Are big-budget original films dead?
Has TV become more receptive to trying out original film ideas than movies?
Two weeks ago, Hollywood witnessed the release of one of the biggest self-funded Independent movies of all time. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets directed by Luc Besson of Taken fame was an adaptation of a French sci-fi comic series Valerian and Laureline. It was notable for not being based on any prior franchise but, like many others, was intended to kick-start its own. Despite a huge $177 million budget, an acclaimed director at the helm, and well-known actors in the form of Dane De’Haan and Cara Delevigne, the film gained a middling reception at best and has failed to impress audiences, earning around $64 million so far. From the looks of it, Valerian might go down in history as yet another one of those expensive first entries in what was intended to be a potential franchise moving forward whose plans were derailed by the lackluster performance of its opening film.
The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending released in 2015 is a very similar case although, instead of being an adaptation of some sort, it was an entirely original attempt. The concept was conceived by the film’s directors, who were behind such intriguing science-fiction fare as The Matrix and Bound. That movie starring Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis barely managed to recover its $176 million production budget and, apart from receiving praise for its visuals and originality, ended up being mostly panned by critics and audiences alike. Consequently, all plans of future installments were put on hold.
These are two but many examples of movies that start off with the intention to branch out as franchises, only to have their abysmal first entries throw off their plans entirely. And while one could argue that the reason these movies under-performed was because they were poorly made or because they were genuinely bad, what then do we have to say to the outstanding or at least more than decent grosses of such horribly reviewed movies as Suicide Squad and Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides or even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen the latter two of which made over $1 billion despite being at the receiving end of around as much negative reviews as both of the aforementioned movies?
The one advantage that these poorly reviewed financial successes had over the other movies is that they were based on well-known decades old franchises. Suicide Squad featured some of the most popular villains from DC Comics History including The Joker and Harley Quinn with appearances by Batman and Flash thrown in for good measure. On Stranger Tides was again, the fourth installment in a Disney franchise that featured, well, Jack Sparrow. And Revenge of the Fallen was a franchise based on toys transforming into robots just getting started and audiences had only begun enjoying though with the somewhat comparably poor performance of its latest installment Transformers: The Last Knight, audiences may finally be awakening to what that franchise has come to.
Given these examples then, have we reached an age where its extremely difficult for a new entry to establish a fresh franchise? At first glance, it may seem so with the failures describe above as also several others if you take into account such commercial disappointments as John Carter, The Lone Ranger and 2017’s much anticipated Ghost in the Shell, all movies that could’ve gone on to become franchises but failed to get past that first movie. And yet, on the other side, we consistently have movies like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Thor: The Dark World, Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (or at least The Phantom Menace) and others that have gone on to earn big box-office dollars, criticism notwithstanding.
On closer inspection though, this may not always be the case as has been proven by some movies that are bucking the trend. The Maze Runner is an example of a recent success that stands out on its own, as does The Hunger Games and Twilight franchises. And as a shining example of a franchise-independent movie, Avatar sits there right at the top of the list of highest grossing movies of all time with its gigantic $2.7 billion worldwide box office haul. These movies do not belong to the elite club of Marvel, DC, Disney or Star Wars franchises and have carved on their own niche, although as we move ahead in time, its becoming increasingly difficult for new franchises to stand ground.
An interesting development taking place at the side though is the popularity of TV Shows. It also seems that Television is far more receptive and accepting of new and original ideas than movies, as the success of the shows Westworld, Stranger Things, House of Cards, Narcos and The Crown has proven. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have certainly struck the right chord with a quality-starved audience. Again, there will surely be among this crowd of new shows, those that are backed by the elite club of Hollywood – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and others. But TV is far more brutal and less forgiving to these shows than movies are as is evident by the cancellation of Marvel’s Agent Carter due to low ratings (despite it doing quite well with critics) and Most Wanted (which was cancelled before it even got the chance to air its first episode).
On the whole though, it does look like original movies and franchises are going to have a hard time grabbing attention, at least in cinema. Unless your movie belongs to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Expanded Universe or is a Star Wars, Disney Live-Action remake, James Cameron or Christopher Nolan movie, new franchises are having a hard time as we move ahead. And the proliferation of TV along with the invasion of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video is only going to make things much worse. Regardless though, there will be the occasional exception to the norm and as movie buffs, we can only hope that’s more often the case than not.