence in the brand over time. Something similar happened with Batman Begins, which also suffered from relatively weak box office but rebuilt trust enough for The Dark Knight to do well.
First Class followed the same playbook as Batman Begins "by resetting its events and cast while re-establishing the characters at the heart of the X-Men story, especially Magneto and Professor Xavier," says Mumpower. And just like with Batman Begins, this rebuilt consumer trust in the series after some disappointing films.
"Franchise fatigue can be cured as quickly as it can be caught," says Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com. "All it takes is one film to make people return to a property they were otherwise sick of."
So it's possible to come back from "franchise fatigue" — it's just really difficult. Just doing a quick reboot, with new actors and new continuity, doesn't necessarily restore audience faith — just look at the Spider-Man films. But the James Bond films, the Star Trek films, the Batman movies and now the X-Men movies prove that it can be done.
Franchise fatigue is inevitable — but it doesn't matter
There's no question that franchise fatigue will be a major factor as the studios try to increase the frequency of comic-book movies and other films based on big properties, says Mumpower.
"At some point, an Avengers movie will disappoint a lot of people. After all, it happened with the Batman franchise in the 1990s," says Mumpower. "Maintaining fresh ideas after an extended period is an all but impossible task."
But it doesn't matter — because "franchise fatigue" is a domestic issue, and meanwhile global box office is expanding so quickly that even movies that underperform in the United States tend to do fine in the end. Add in revenue from merchandising, and almost all of these movies make money — unless you've got a Jonah Hex or Green Lantern on your hands, which is rare.
At the moment, there seems to be a honeymoon of some sort with the rapidly expanding overseas audience — they seem to support any studio movies, regardless of how well they're received stateside. "As of right now, even dreck like Transcendence can garner double its domestic take abroad," says Mumpower.
Of course, studios don't get as big a share of overseas box office as they get domestically — according to Mumpower, super-analyst Edward Jay Epstein went through the studio books and found that distributors only get one out of six dollars made overseas, but the percentage may have improved recently. And China is notorious for withholding payments altogether. But still, tons of movies that would have been considered failures now end up in the black thanks to the fast-growing overseas market.
The bottom line, says Mumpower: "Over the next 10 years, there will probably be about 75 comic book movies released. I expect 80% of them to be profitable enough to justify their production cost, franchise fatigue be damned."