Movie franchises can take on own life -- for better or worse

Friday, December 19, 2003

With the arrival in theaters of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the final filmic chapter of the J.R.R. Tolkien saga is a wrap.

Or is it?

If the hobbits and their odd-fellow companions are anything like such successful film franchise figures as James Bond, the Pink Panther, Godzilla, Luke Skywalker, Freddy, Jason and Nick and Nora Charles, we may be seeing more of them on the silver screen.

The first news that the hobbits might not be making their final curtain call this month is somewhat reassuring.

Peter Jackson, the New Zealand-born director who brought "LOTR" to the big screen and made cinema history by filming the three movies simultaneously, has already expressed his desire to film "The Hobbit," Tolkien's prequel to "The Lord of the Rings," with some of the familiar faces.

Given that the first two films of the "Rings" cycle have earned a combined $1.8 billion and won six Oscars, according to an item on, it seems likely that Jackson's "Hobbit" will one day be coming to a theater near you.

What might happen after that gives any film fan -- and "LOTR" purist -- pause.

Will we see "Gimli, Son of Gloin"?

"The Life of Legolas?"

"Galadriel's Girlhood"?

"Gandalf at Wizard School?"

"Lord of the Rings: The Musical"?

Will the absence of Tolkien text detailing his character's back stories be enough to stop a series of "Ring" spinoffs, prequels and sequels?

At the root of the anxiety is the knowledge that the film industry is loath to abandon a franchise with proven earning power. And a literary pedigree is no protection. Consider James Bond. Or "The Thin Man."

A lack of material by the authors who created the characters -- Bond's Ian Fleming, "The Thin Man"'s Dashiell Hammett -- is no impediment where a phalanx of screenwriters might do.

Fleming's Agent 007 survives remarkably well without the author who invented him and his earliest stories. Fleming created the novels or stories that became scripts for the first 16 Bond films. But when Fleming died in 1964, and filmmakers had run through all his material, screenwriters took over. Starting with 1989's "Licence To Kill" through last year's "Die Another Day," screenwriters borrowed Fleming's characters and story formulas and made up the rest. That there are two more Bond pictures in development -- next year's "Everything or Nothing" and 2005's "Bond 21" -- should surprise no one. Nothing succeeds like excess.

Besides surviving Fleming, the Bond franchise has managed the tricky business of changing 007s. Five actors have played the British agent since his screen debut in 1962's "Dr. No," and rumor mills are already speculating about which actor will replace Pierce Brosnan as Bond.

Evidence that movie fans are loyal to the Bond brand and not the actors who play the character is one more reason franchises are irresistible to studios.

Pink Panther fans' devotion will be tested in 2005 when Steve Martin takes up the role of Inspector Clouseau in "The Birth of the Pink Panther." The role was created and immortalized by Peter Sellers in a series of Panther films, and it remains to be seen whether the franchise can live without him.

Nick and Nora Charles were played on the big screen by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but the 1957 television series featured Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk, and the failed 1991 Broadway musical starred Joanna Gleason and Barry Bostwick. Hammett's books were the basis for the early "Thin Man" films, but three of the franchise's five sequels were written without much of his help.

Where there is no literary progenitor, a franchise is in perhaps greater peril of being milked to inconsequence.

"Star Wars," "Godzilla," "Superman," "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween" have all limped on through sometimes embarrassingly bad sequels or remakes.

But a sequel remains catnip to studios because it is as close as any film can be to the elusive "sure thing."

Whether the subject is hobbits or King Kong (a remake of which is the next project for Peter Jackson), the product is known, and the audience is in place. Marketing departments need not worry about introducing the public to 007 or Freddy or a giant ape with anger-management issues.

A franchise film is the equivalent of a McDonald's burger: The customer knows what he or she is going to get. And as with the "LOTR" phenomenon, lines form at the box office in advance. There is a buildup to bolster the all-important first-weekend gross, when a franchise film can charge to the head of the pack with as much surge as Seabiscuit.

When a franchise runs out of juice, as is the sorry case with Freddy Krueger of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and Jason of "Friday the 13th," there is still money to be made. Last summer's "Freddy vs. Jason" combined the franchises, and the film staggered into cinemas to make history as the most shameless attempt at profiteering ever seen on the silver screen.

As The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell noted in his review, "The mildewed, rusted aroma that archaeologists encounter when unearthing a tomb is the same that will hit moviegoers attending 'Freddy vs. Jason,' an idea whose time has come -- and gone."

It is unlikely that Tolkien's hobbits will ever meet Godzilla, but in an environment where films are sometimes the equivalent of formula fast food, you know there is some fool thinking it is a dream match.