There’s little question that franchise films are big, big business – of the top ten worldwide earners (according to BoxOfficeMojo’s chart), a staggering nine of those films are part of a franchise (“Avatar,” the biggest film at the worldwide box office, may not actually have a sequel just yet, but director James Cameron has been very vocal about his plans for a slew of new features that take place in the “Avatar” universe, and even without its inclusion, that’s still plenty of franchise entries dominating the Hollywood dollar). But just because a film is part of a blockbuster franchise doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be any good, nor does it necessarily come with the cha-ching noise that signals both money and old-timey cash registers (we miss you, old-timey cash registers).
While there may be no infallible secret to infusing even the most bloated franchises with spark, spunk, and lasting power, there is one route that has shown some major promise for a number of series that should have been snuffed out long ago.
This week’s new opener, “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” continues the found footage horror franchise’s evolution into something much bigger than the original film. Oren Peli’s 2009 smash hit was also a surprise hit – a low budget found footage film that screened at various small film festivals that eventually made nearly $200 million at the worldwide box office and has so far spawned four sequels (with yet another on the way). Bolstered by the power of distributor Paramount Pictures (and, in turn, Paramount’s wily marketing campaign that focused on showing terrified audience members experiencing the film in the theater), the unlikely blockbuster has now evolved into something that consistently pull in big bucks from a dedicated fanbase, while also moving along a widening story and a vastly expanding mythology.
The “Paranormal Activity” series shows no signs of stopping (even after “Paranormal Activity 5” was delayed a year, robbing fans of its now-standard Halloween-friendly release date), and “The Marked Ones” is set to not only continue the franchise’s expansion, but to do it with an eye to folding in new genre elements (more emphasis on religion!) and a vested interest in attracting new demographics (specifically Latino Americans). (It’s interesting to note that the franchise has previously drifted into other demographics, thanks to an unofficial 2010 Japanese sequel directed by Toshikauzu Nagae, “Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night,” that cribbed from the action of the first film while also injecting some new mythology to the series. That film, however, isn’t considered a canonical entry in the series.
“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is the first “Paranormal Activity” film to principally focus on characters who are not somehow part of the cursed family of Katie and Kristi (though, yes, the duo do pop in the film, and that’s as far as we’ll go with that). Instead, Christopher Landon’s film approaches the mythology from the angle of outsiders – young Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), who is “marked” by nefarious forces, and his gaggle of friends and family who try to save him from the apparent dark side (or at least dark magic). Instead of setting the film within just one home and with one family, Landon’s film centers on mainly on teenage friends (Jesse and his pals) and moves them out in the world (yes, we’re all sick of seeing “surveillance” footage from within a house, and here’s hoping that “The Marked Ones” is successful enough that the entire franchise kicks the habit).
Recently, the “Fast and Furious” franchise similarly shifted gears, moving away from the car races and crime recipe that drove its first four entries and into the world of heist movies (yes, the series is still kitted out with flashy cars and big crimes, but the “Fast” crew gets to use their skills for better, or at least more interesting use). 2011’s “Fast Five” was a new high point for the series, with the gang tackling crooked cops (and a big ol’ safe) in Rio de Janiero, subsequently pulling in over $626 million at the worldwide box office, a number that was only surpassed by its follow-up, last year’s “Fast & Furious 6,” which made over $788 million (and which also focused on a heist that made the crew seem like the good guys).
Critical reception of the “Fast” films has also gone up as the franchise has evolved both in terms of genre and mythology, as the first film sits at a low 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with subsequent features like “The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift” ringing in at 36%, “Fast & Furious” at 27%, and “2 Fast 2 Furious” holding at 36%. Both “Fast Five” and “Fast & Furious 6,” however, are considered fresh (with a 77% rating and a 70% rating, respectively).
Yet, critical praise for the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has vacillated over the years and throughout its evolution as a series, and its highest rating entry is the still the first film, which has a strong 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (the only other film in the franchise to not be socked with a Rotten is the third film, which has a 68% rating). But the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has still pulled in a cool $720 million at the worldwide box office, and early reports as to the quality of “The Marked Ones” (plus a release date that sets it as the lone new wide release this week) should push both its financial take and its Rotten Tomatoes score up still higher. Audiences are showing up, and they are showing up for something different.
Is tweaking a franchise’s formula the new key to resilience, respect, and success? It just might be – and for the sake of keeping things fresh and creative, it’s worth aiming for.
For franchises that aren’t pulling directly from hard and fast source material (think “The Twilight Saga,” the “Harry Potter” series, or Peter Jackson’s take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s books), there is tremendous flexibility to be had when making new films, and that’s what creatives should be capitalizing on. Plenty of franchises are sticking to old tricks as of late – series like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” line, “Indiana Jones,” “Die Hard,” and “Meet the Parents” have all but refused to change their formulas over the years – but while they pull in the big bucks, their critical reception has gone down. Audience members, it seems, aren’t so interested in sticking around for nostalgia, but they are interested in seeing something new injected into a beloved property.
Elsewhere, other franchises have made changes to freshen their approaches in a variety of ways. “The Bourne Identity” picked up a new lead to continue a franchise that former star Matt Damon didn’t want to return to, and even Michael Bay is resurrecting his cash cow “Transformers” series with a brand new cast. The ever-popular “X-Men” series went back in time to explore roots and relationships, a plan that worked out well enough that the next film in the series, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” is set to combine both “present” and “past” storylines in one big jamboree. “Men in Black” also went backwards in its timeline with its last film, a move that was stylistically fun and ripe for Josh Brolin’s hilarious Tommy Lee Jones impersonation. J.J. Abrams’ spin on “Star Trek” went so far as to rewrite canonical history with a new timeline, and even though “Star Trek Into Darkness” didn’t spawn the lovefest the first film did, the franchise is still chugging along.
With the glut of franchise films hitting the box office in the coming months (as of now, we’ll see at least dozen of them in 2014, most of them high profile), it’s more important than ever for creatives and studios to find a way to make their film stand out (in order to, you know, make money) and for audiences to have something fresh to enjoy (so they can actually enjoy it), and mixing up franchise and genre ingredients just might be the best recipe.