LOS ANGELES – Hollywood is banking on the future this summer – and not just a future where Capt. Kirk orders warp speed or Tony Stark builds a better Iron Man outfit.
Though some film franchises seem to live on forever, most come with a shelf life, leaving studios always hunting for new ones.
The new stuff this summer could be a sign of what youll be seeing for years to come if movies such as Brad Pitts zombie fest World War Z, Guillermo del Toros robots-vs.-sea-monsters tale Pacific Rim and Johnny Depps buddy Western The Lone Ranger connect with audiences. Theres also that orphan from Krypton in the latest Superman revival, Man of Steel, who seems ripe for a new franchise in this age of superhero blockbusters.
Introducing a new audience to a new idea about Superman is great and fertile ground, because there is so much to be explored, said Amy Adams, who plays Lois Lane opposite Henry Cavill as Superman in director Zack Snyders Man of Steel. Theres such a rich comic-book history and so many ideas that have not been touched on over the years.
Man of Steel distributor Warner Bros. has had tremendous franchise success with Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, The Dark Knight and The Hangover, whose finale arrives this month.
The studio tried reviving the Krypton kid with Superman Returns in 2006. The movies nearly $400 million worldwide box-office receipts were OK, but in an era of billion-dollar blockbusters, it didnt warrant more of the same with that cast and crew.
As Sony Pictures did with last summers The Amazing Spider-Man, a fresh beginning for that superhero after three smash films, Warner started over on Superman, with no guarantee Man of Steel will do franchise-worthy business.
Superman at least has an audience and track record. Hollywoods bigger risks this summer are costly action spectacles with little or no big-screen history.
Warners Pacific Rim has a visionary creator in filmmaker del Toro (Pans Labyrinth, Hellboy), but he has yet to deliver a monster hit. World War Z has Pitt and is inspired by the best-seller about a global zombie outbreak, but Paramount had to delay it from last year for a month of reshoots that included a new ending. Clayton Moores The Lone Ranger has lived on for half a century in TV reruns, and the new film reunites the crew behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Depp, Disney, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
But the Wild West generally has been on the outs for decades, while fans have to wonder if Depps Tonto, opposite Armie Hammers masked Lone Ranger, is just his latest exercise in costumed weirdness.
Audiences bought Depps Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter; they didnt buy his bizarre vampire in last summers dud Dark Shadows.
This has been a big, expensive Western, and if it doesnt do well, its probably going to be one of the nails in the coffin of big, expensive Westerns, said Hammer, best known for a dual role as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Yet Depp, Verbinski and Bruckheimer are like a franchise factory. They know what sells popcorn. They know how to put asses in the seats.
The thing thats always lacking with new ideas, no matter how big the stars, is audience goodwill for what came before. Robert Downey Jr. was a huge question mark with 2008s Iron Man. Last weeks Iron Man 3 is almost a guaranteed good time after what hes delivered before.
J.J. Abrams take on Star Trek was a gamble in 2009. His sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, is hotly awaited after the first one took off.
Starting something new, youre taking a huge risk, World War Z director Marc Forster said. When you have a built-in audience, you can take bigger risks knowing it worked before. Thats not a guarantee its going to work again, but doing something more original I find more exciting and interesting.
Audiences werent excited by most of the new worlds they saw last summer. The 2012 record box-office year faltered during its busy season, when franchises such as The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises soared, but newcomers such as Battleship and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter flopped.
This summers newbies have promise – on paper, at least. Among them: Will Smiths sci-fi adventure After Earth; Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxxs terrorist tale White House Down; Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds back-from-the-dead cop story R.I.P.D.; and Matt Damons futuristic thriller Elysium.
Elysium writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who scored a summer 2009 hit with District 9, said hes not set against the franchise business but that he prefers developing original ideas.
From my perspective, the only reason that those kinds of decisions get made is really just a fiscal reason. How do we as a publicly held company get money this year? Well, lets make films we know are going to generate profits, because audiences like them and we can make sequels, Blomkamp said. Thats not always the best place to start off if you want to make something newer or a little different. I want to see new stuff. I want to make new stuff.
White House Down director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) has never been big on franchises, either, though hes developing ideas for follow-ups to his 1996 blockbuster Independence Day.
Working in this town for 22 years, I can see how the whole business is more and more determined by franchises. I know why. That kind of marketing and just making the films is so expensive, what youre buying yourself is already a known name that also already has fans, Emmerich said.
There are some crazy people out there like me who try to do original movies. There are some terrific sequels, but most of the time, its more of the same.
Among the summer sequels and prequels (The Wolverine, Fast & Furious 6, Grown Ups 2, Monsters University, Despicable Me 2 and The Smurfs 2) and newcomers that include the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy The Internship, the Seth Rogen-James Franco apocalypse spoof This Is the End, and the cartoon tales Epic, Turbo and Planes.
Who knows which ones will connect with crowds and return with a 2 or a 3 after their titles years down the road?
Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann at least can make a pledge about his summer offering.
I can pretty much tell you theres not going to be a Great Gatsby 2, Luhrmann said of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgeralds classic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire.