Magazine article Screen International

Screen at 40: The Birth of the Mega-Franchise

Magazine article Screen International

Screen at 40: The Birth of the Mega-Franchise

Article excerpt

Bankruptcy, they say, comes gradually and then suddenly. The same dynamic may be observed at the dawning of the era of the franchise picture.

A glance at the films that have reached the number one slot over the past few years reveals a shiftthat seems both gradual and sudden, from the 1980s, when original stories including Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Beverly Hills Cop, Back To The Future, Top Gun and Rain Man dominated, to the more pivotal 1990s, when original winners such as Toy Story, Home Alone, Independence Day and Saving Private Ryan were balanced by successful exploitations of existing source material such as Jurassic Park and sequels Terminator 2 and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Après, le déluge. The first Harry Potter film in 2001 heralded a period in which literary and comic-book exploitations, together with sequels, have dominated the box office, both domestically and globally, to an unprecedented degree.

James Cameron's Avatar - the top US hit of 2009 - has proved a very rare exception indeed. And among the 23 films that have so far earned more than $1bn at the global box office (see table below), only Avatar, Titanic - which certainly had the benefit of high audience familiarity with its eponymous boat - and Frozen might be termed original non-sequel stories, and the latter, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, is up for debate.

Warners' Harry Potter proved a tipping point in more than one way. The Philosopher's Stone's arrival in cinemas five weeks before the first episode in New Line's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy signalled a fresh approach to literary source material, with studios seeking richer recoupment opportunities to reward the investment of bringing characters to life from the page.

Multiple episodes, in other words, became the new goal, although not every attempt - Lemony Snicket, His Dark Materials - was brought to successful sequel fruition. Twilight, in 2008, rebranded the teen flick as Young Adult and unleashed the power of female protagonists, sending hit-hungry producers to the bookshelves.

Viewed through a different lens, the modern era of franchise films began a year earlier than Potter, with Fox and Marvel Enterprises' X-Men film heralding the rebirth of comic-book exploitations that had distinctly fallen from favour since Joel Schumacher's creative misfire Batman & Robin in 1997.

Superheroes now occupy such a dominant position in the commercial landscape that it's easy to forget how gutsy the X-Men greenlight decision was at the time, and ditto Sony's expensive role of the dice with Sam Raimi and Spider-Man two years later.

In the dawn of the mega-franchise era, Tim Richards, chief executive of 10-territory cinema chain Vue, points to an earlier tipping point that influenced events.

"The turning point was 1994," he says. "Because that was the first year that international box-office receipts surpassed domestic receipts. That was a wake-up call for everyone that the future really was going to be international and offshore of North America. We've seen straight-line growth ever since, and now it's not uncommon for 70, 80 per cent of receipts for a film to be from international."

Richards' early years in exhibition were with companies owned or co-owned by Hollywood studios. "I had met a number of executives with 'international' on their business cards that didn't have passports. International in those days was where executives were parked who didn't have a future."

Today, priorities have flipped. …

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