Each month brings a fresh headline containing Hollywood's favourite new buzzphrase, "franchise fatigue." As big-budget sequels from The Mummy to Transformers: The Last Knight stutter to a halt, the consensus reached by news coverage suggests a collective, audible yawn from audiences, as they grow weary and tired of recycled and repackaged films. But is franchise fatigue really a pressing issue for movie studios to address, or is it nothing more than a buzzphrase, a product of anti-franchise bias?
The full story of #boxoffice trends is complex and impossible to define in two words alone (lucky for you, this article has almost one-hundred times more). There are a whole host of factors in play: domestic performance, international success, profits made in comparison to the film's budget, marketing costs... it's dizzying, isn't it? In an attempt to find answers and quash the vertigo, I spoke to Doug Stone from Box Office Analyst, who has jumped headfirst into the ocean of numbers to make sense of it all.
Before we share Doug's findings, it's worth exploring why the term has surfaced in the first place. A significant majority of the top-grossing movies in recent years were created from the foundation of an already-existing concept or shared universe, and while sequels and reboots have been a part of Hollywood for years, franchises have elbowed their way to the front of the blockbuster queue, and stubbornly dug their heels into the ground. Their consistent rise in popularity has been helped by the boom of comic book adaptations and the super-profit serum of the MCU, which has made Disney almost $12 billion from 15 movies since 2008.
More and more, studios have looked to tentpole franchises as a safe bet to return a hefty sum on a hefty budget, with emphasis on expensive spectacles over original screenplays. Last year, analyst Doug Creutz produced a report highlighting the "increasingly dire" state of the film industry, as big studios hone in on producing fewer, but more costly, productions. His findings revealed a funnelling of profit to a small number of hugely successful blockbusters — in 2015, 25 per cent of the total box office came from five films, compared to an average of 16 per cent between 2001 and 2014.
Looking at the list of top-performing films from 2015, it's clear to see franchises were responsible for the skewed distribution. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Pitch Perfect 2 and Cinderella were all in the top 10. Inside Out, Minions and The Martian were non-franchise exceptions. Consequently, studios placed faith in the bankability of franchises. As well as being profitable, they are relatively easy to green-light and — at least up to a few years ago — performed well despite bad reviews.
In 2017 Dead Franchises Tell The Tale
This year, that has changed — at least domestically. Pirates of the Caribbean and #Transformers have consistently grossed high amounts at the box office in defiance of poor critical response. However, in 2017, both have faltered: Dead Men Tell No Tales had the franchise's second worst opening of $62.98 million, and its domestic total of $165.47 million is the worst ever, trailing On Stranger Tides by almost $100 million in North America. Transformers: The Last Knight also bombed, making just $44.68 million in its opening weekend, the lowest ever for the franchise and way behind the $70.5 million opening of 2007's Transformers.
Although those two stand out as big-budget flops, there have been a host of underwhelming sequels in 2017: Alien: Covenant, The Mummy, Baywatch, Fifty Shades Darker, The Fate of the Furious, Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3 all either performed well below expectations or earned less than a previous installment in the franchise. The numbers aren't exactly awful for many of those mentioned, but the consistent decline suggests this is a trend that'll only increase, giving studios cause to fight to keep the interest and attendance of North American audiences.
This shift in the numbers indicates that big-budget franchises no longer have a guarantee of performing well regardless of quality. "I believe in franchise fatigue in a sense," Doug says, highlighting that if one film in the series is poorly received, the next addition may struggle to remove the audience-zapping residue of criticism. But that's not to say it's game over if one chapter underperforms: "One must remember that when a subsequent installment of a film exceeds expectations, the franchise gets re-energized," Doug added.
Doug's study highlights another interesting trend; franchises with a finite ending in place follow a different pattern than series without a predestined conclusion (such as Fast and the Furious, Mission Impossible or Transformers). Doug cites The Hunger Games and Twilight as examples, both of which split their concluding segments into two parts. "Harry Potter can be assigned to that same category and we see the same surge toward the end of the series," Doug says, "the finality of the franchise seems to — as long as the films are good — be an antidote against fatigue."
There's also another anomaly, a franchise that is "incredibly resilient," never shaken or stirred. That's Bond, James Bond. "There the infusion of new blood seems to have kept it in the public 'cool' zone for seemingly forever," Doug says. His research also highlights the importance of keeping things fresh, a facet of which Bond's rotation could be a winning attribute, adding: "The emergence of Daniel Craig as arguably the best or second best Bond has helped maintain success." Although Craig often vocalizes his personal fatigue with 007, clearly audiences don't agree.
The Growing Influence Of Review Aggregators
Recent Bond films, Hunger Games and Harry Potter have all been well received by critics. Twilight wasn't, but still performed extremely well at the box office. It's unlikely that without critical acclaim from the off, the vampire saga would have the same multi-billion-dollar success in today's market, and that's all thanks to Rotten Tomatoes. The review aggregator has been upsetting some big players in the film industry, with many bemoaning its increasing influence on audience turnout, its ability to essentially decide a film's fate, hit or miss.
Further still, a 2015 study commissioned by 20th Century Fox identified that "the power of Rotten Tomatoes and fast-breaking word of mouth will only get stronger," highlighting the website as a powerful tool in influencing the decision making process of millennials. While it's clear the devout reliance on the wisdom of the internet and an increase in ticket prices means Rotten Tomatoes has more of an influence on audience attendance, they aren't the most accurate site: "Flixster ratings are the most predictive of long playoff for a film. Better than Cinemascore, IMDB or Metacritic," Doug explained.
This all applies to North America, though. Cast the net a little wider, and the franchise fatigue story becomes even more interesting. Many of the underperforming franchises listed above became hugely profitable at the international box office. This year alone, a number of domestic "flops" have earned sweet numbers away from home, providing a saving grace for big-budget productions, and increasing the significance of marketing a film's release away from home soil. Examples include:
- The Mummy: 78 per cent of its worldwide total of $349.8 million from foreign markets, including $89.4 million from China alone. As a result, the film had the most profitable opening of Tom Cruise's career, although it is still expected to lose $95 million.
- Transformers: The Last Knight: At the time of writing, Michael Bay's blockbuster has made $329.6 million in foreign markets ($147.6m in China, although it saw a 75 per cent drop-off rate in week two), compared to $102.1 million domestically.
- Fate of the Furious: Made a huge $1.24 billion, but only 18.2 per cent ($225.5 million) was made in North America.
Fatigue Or No Fatigue, Quality Prevails
Although much of the focus to this point has been highlighting the argument for franchise fatigue, there are notable exceptions where the Rotten Tomatoes effect is positive. If sequels are reviewed well, they also perform well. This year, Hugh Jackman's last appearance as Wolverine in the acclaimed R-rated superhero hit, Logan, earned $226.3 million domestically; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (admittedly a part of the juggernaut #MCU) earned $383.4 million in North America — $50 million more than the first; and the top grossing film of this year is the remake of Beauty and the Beast, with a domestic total of $503.9 million.
So, it's safe to say franchises have lost their impenetrable profit-armour, and are no longer a safe bet for studios to churn out for guaranteed cash. But poor performance aren't down to so-called franchise fatigue. Instead, domestic audiences appear to be choosing films based on quality, not brand: "If as in the Transformers saga, you simply get more of the same with louder explosions and incomprehensible plot lines things spiral downward, at least in North America," says Doug, suggesting the paradox of choice thanks to the streaming revolution, which is giving consumers more control over viewing habits.
For studios, the resolution is simple. "If the franchise is kept fresh with new material, updated engaging stories, and attractive casts, the fatigue factor dwindles sometimes to nothing," Doug says, confirming that audiences are being more selective when deciding what to watch. But, a good film is a good film, and will perform well if it captures the imagination of the masses, franchise or not. The smart money is on Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes following this trend, and making millions.
Of course, there are those who are jaded and feel franchises definitely aren't the way forward, they believe Hollywood should be more original, that film series such as Transformers should have passed their sell-by-date already and please-pretty-please let there be another quirky, unexpected blockbuster like Forrest Gump. If you're in that group (spoilers: I am), Doug has a yawn-inducing, sleep-tempting message: "Don't assume that Transformers 5 will be the last."
Are you yawning at franchises, or eager for more? Do you use Rotten Tomatoes of Flixster to decide whether to watch a film? Let us know below!
(Source: Box Office Mojo)