Movie franchises and sequels aren’t a new thing. Hollywood has been churning them out even since the art of movies became a thing. They seem to be trying to do it more and more these days, though, but it’s actually easy to see why. Establishing a successful film series will ensure the movie studio will be swimming in cash so they can produce more movies and keep them in the black for years to come. If they manage to tap into something the audiences like, they will come back to see future installments, after all. It’s a great strategy if you really think about it.
However, it seems like more often than not, Hollywood is struggling to establish that new franchise that’ll keep them afloat. It’s not like they’re not trying, though. They keep trying to establish things like “shared universes,” adapting popular book series into films, licensing nostalgic properties and more. They have had some successes like Marvel’s huge Cinematic Universe, the Harry Potter series and, yes, even the live-action Transformers films. But more and more of these proposed “film franchises” just fall flat on their faces. Recent gaffs like Universal’s Dark Universe, the 5th Wave book/film series and the all-female Ghostbusters is proof of this.
Yet, it seemed like Hollywood was just fine with making film series left and right in the past. There’s Rocky, Rambo, Back to the Future, Robocop, Lethal Weapon, Alien, Shrek, Indiana Jones and The Matrix just to name a few. Some movie franchises, like the James Bond films, Mission: Impossible and Star Wars, are so long lived that you can still see Hollywood making sequels based on them! So, what is Hollywood doing differently than in the past?
The biggest thing I see is how they actually go about making film franchises today: they’re intentionally trying to create them beforehand instead of seeing if the movie going audience will support the films in the first place. Essentially, whenever they try to make the first film of a franchise, they’re already planning out subsequent films as well. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work as evidenced by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, I think Marvel set the current template of how Hollywood plans their films these days.
However, what they are doing is basically putting the cart before the horse as they’re already setting up little nuggets in the first film that will become important in the sequel instead of concentrating on making the first film good. One of the best examples would be Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies. That’s the one that had Andrew Garfield donning Spider-Man’s red-and-blue spandex outfit. The films allotted a little too much time in setting up subsequent releases story threads, like showing us shots of Doctor Octopus’ mechanical limbs for their proposed Sinister Six films and focusing on Peter Parker’s missing scientist parents, instead of putting the time to ensure that the film that they were producing at the time was actually of high quality.
Now, take a look at one of the most beloved film trilogies of all time: Back to the Future. You would be forgiven if you think the film was always supposed to be a series of films that was planned out from the very first movie. It had all of the earmarks of something that would be a long-lived film series. It had a rather cliffhanger-like ending with Marty McFly, Doc Brown and Jennifer flying off in the DeLorean to rescue Marty and Jennifer’s kids from something that’s going to happen. It even plastered the words “To Be Continued” just as the DeLorean hits 88 miles per hour to make the jump.
But the film’s creators and writers actually didn’t. They totally intended Back to the Future to be a standalone movie. They didn’t have plot points worked out for Back to the Future II and III and what was going to happen then while they were working on the first film. If they did, I’m sure they would’ve worked a contract out with Crispin Glover and not go through all that headache with him suing the studio for using his likeness. Maybe they could’ve had worked something out with Claudia Wells ahead of time, who took a sabbatical from acting during the time, and not have Elizabeth Shue step in and redo the entire ending of the first film for the sequel’s opening.
As we all know, the first Back to the Future film was a tremendous hit with both critics and casuals alike. It broke box office records and made a ton of money. So the producers greenlit a sequel and a new franchise was born. The same thing happened with other films like Lethal Weapon, Alien and practically all of those other movies I mentioned earlier. This was how Hollywood produced sequels and franchises before; they make one good film and decide to continue the story with a sequel. It seemed like they were flying by the seat of their pants, weren’t they? Well, they basically were! They never really planned out what film was going to become a new franchise or not. They just made a good movie and, if it made money, that’s when they think of continuing it.
It seems like Hollywood forgot about this process because they’re just looking at the final product. They probably look at film franchises of yesteryear and see how it made them a continuous stream of money before and they want the magic to happen again. What they’re forgetting, however, is that a lot of these franchises weren’t really thinking of future installments and this allowed them to make the best damn movie they could. They weren’t bogged down with thinking of plot points that will work into future installments. They didn’t have to spend time on working out the details of the next film, taking some time away from the current film they were filming at the time.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a great film franchise using the “shared universe” method or by thinking way ahead of time on what future installments would be like. Marvel did it with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all. While Marvel worked behind the scenes crafting their shared universe, they still didn’t forget to make a great movie that could stand on its own and not bogged down by the future. No one really thought Iron Man would be the start of what is probably the biggest movie franchise in the world today. But it was and that’s because it was a great movie on its own!
The biggest lesson that Hollywood has to remember about the successful franchises of old was that they weren’t created by Hollywood due to intricate planning and mapping out details on future installments. Franchises of yesteryear were created because great and timeless movies that people wanted to watch over and over again. Hollywood seems to have forgotten this lesson and are just scrambling to establish new franchises on their own terms. The problem is, it doesn’t really work that way. People want entertaining stories and well developed characters now, not in a future installment that may not happen because the current film sucks because it lacks a good story and fun characters. Movie studios don’t have to force the creation of a new franchise. If they make a good movie, people will demand a sequel. That’s how franchises are really born.
What makes a successful film franchise? Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments below!