Sunday, 1 August 2010

Franchise Fatigue

UK cinemas will be blessed with arrival of Walt Disney's new movie THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE which comes out 13th August. Much like May's release of The Prince of Persia, Disney has invested heavily into both properties hoping to trigger an incipient franchise that will carry on for years and guarantee future box-office coin. How unfortunate for Disney that neither movie has lived up to the collective $400 million production investment. Having seen both these movies I can only assume much of the problem lies in the soulless exercise of exploiting brand recognition while disregarding quality storytelling. Both these Jerry Bruckheimer produced fantasy films are a cynical marketing implementation that insults audience intelligence by creating vacuous confections with zero narrative skill.

Yet who can blame Disney executives for wanting to trigger off a successful movie fantasy franchise. The last decade was a wonder for movie brands and reaped fantastic financial dividends for all concerned. Fantasy films seemed to be the cinematic Holy Grail and we couldn't get enough of them. The Noughties was the decade when we realised superheroes films resulted in gold-plated movie franchises with panoply of titles like The X-Men, Spiderman, Batman (rebooted), Iron Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four et al cultivating huge enthusiasm like never before. If you cast your minds back to the 70s, 80s and 90s you'll see that, with the exception of Superman and Batman, no other superhero franchises really took off, although both these franchises also imploded during this time. During the Noughties the track record for superhero movies has been staggering and continues to go from strength to strength. Even the recent franchise revivals of Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes worked successfully due to the fact the protagonists had been refurbished with comic book-type qualities. The Noughties also gave birth to another lucrative fantasy franchise that took off in a massive way. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were fantasy films that revelled in their fantastical worlds of resplendent imagery and magical themes. It's this brand of fantasy franchise that's proved most rewarding for audiences and critics, but not so much for studios attempting to replicate their success. While superhero movies remain potent performers, fantasy films engineered for mass audience consumption have fallen by the wayside. Just look at the shit summer Disney are having with their Sorcerer's Apprentice and Prince of Persia. What's more is neither film was cheap to make. In fact, they were real fucking expensive.

It seems audiences aren't keen on anything Harry Potter-like unless it actually is Harry Potter. Likewise, although Lord of the Rings was a majorly successful movie trilogy, the longer MGM wait to greenlight the HOBBIT the less keen spectators will be to watch the movie as a whole new generation of audiences will be unfamiliar with the brand. Harry Potter sparked dangerous trend and studios have burnt up expensive franchise properties upon release. In Britain, the land of Harry Potter, production companies have got themselves into a real mess trying to ascertain the next commercial fantasy brand that will transform them into uber-producers. Many books have been optioned and none have made it to production, or just died in development. It now seems it'd be wiser not to pursue them as the properties are more of a liability than a golden goose. Working Title's Nanny McPhee is a fantasy brand that's enticed British children but failed to attract American kids. Movies like Five Children and It have also tried to facsimile Harry Potter's formula to no avail. 20th Century Fox launched the disastrously expensive Eragon and Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief to little success. Universal Pictures were hoping their edgier Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant would lay the foundations for a spectacular franchise, as did New Line Cinema with The Golden Compass. They all failed, in the case of the latter the failure was colossal and brought about the end of the studio as a standalone mini-major as it is now simply a production shingle based at Warner Bros.

So what's left for future of twee fantasy fodder films? Harry Potter will grind to a halt next year and it seems the cycle for these types of films will end with it. Warner Bros. UK is developing SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT, but the failures of similar material like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant proves that horror-lite family fantasy films are too unpleasant for youngsters and too infantile for teenagers; ultimately falling in between too many stools. Harry Potter ignited a trend of costly special-effects fuelled fantasy films, of which the Potter franchise was the only true victor. This Christmas will see the release of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER; the third instalment of the series. Once again the Narnia films were seen as an opportunity for Walt Disney studios to have their own fantasy franchise; the difference now being Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be released by Fox as Disney let go of the rights because Prince Caspian failed to cash in on the success of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Will it be third time lucky? Judging by the history of this trend I'd say all bets are off.

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