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Hollywood hopes Twilight, other tentpole franchises will prop up industry

Published November 14, 2012 2:06 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

'Skyfall" is racking up the most impressive ticket sales in the 50-year history of the James Bond movie franchise.

The fifth and final Twilight film, "Breaking Dawn - Part 2," opens Friday and is expected to leave Twihards worldwide another $700 million poorer and with no more excuses to camp out at L.A. Live.

Next month, we'll see the first of three — three! — feature films Peter Jackson made from J.R.R. Tolkien's one — one! — fantasy novel, "The Hobbit."

And the Walt Disney Co. just spent more than $4 billion to acquire Lucasfilm Ltd., primarily for the privilege of reviving George Lucas' previously presumed played-out "Star Wars" cycle for the big screen.

These disparate examples of what Hollywood calls tentpole franchises are, more and more, what keep the movie business in business. Hugely popular series, now largely based on material that first hit in another medium, have become increasingly vital to the bottom lines of both modest and major studios ever since Lucas unleashed his first space opera in 1977.

But while some series — the Daniel Craig-starring Bonds, most adaptations of young adult novels, seemingly any Marvel Comics superhero — appear extraordinarily robust at the moment, other sources — older sci fi books like the "John Carter" source, toy lines that aren't Transformers, DC Comics heroes who aren't Batman — don't always pay off at the box office.

There is another reason for anxiety under the big top. "Twilight" is just the latest superfranchise that has come to its natural end. Christopher Nolan finished his "Dark Knight" trilogy earlier this year and Harry Potter cast his last spell on theaters in 2011.

Unlike the good "Hobbit" bet, which is essentially the prequel to Jackson's massively successful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (which was based on three Tolkien novels), there aren't many slam-dunk, hugely popular properties out there to replace the boy wizard, lovesick vampires and Batman.

"What's the next big one, I wonder?" Twilight producer Wyck Godfrey asked during a recent interview. "They're vitally important in the changing landscape of consumerism. It's harder and harder to get society to come out in droves to movie theaters. Those tentpoles become a beacon that studios hang their entire slates on."

And once they get a hugely popular series off the ground, studios can basically rely on it to prop them up for as long as they can pump out installments.

"Once you hit on something like a `Harry Potter' and you have six or seven movies that you can rely on, in a real way, to generate a billion dollars or close to it every time you go out with one, that balances out everything else at the studio," noted David Poland, a longtime industry observer and editor of moviecitynews. com. "So you can have an off year and you know `Harry Potter' is going to save your ass, and if you have a good year, `Harry Potter' is a huge bonus. And that's what everybody wants."

Hence the phenomenon of tentpoles based on finite book serials - "Potter," "Twilight," the current big new thing, "Hunger Games" - squeezing two films out of their authors' final books. And then there's the three "Hobbits."

That can be a tricky gambit, though. Extending a beloved book series better be done in a way that doesn't alienate the devoted fan base.

"First and foremost, we spoke at length with (`Twilight' creator) Stephenie Meyer before `Breaking Dawn' was broken into two movies," explained Rob Friedman, who was co-chairman and CEO of "Twilight" distributor Summit Entertainment, which earlier this year merged with "Hunger Games" studio Lionsgate. He's now co-chairman of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group.

"She was the first one, by the way, who said `When I wrote this book, I always felt like it was almost two books, that it had a sort of natural break point in it.' We had that same conversation with Suzanne Collins as it related to (third `Hunger Games' novel) `Mockingjay.'

"We only do it if we believe that they can both be fully satisfying to the fan base and for the moviegoers," Friedman said of doubling down. "Clearly, the benefit is that you get two distinct properties that have that built-in draw to them. That's great, but we would never unnaturally manufacture that because fans see through it."

Still, you can only make so many movies out of books that just tell one long story. The franchises that keep on giving for decades, like Bond and many comic book heroes, survive on the strength of indelible characters and enduring imaginative concepts.

The 007 film franchise ran out of Ian Fleming novels to adapt in the 1980s.

Not to worry. Original scripts that followed Fleming's formula were commissioned, and the film series has thrived under its fifth and sixth Bond actors, Pierce Brosnan and Craig. "Skyfall" just enjoyed the biggest North American opening weekend of the 23 movies, selling around $90 million worth of tickets. Its worldwide gross has already passed $500 million.

"Well first, it's Fleming," explained producer Michael G. Wilson, who with his half-sister Barbara Broccoli inherited the film franchise from its co-founder, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. "He wrote a character that's very enduring, and he put him through enough sequences of difficulties to really understand the character. Then we have had six actors interpret that character in various ways and change it substantially."

"We always start off when we're writing one of these by saying, who is Bond going to be up against?" Barbara Broccoli added. "And we usually try to figure out what is the world afraid of, and then try to create a villain who is a physical embodiment of that fear. So we try to keep them very contemporary. With `Skyfall,' it was cyberterrorism as an idea."

Even the most durable of tentpoles, though, can't always prop up a studio.

The Bond films were originally distributed by United Artists, which was absorbed in the early '80s by MGM, which itself has been through a series of owners and bankruptcies since then. The three Craig Bonds have been distributed by Sony-owned Columbia Pictures, whose other tentpole attempts this year proved hit (the "Spider-Man" reboot) and miss (the high-earning but not-profitable-enough "Men in Black 3").

Today, the enormous cost of making most tentpole films can make them less certain bets than studio executives would like to believe. Jobs have been lost over failed ones like "John Carter," and professional reputations are forever soiled when an idiotic idea like the "Battleship" movie fails to turn a profit.

"Studios are always looking for the next way to structure themselves," moviecitynews' Poland explained.

Spending $350 million to $450 million to make and market the next potential "Avengers," Poland reckoned, is how studio-think is trending now.

"They're chasing the idea of being able to know that your movie is going to sell before you make the movie," Poland concluded. "The risk is the cost of making and selling these movies, which could be enormous, versus the potential billion-dollar upside."

Most executives will tell you, though, that the way things are now, the risk is necessary.

"Listen, it's always great, whether you're Warners or Paramount or DreamWorks, to have the sort of backbone strength of those franchises," noted Lionsgate's Friedman, who worked for several major studios before forming the smaller Summit.

"It helps you with your customer base, it helps you with your fan base, it obviously helps you with your economic planning on a multiyear basis. For a company our size as opposed to some of those bigger media-owned companies, it just adds a strength from an economics perspective.

"We like them," Friedman said about tentpole franchises. "We want more of them."