May 22, 2014


Every summer, the movie studios release what they call "tentpole" movies. Normally, these are big-budget, effects-driven franchise movies, designed to prop up the studios and make them their profits for the year. I call them programmed franchises because they're not acquired with one movie in mind. The philosophy from the start is to produce at least a trilogy.

So much money is invested in these movies that failure can cripple a studio.

Trivia Blast!! - New Line Cinema had to merge with its parent company Warner Bros after the (relative) failure of The Golden Compass: 

Budget: $180M 
Box Office: $70M

(The Golden Compass was intended to follow the trilogy of His Dark Materials books by Phillip Pullman)

Stephen Spielberg is sometimes credited with creating the first summer "Blockbuster" movie with JawsJaws was the first movie to be distributed with a "wide release," meaning that it opened all across the country on the same day, something that is par for the course nowadays. Consequently, it muscled out all the competition and held onto the number one spot for weeks. It was also the first movie to pass $100M in box office receipts. It finished with $470M.

Jaws spawned 3 sequels of ever-increasing awfulness, since the concept was not really designed as a franchise in the first place. Jaws remained the biggest movie of all time until a little picture called Star Wars was released two years later.

Star Wars


Star Wars, at least in George Lucas's mind, was always meant to be the first of several movies. In a salute to the old serials of the past, he even called it Episode IV: A New Hope. The movie studios were wary of the project until they saw a line of people wrapped around the outside of theaters waiting to see it. Lucas was also savvy enough to realize the potential in merchandising his creation. Seeing the colossal box office and the huge demand for action figures and posters, movie studios forever decided that the summer would be blockbuster movie time.

Trivia Blast!! - Star Wars made Harrison Ford into a huge box office star, but his relationship with George Lucas began four years earlier. Ford taught himself to be a carpenter to support his acting career, and, after building some cabinets in Lucas' home, he was cast in a supporting role in American Graffiti.

Billion Dollar Movies

Titanic was the first movie to break the billion-dollar barrier in worldwide box office. After that, only 3 of the next seventeen movies to pass the mark were NOT part of a franchise. All 3 have planned or rumored sequels, however, which would leave Titanic as the only non-franchise movie to pass $1 billion.

Movie studios, hunting for marketable franchises, looked to successful book series: Harry Potter (8 movies), The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hunger Games (2 so far), Twilight (5 movies), and The Hobbit (3 movies)…

...a new batch of fun and beautifully made animated movies: Toy Story (3 movies), Ice Age (4 movies) and Shrek (5 movies including Puss in Boots)…

...and rebooted older franchises: Star Wars (3 prequels with new sequels announced), Star Trek (2 new movies), Planet of the Apes (2 new movies) and James Bond (3 Daniel Craig movies).

Trivia Blast!! - Disney increased its punching power during the summer months by acquiring Pixar for $7.4 billion, Marvel for $4 billion and Lucasfilm for $4 billion. 

Birth of the Mega-Franchise

Comic books have long provided cinema with some notable heroes, like DC Comics's Superman and Batman. These two characters have appeared in thirteen movies (so far) since 1978, netting DC's parent company, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., somewhere in the region of $6 billion.

Marvel comics (DC's biggest rival) have many familiar faces too, but financial problems meant they were unable to produce their own movies without other studios’ assistance. In an attempt to cash in on their creations, Marvel sold the movie rights to many of their top tier superheroes to different studios. Sony secured arguably the biggest name in Spider-Man, while Fox snatched up The Fantastic Four and The X-Men (with Wolverine). (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Elektra and The Punisher were also dealt away).

Marvel eventually got back on its feet and launched its own studio. Without their A-List heroes, it had to risk everything on a character called Iron Man. The result propelled Robert Downey, Jr., to the top of the A-List, and Marvel were now a force to be reckoned with.

Marvel had a plan from the start, and it all hinged on Iron Man making a profit. Two further franchises were launched (Thor and Captain America), interlocking the characters and working towards one big story. This culminated in The Avengers, which is part of a trilogy of movies: a megafranchise!

Trivia Blast!! - Nine movies make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe Megafranchise, so far. Making almost $6.5 billion in a short six-year span, it is now the second most successful franchise in movie history. Harry Potter holds onto the #1 spot ($7.7 billion).

DC Comics is now producing a Superman movie that is intended to be the stepping stone towards a Justice League movie.

The Future

As the comic-book well dries up, studios will return to literature and revisiting past glories to bring the summer slate together.

Sadly, these blockbuster movies eat up theater screens, so that means there is a smaller selection of films to choose from – more money tied up in fewer films. The pressure on the studios to generate consistent money-making hits will increase until, like everything else, the bubble will burst. As in other times, failure could end a movie studio and then the whole industry will have to reassess to move forward. I wonder what type of movies we'll get then?

Trivia Blast!! - Despite appearing in a slew of successful movies between them, Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie have had their biggest box office successes as voice actors in animated movies (Toy Story and Kung Fu Panda).


May 17, 2014

Milking The Movie Cash Cow

In recent years, yearning for a bigger slice of the money pie, movie studios have poured more resources into fewer films.

Trivia Blast! - In 2012, 135 films made up 95% of the total Box Office in the United States.

So, despite a huge increase in accessibility for fans (more theaters, online vendors), fear of losing profit dictates the movie slate and opportunities are dwindling to get an original idea made into a movie.


Franchises are nothing new. When a studio hits on a money-making idea, they are not shy about green-lighting a sequel almost immediately.

Generally, there are two types of franchise: "programmed" and "opportunistic". A programmed franchise example would be Harry Potter - a successful line of books purchased with the intent to make the entire series. Of course, if the first of these movies tanks, or even if it struggles later in the series, the franchise can be quietly buried and forgotten. (see: John Carter or The Lone Ranger)

I will talk more about these in a later post. Here though, I'm going to talk more about the "opportunistic" franchise.

Cash Cow

Trivia Blast! - Movie theaters in the US draw more people than all the theme parks and major sports (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA) COMBINED!

There is always a glint in a movie producer's eyes when they can lure a big (or upcoming) movie star into a movie specifically designed to their perceived strengths (see: Beverly Hills Cop). If the first one works, it will spawn as many sequels as can be milked from the idea. Often the sequels fail because they are too repetitive and stale. (see: Beverly Hills Cop 2 & 3)

The most extreme version of the opportunistic franchise is when a movie is assembled with familiar, but not A-List, stars in a movie that is expected to make a decent profit and the movie then goes on to blow away the box office. Now the movie studios have something unexpected and they need to cash in...immediately.

Unfortunately, fresh ideas are less important than quick turnaround and so you end up with movies like... 

The Hangover

Made for around $35M, The Hangover was a silly, outrageous comedy and a surprise hit around the world. It pulled in almost $470M in worldwide box office. A sequel was quickly announced and released two years later. Hangover 2 was basically a carbon copy of the first, but this time the studio spent more money making it. It raked in $586M so part 3 was inevitable. Hangover 3 had a budget of $103M and despite making over $360M around the world, it was clear the well was drying up.

The Hangover is considered a successful franchise ($1.4 billion in worldwide box office), but it only contains one movie that the IMDB users rate above a 7/10

So what...?

I'd like to be clear that I'm not against taking a good movie and creating a sequel IF there are more stories to tell. I will happily fork over my cash to watch them.

However, turning one small idea into a trilogy, or more (yes, I'm looking at you Friday the 13th), is taking money and opportunity away from a broader range of films. If the choice is to pour $100 million into 4 or 5 new ideas or to squeeze out another Hangover, the studio will pick the Hangover every time.

Trivia Blast! - 18 movies have passed the $1 billion mark in the worldwide box office. Only 4 of them are stand alone movies: Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, Titanic and Avatar. However, three sequels have been announced for Avatar and rumors continue to circulate that there will be a Frozen sequel.

Open Big

It's important to have a big first weekend too. To make that happen you have to advertise and the more you advertise the more chance there is for having the big opening. And it has to be the first week because the next big franchise will hit the week after...and so on.

So, originality takes a back seat to...profit. And while the studios would have us believe they're giving the audience what they demand, they're not. They're cashing in on the goodwill created by the first movie of the series and cynically exploiting it.

Trivia Blast! - Only 4 of the Billion Dollar movies make it into IMDB's top 100 best rated movies: Toy Story 3 (65th), The Dark Knight Rises (50th), Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (9th) & The Dark Knight (4th)!

How many of your favorite movies are sequels, reboots or part of a series?

Next time, I will discuss the programmed franchises and the creation of new Super-Franchises!

Trivia blast information taken from MPAA 2012 Theatrical Market Statistics Report & MPAA 2013 Theatrical Market Statistics Report & All Time Worldwide Box Office & IMDB Top 250 Movies

May 8, 2014

Hold the mirror up to nature.

" hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." - Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2

Why am I quoting Shakespeare? Well, I think as writers we would be remiss if we didn't take every opportunity to hold our mirror up to nature. Our characters should not only reflect aspects of our own inner lives, but readers should be able to look and see something of themselves in them too. Writers must weave their tales with effective literary devices: metaphor, simile, allegory, analogy, imagery, and mood, painting a picture with depth. And even when the stories are set in distant futures or long forgotten pasts, the reflection in the mirror is something the reader recognizes instantly. 

Recently, I read “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman.

A classic of sci-fi storytelling, it follows one soldier’s journey from the first battle of a long war, all the way to the last. Time dilation and the massive distances involved mean the main character experiences four subjective years of military service while centuries pass back on Earth.

And, although the main thread of the story is about a very long war between Earth and an alien race, Haldeman is holding up his mirror to show the futility of ALL wars. The Forever War was written as an allegory of the Vietnam War, but it’s as relevant today as it was in the seventies when it was released. 

Even the title, is more than meets the eye. Why, if the war did not last ‘forever’, is it called The Forever War?

This is just one example. Write your stories and be true to the world you create. Hold up the mirror and then trust the reader.