How to Fix a Failing Movie Franchise

Paramount tried a few approaches in the new Terminator reboot. But if a franchise hits the doldrums, how can a studio resurrect it?

Fingers are being crossed at Skydance and Paramount Pictures that the critical mauling handed out to Terminator Genisys last week won’t be reflected fully in the international box office numbers. So far, the plan for a new trilogy of Terminator films is arguably just about alive, courtesy of a total gross for the new film of $131 million worldwide. That’s below expectations, but if it can eventually crawl its way to $400 million then that’s probably enough to move ahead with a Genisys sequel (it’d be more than the hugely-acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road).

But even if a new film gets greenlit, it’s clear that things have to change again. As many have pointed out, the consensus is now that there have been more bad-to-middling Terminator films than good ones, and Genisys certainly isn’t the shot in the arm the franchise was needing – especially when so much was paid at auction for the rights in the first place.

So what can be done? Ideally the best approach is to bring in brilliant writers and directors, and trust them. But that idea rarely makes it to the top of the pile. Instead, franchise cinema has only really been alive and kicking in its current form since the later 1990s, but nonetheless, Hollywood already has its playbook ready. Starting with…

The Reboot

The obvious first choice for a Hollywood studio. A reboot simply allows the studio to concrete over everything that happened before, and press ahead. Bring back some old faces if needs be, but otherwise, have the freedom to do what you need to do.

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The James Bond series (particularly more recently) is arguably the template for this, and every time a new 007 has been cast, there’s been a tonal shift in the films as a consequence. It means that the generally less liked final Bond in an actor’s run (Licence to Kill arguably the exception as Dalton’s finest hour) can be papered over, so we never need talk of invisible cars and of not making more of Christopher Walken if we don’t want to. 007 has succeeded in this approach more often than it’s failed.

You don’t have to look far for where the approach hasn’t worked as well, though. Sony’s decision to reboot Spider-Man after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 fell apart led to a pair of The Amazing Spider-Man movies. Questions were asked whether it was too soon to reboot, and in truth, those questions were never really answered when the films themselves came around. For all the credit directed at Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, the new movies never felt much other than a reboot for spreadsheet reasons, rather than storytelling ones.

That’s the problem with the reboot. You can only really do it once per generation, and you’d better get it right, else you’re waiting a good five to ten years before you can have another go. Not for nothing is Marvel and Sony’s new Spider-Man being introduced as part of a broader cinematic universe first, before getting his own film again.

That said, the poster child for the reboot is Christopher Nolan. His reinvention of Batman on the big screen following Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin has surely been discussed in the boardrooms of movie studios almost as often as it has been at a Comic-Con somewhere in the world. When a reboot works, it really can change the dynamic dramatically, and very much for the better.

At worst? The reboot approach is popular (the box office numbers, sadly, do tend to back this up), relatively cheap (new cast means cheaper deals), and generally works. At least as a business move.

Don’t Reboot, Just Recast

Again, you can look to the James Bond series here too, as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Living Daylights both have hallmarks of a 007 adventure originally written for another actor. That notwithstanding, you can just change faces and not alter the tone of a series of films too much.

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Examples? Mark Wahlberg seamlessly wandered into the noise of Michael Bay’s Transformers films without anyone really noticing. Less successful was a film where some character work was required. Universal tried desperately to pursue the Bourne franchise without Matt Damon on board, and as such, Jeremy Renner headlined The Bourne Legacy. The problem? So reverential was the film to the three that preceded it, that it never carved out much of an interesting identity of its own.

The most blatant example of the recast everyone approach on the big screen (we’re avoiding terrors such as Addams Family Reunion) is arguably The Flintstones. Brian Levant helmed both of the big screen adventures to date, but the first was so reviled in many quarters that for the sequel, Viva Rock Vegas, the entire cast was changed. Granted, the prequel excuse was cited, and there was a six-year gap. Still, the attempt to press ahead this way failed miserably.

In fact, there’s not much evidence of a movie franchise being successful once an actor or actress integral to it moves on. Just ask Universal for the profit and loss account on Evan Almighty for some evidence of that. Home Alone 3, meanwhile, fared a little better than that one, but not much (and got nowhere close to the first two films by pretty much any measure).

The Prequel Approach

Tied into the above, if a franchise has reached the end of its natural life, or you need a new direction, then find a prequel story. Recast accordingly. At its best, this allows you to find new angles on a character, or explore them in their rawer forms. So you get Casino Royale or X-Men: First Class when all goes swimmingly. At worst, you get a cynical attempt to change faces and hope nobody minds. That’s the aforementioned Flintstones movie Viva Rock Vegas for you.

Then, of course, there are the two most recent prequel trilogies. Tellingly, both George Lucas’ new Star Wars films and Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies made oodles of money, but didn’t attract anywhere near the affection of their respective earlier trilogies. As business decisions, however, they both very much worked.

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Let Television Save It

Now this is the more modern way forward. Daredevil, for all intents and purposes, looked dead in the water when Ben Affleck put on his favourite red leather outfit and took to the big screen in 2003. But ask people to imagine the character now, and more will turn to the Charlie Cox portrayal in the excellent Netflix series. Daredevil has been reinvented, and is ripe for the jump back to the big screen, should Marvel choose to go that way.

But television has had healing powers of varying strengths for other properties too. The finest Terminator stories outside of the James Cameron films were being told in the two seasons of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, for instance. Roughnecks made people remember why Starship Troopers was so special again (if the straight to DVD sequels had somehow made them forget), whilst Star Wars fans have contended with Clone Wars to help deal with some of the low points of George Lucas’ much-maligned prequel trilogy.

The problem here is that television is a complicated remedy. Once something has moved to TV in some form, is there a way back? Especially when studios are still keen to keep the two separate. Just look at the fact that the television series of The Flash is going to be different to the movie that DC is planning for an example of that.

It’s a risky way forward this, but if you’ve paid a fortune for a franchise and need to get something from it, then television does at least hold out an olive branch.

Face It Out. Apology optional

So a sequel has come out, and all of a sudden, the quality of a given franchise appears to have dropped. What can you do? Ah, bugger it. Why not just carry on?

The X-Men movie series has had two real blips in its boxset of films. Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand has some fans, but its level of ambition is way below that of Bryan Singer’s first pair of X-Men adventures. Perhaps more pertinently, X-Men Origins: Wolverine remains regarded as a weak movie, but it didn’t stop more films coming. A further Wolverine movie was made, and another is on the way. And whilst Matthew Vaughn went down the prequel route with X-Men: First Class (we’re coming to that shortly), X-Men Origins: Wolverine is never really written off. It doesn’t have too many fans, but Fox just kept going regardless. Sure, the studio was arguably one poor movie away from hitting the buffers there, but now, the X-Men series is in rude health.

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Michael Bay had a mild moment of contrition, meanwhile, for his second Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen. Two years after its release, he described the film as “crap” to Empire. It was crap that still made $836 million at the box office of course, which helped Bay just press ahead with Dark of the Moon and the subsequent Age of Extinction. Admit there was a problem, and just get cracking.

After all, the Police Academy films made a living out of just pressing on whilst many were roaring at them to stop, and you didn’t see the Bond team going for a reboot again after Quantum of Solace disappointed. Meanwhile, the Pirates of the Caribbean team have worked out that they can bring in $1 billion pretty much just by turning up…

Take A Break

Time heals. Or at least builds you up enough currency to have another go. Witness the six years between the poorly-received Terminator: Salvation and the poorly-received Terminator Genisys. The 11 years between Scream 3 and Scream 4. The eight years that passed between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins. The 16 years that sat between Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and Gareth Edwards’ take on the character.

Once the memory of a bad movie has faded a little, enthusiasm for another springs up, and thus we get Men In Black 3 (er, not great), Mad Max: Fury Road (utterly great) and Riddick (not great either, but at least more memorable than Men In Black 3).

If Terminator Genisys does prove to be another dead end for the series, then it may be that Paramount and Skydance need to call a substantive time out before coming around for another try. You can bet all concerned are looking with envy at the numbers Jurassic World has generated 14 years after following the coolly-received Jurassic Park III.

Ignore The Film You Don’t Like

We talked about the ‘soft reboot’ in this piece here, but one tangible advantage is cutting out films in a series that aren’t widely liked. Bryan Singer was an early champion of this, choosing with Superman Returns to pretend as if the mighty Superman III and the less mighty Superman IV never existed. When Zack Snyder came to his Superman film, he simply assumed none of the other Superman films existed at all, and proceeded accordingly.

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Terminator Genisys, of course, follows this path, nailing its colours to the mast of James Cameron’s The Terminator and Terminator 2, and in fact actively ignoring plot developments from Terminator 3. Salvation doesn’t get a look in either. Meanwhile, Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming Alien sequel is said to be set after Alien and Aliens, with the broad hint being that Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are set to be ignored there. As if a movie version of Choose Your Own Adventure were being set up.

To be fair, there’s logic to this approach, and we kind of admire it. Comics have played by these rules for many years, and the idea of going back and having another stab at a more direct sequel arguably saves a good 10 or 20 minutes of on-screen exposition. Expect this approach to become as popular as the reboot in future years…

Go For A Universe

The protective shield of a movie universe means that it can deflect the impact of a couple of bad movies, whilst protecting the core. As long as the good movies outweigh the bad, the chances of a single film being a franchise killer are low.

Furthermore, a universe allows a softer way to reintroduce a character, and in turn resurrect film franchises. Warner Bros. is using the protective cover of the DC movie universe to reboot Green Lantern, for instance, with a new film due by 2020 at the latest, albeit after a pair of Justice League films have brought the characters and ideas back to the screen. Marvel, of course, is sneaking Spider-Man in the side entrance in Captain America: Civil War (it’s widely been assumed).

Expect to see more of this approach too, especially with lots of movie universes currently in the works.

Give Up

Sometimes, you’re just shit out of options. You won’t be seeing R.I.P.D. 2, Super Mario Bros 2, Catwoman 2, Elektra 2, Speed 3 or Xanadu 2 anytime soon, friends…

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