As we mentioned, nine of the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2019 are franchise movies. Though Men In Black: International and X-Men: Dark Phoenix flopped, franchises as a whole are still succeeding—in fact, they’re really the only movies succeeding. Most likely, those films flopped because they were just bad, uninspired, marketed poorly, and audiences are tired of those specific stories.

But therein lies the danger. There is enough box office smoke to assume there may about to be a fire, and that studios can’t count on their existing franchises to continue forever. And even without a full-on fire, smoke can still be very detrimental! More and more franchises are going the way of X-Men, and the overall global box office has suffered. The film industry has barely grown in 30 years—the population is now more than 25% larger than it was back then, but Hollywood is somehow selling fewer tickets.

The only things propping the entire industry up are those few tent-poles we discussed earlier—and many of those are ending or transforming. So franchise fatigue might not be nearly as dire as the internet would have you believe, but Hollywood isn’t in a position of strength right now, and it needs to rethink what franchise movies even mean in order to survive the next 10-20 years. Here are some of the ways they’re doing that right now:

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“Franchises” aren’t just film series anymore

Historically, a movie franchise has always meant a series of films connected by a story, characters, or setting—or at least one marketed as such. And that’s how things have changed in the last five years: Studios are beginning to market films as parts of a greater “franchise,” even if they’re not literally contained within a cinematic universe.

People as franchises

Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele
Image: Rich Fury/Invision/AP

Take Jordan Peele, for instance. After his stunning directorial debut, Get Out, Universal (with which Peele has a production deal) put his name at the top of all advertisements for his following film, Us. The story was totally different, but the brand—Peele—was the same. Get Out and Us might not share any characters or plot, but they share a filmmaker, and that’s the intended draw for audiences. The official poster for the film read, “A new nightmare from the mind of Academy Award-winner Jordan Peele,” which implies the two films—and all subsequent films Universal produces with Peele—are deeply linked by the mind of their creator.

Peele’s brand has extended to television too, where CBS has made him the central figure of its Twilight Zone reboot, even though the filmmaker is only a producer and narrator and didn’t actually direct any episodes. Peele is a franchise of sorts, and a lucrative one at that. His first two films have combined to gross more than $500 million on budgets of $5 and $20 million, respectively. That’s an infinitely better return on investment than that of the vast majority of traditional franchise series films.

Of course, this concept isn’t drastically new. Quentin Tarantino has been marketing his films as parts of his own brand (he even obnoxiously numbers each one within his filmography) for decades. But we’re seeing it more and more as studios realize they can draw people to theaters if they go all-in on the merits of a particularly famous or well-liked filmmaker, instead of trying to convince people to see yet another iteration of a story they’ve already seen a million times already. Warner Bros., for instance, markets every original Christopher Nolan film as its own gigantic movie event. They’d be silly not to, given Nolan’s global appeal.

All of Ava DuVernay’s projects across film and TV really lean into the fact that she is involved in them. Warner Bros. recently gave her a $100 million deal, not long after Netflix shelled out heaps of cash for the exclusive rights to new content from super-producers Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. Notice something about a lot of these people? They don’t necessarily look like the people that Hollywood has historically canonized. The film industry is, bit by bit, beginning to invest in diversity—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s great business.

Aesthetic as franchise

“The Farewell”
“The Farewell”
Image: A24

What do Moonlight, Lady Bird, Ex Machina, The Florida Project, The Witch, and Eighth Grade all have in common—besides being critically acclaimed? Cinephiles should know that answer: They were all distributed by indie film company A24. In its seven-year history, A24 has produced nearly 90 films, and none of them sequels, spinoffs, or reboots. Its most recent film, The Farewell, boasts a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

These films don’t share any characters, plots, settings. They don’t even really share many ideas at all. But they all share that A24 aesthetic—an obvious value of the original, the bold, and the diverse. None of these stories are exactly like the other, and that’s what makes them A24 films. The company’s commitment to that vision has helped it earn 25 Oscar nominations already.

To advertise Moonlight and Lady Bird as part of a film franchise would be totally weird, of course. But A24 does make sure potential viewers know when they’re seeing one of its films. That’s why they flash the A24 logo at the beginning of every trailer, always before the director’s name. When viewers see that, they know what they’re getting. Most other studios don’t do that, because their logos are meaningless to the average consumer. As iconic as it is, what would flashing Paramount’s mountain logo before a trailer do for anyone? Let them know they’re about to watch…a film? They already knew that.

Paramount has no brand. A24, on the other hand, as an indie company that isn’t beholden to the same economic pressures, can act as a curator—almost like the film industry’s version of an HBO. If A24 makes a film, it’s more often than not worth watching. The company has branded itself spectacularly, and we may see companies new and old try to do the same as they tackle the next stage of what it means to create a film franchise.

Studios are creating franchises from new types of IP

A quick browse of the timeline above tells you all you need to know about how Hollywood has traditionally come up with the ideas for its franchises: books turn into movies, and then eventually movies turn into other movies. And the cycle never ends. Truly original cinematic IP based on no existing source material, like Star Wars, for instance, have been exceedingly rare throughout history. (Okay, okay, Star Wars was very clearly inspired by other space operas like Flash Gordon and Dune—but it wasn’t explicitly based on them either.)

Because the studios are still scared to risk big investments on completely original ideas, they need to get their inspiration from somewhere other than just books and other movies. So where are they looking?

Video games

“The Division.”
“The Division.”
Image: Ubisoft

Movie series based on video games have already proven to be largely unsuccessful—though it hasn’t stopped Hollywood from coming up with new ways to capitalize on the popularity of gaming. Netflix is set to release The Division, based on an Ubisoft post-apocalyptic game of the same name that will star A-list stars Jessica Chastain and Jake Gyllenhaal. Fighting series Mortal Kombat is getting rebooted as a film series again, but this time with all the R-rated gore that made the game famous. Adaptations of popular game franchises Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid are also in the works.

And, for some unearthly reason, producers in the US and China are jointly developing a film trilogy based on Tetris—you know, that classic arcade game with the blocks. That something like Tetris is even on the table speaks to how desperate the industry has become in adapting thus-far unadapted intellectual property, even when video games have long been difficult to translate to the big screen.

One that could provide a glimmer of hope is Myst, the popular action puzzle series with a sweeping mythology that is just weird enough that it could work as a cinematic universe. Produced by Hollywood co-financier company Village Roadshow (previous projects include Mad Max: Fury Road, Ready Player One, and the Ghostbusters reboot), Myst falls under the CEO’s new mandate to make Roadshow a “broad-spectrum content creator” that develops projects across several platforms, according to the Hollywood Reporter.


“Tales from the Loop.”
“Tales from the Loop.”
Image: Amazon Studios/Simon Stålenhag

Amazon Studios is developing a TV series based on the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. Laugh if you want, but his work is quite fascinating, blending idyllic Scandinavian landscapes with alien technology. It very well could be a disaster, but at least adapting a series of paintings requires some creativity on the part of the writers and producers. It could, perhaps, lead to a new boom of art-inspired TV and cinema.


Image: Mattel

Sony Pictures is rebooting the Masters of the Universe series, based on the Mattel toy line of the same name. Young American heartthrob Noah Centineo will play He-Man, a human with super-strength who does battle with the evil Skeletor. The toys were first adapted into a movie in 1987, when Dolph Lundgren played He-Man opposite Frank Langella as Skeletor. That movie was both a critical and commercial failure, but Sony believes that enough time has passed to try again.

Dungeons & Dragons, Monopoly, Magic: The Gathering, and, (*deep sigh*) Play-Doh all have Hollywood adaptations in the works as well. Toys are among the most nostalgic things people own, and if we know anything about Hollywood, it’s that tapping into your childlike sense of wonder is a major priority.


Rihanna and Lupita Nyong'o at an event
Rejoice, internet.
Image: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

The above photo of pop star Rihanna and Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o was snapped by Getty photographer Pascal Le Segretain at the Miu Miu fashion show in 2014. Perhaps because of the celebrities’ outfits—or more likely the unassailable fact that they look like two undercover spies—the photo quickly became a meme on Tumblr before moving to Twitter, where users imagined it could be a scene from a Hollywood heist movie.

And now it will be. Netflix won an aggressive bidding war for the rights to a film project based on the photo. It gets crazier: Selma director Ava DuVernay is attached to helm the project while Issa Rae, co-creator and star of HBO’s Insecure, will write the script.

This meme movie exists at the intersection of several ongoing Hollywood narratives: thinking outside-the-box about where stories can come from, but also the new interest in diversity and the theory that the prestige of specific filmmakers (like DuVernay) can be leveraged into launching a new film franchise. We’ll know if this recipe hits the mark if there’s a sequel to…whatever this movie ends up being called.

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The next big film franchises

With Star Wars, Avengers, Game of Thrones, and other huge franchises ending or changing, there’s an opening for new franchises to take over. Here are the most likely candidates:

Avatar (Disney)

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Image: Disney

Dune (Warner Bros.)

dune novels
A lot of responsibility.
Image: Flickr/Maria Morri

PokemonVerse (Warner Bros.)

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Image: Warner Bros.

A Quiet Place (Paramount)

Image: Paramount Pictures

Uncharted (Sony)

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Image: Naughty Dog

MonsterVerse (Warner Bros.)

Image for article titled It’s time to reboot the Hollywood movie franchise
Image: Warner Bros.

If most of these films have one thing in common, it’s that audiences are already generally aware of the brands. People know Pokemon, they know Godzilla, they know Dune—or have at least heard of it, even if they haven’t read it. All gamers know Uncharted.

Avatar is a strange case, because when the first movie came out, it was a completely original world. But ten years later, it feels like a large franchise people are familiar with even though it’s only spawned a single movie. If Avatar 2 is a success, James Cameron will prove that it is still possible to create huge new brands from scratch—all it takes is a long, long time and lots of money to pull it off.

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