Years from now, when film scholars look back at the past decade, and most likely a good chunk of the next, the defining feature of modern Hollywood filmmaking is going to be the franchise. People like franchises, especially the "internet geek" archetype, and without a doubt they have been massively successful. If you look at the top box office hits of all time the majority of those movies (not adjusted for inflation) are franchise films, often the second or third installment. Last year virtually all of the major money makers were part of a franchise (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Hobbit...) and if this year's releases are any indication we can probably safely say that once again these movies will come out on top.
The franchise is pretty much a can't lose situation. For those who don't know, a franchise film basically means a movie that is part of a larger whole. When you buy a ticket to see Thor or Captain America, you're not buying a ticket to just see the movie. No, you are buying it for the property, in this case the Marvel superhero roster. These aren't standalone movies, these are just one part in a web of films, comics, toys, websites, books, TV shows, clothing, iPhone apps, and whatever else the studio can slap Chris Hemsworth's face on. Even if a movie doesn't do very well, the studios can still make their money back tenfold based on all the other properties people buy. That's why Pixar's Cars can make a lot less at the box office then it's counterparts but still get a sequel because lots of people bought Mater backpacks at Wal-Mart.
The most famous franchise, of course, is Star Wars. George Lucas is in fact the main mastermind behind this filmmaking model, with both Star Wars and Indiana Jones being the prototypes to what we see today. Except now, thanks in a large part to the internet and the higher rate of media consumption, it's not just one or two trilogies that get to roll out the big bucks, but literally dozens of properties. However, as big and massive as these are, I personally don't see how the industry can possibly keep up this momentum for much longer.
Simply put, there is far too much out there for the amount of franchises that exist. The franchise model is based on the idea that once the movie is over people will want to keep engaging with the character and in order to do this they need to go buy all this other stuff. Unfortunately for studios, that's not how stories work. Eventually it needs to end, and this is where the problem begins. To use an example, take the Harry Potter film series, which ended two years ago. These were of course based on the books, which ended nearly six years ago. There are seven books, but eight movies. Why is this? Because Warner Bros., in an attempt to keep the machine going just a little longer, split up the last film into two parts. They knew they couldn't make any more movies featuring Harry because, well, the story was over. If you went any further the die hard fans who helped propel your movie to number one would revolt and you'd have a big mess on your hands. The same problem faced the Twilight series, which similarly split their last movie into two parts. The studios did everything they could to extend the movies while looking for other outlets through which they could pimp out Mr. Potter, like the theme parks they've opened. Harry Potter is dead. Long live Harry Potter.
Do you see the problem here? Essentially the franchise has to be completely open ended in order to continue infinitely. The reason we have so many superhero movies now are because you don't need to end the story with them. As Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club points out, these movies arn't focusing on the plot, but instead on the heroes cracking wise and having fun. The Avengers is perhaps the perfect example. The bad guy, Loki, wants to take over the world. That's it. He kinda has a mystery plan and does that whole Joker thing every movie does now where they capture him but he has a convoluted way to escape, but that's not what the movie is about. The movie isn't about Loki's world domination plot at all, it's just the catalyst to get everybody together and watch their interplay. That's what people remember and respond to.
But, like Potter, eventually it needs to end. You can't keep escalating and escalating without coming up with a resolution or else your franchise is going to plateau out. We know this, we've seen this. Spider-Man 3 got such a poor reception not because it's a bad movie (it's really not) but because in the context of it's previous installments it just doesn't do anything with Spider-Man the character. It gives Harry Osbourne a resolution, but the movie isn't called Spider-Man's Best Friend Harry Osborne 3. Instead it gives Peter Parker an emo haircut and has him dealing with the duality of Spider-Man, contrasting his wish fulfillment power fantasies (his fight with Sandman on the subway illustrates this well) and his desire to a force of good. A good thesis actually, except Spider-Man 2 pretty much already did this, with Peter's desire to live a normal life clashing with his desire to be a force of good. I mean, it's not identical, but it's a very similar conflict. So when audiences saw this, a lot of them were bored. Iron Man 2 has a similar problem, where it's basically repeating the point of the first one with a slightly different backdrop.
This approach works in the comic book world because there is no expectation for the hero's journey to be complete. Characters like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man have been in circulation for decades and they'll continue to be around for decades more I bet. Like the pulp fiction heroes many of them are based off of, the story is just following one case these guys have to deal with. It's Law and Order or CSI, except with spandex. But movies are different in their construction. A movie needs more to it. That doesn't mean it needs to be smart or anything, but it needs a thematic edge to it, a unique one. Otherwise the public is going to fall off, like with the Rocky series. The first Rocky works as it's own standalone movie, while movies 2-4 basically are repeating the same idea, to bigger and bigger box office earnings. But by Rocky V, people just didn't care anymore. They knew what to expect from the first four so why waste the money on another installment? The movie bombed. Sure, Rocky Balboa did essentially the same thing all over again and made out well at the box office, but that was mostly because of the nostalgia factor.
Most of these franchises are approaching their Rocky V, the point where people are just not going to bother with it anymore, with little new franchises to take the older ones' place. Studios arn't even trying to make new franchises either, just trying to restart what they already have. We already had the Spider-Man reboot only 5 years after Spider-Man 3, and we're getting Man of Steel 7 years after Superman Returns. Not to mention the strange quasi-reboot/prequel that is X-Men: First Class. But perhaps the best example of this is back at the franchise that started it all, Star Wars.
As everybody knows, Disney is releasing a new Star Wars trilogy with planned prequel movies about some of the original Star Wars characters like Yoda or Han Solo. Obviously excitement is high, but I can't help but feel that the end result will be disappointing. Not just creatively, but financially as well. Don't get me wrong, it'll make boatloads of money, but this new Star Wars is basically going to be Star Wars in name only. It's set in the same universe, but by necessity has to have a whole new cast of characters. There's going to be the crawl and the music but, I mean, that story ended. Darth Vader is dead, the Emperor is dead, Obi-Wan is dead, Yoda is dead, the Empire is dead, we won. That's it, story's over. They extended it pretty much as far as they could with the prequels, and even by doing that they made the connecting thread between the movies be, well, Darth Vader. Who's dead. So what, are we going to follow Luke's son? Is this going to focus on, like, the new Jedi order and them having to solve cases in space? Is this CSI: Tatooine? They don't have a story anymore that can smoothly connect the characters from the original movies, or hell, even anyone from the prequels to whatever Neo Star Wars will be. And, as we said before with The Avengers, people are seeing these movies for the characters, not the story.
The thing about characters, however, is eventually their problems have to be resolved. Once the resolution has been reached you can't keep going or else it will feel contrived and boring. Toy Story 3 was such a massive success both critically and commercially because it was brave enough to provide a real resolution for the story they had built. They really broke away, everybody said their goodbyes, and then it ended. Which is why the idea of Toy Story 4: Electric Buzzaloo is such a disappointment. What these studios need to realize is that they should be taking risks on new ideas, cultivating new characters for people to fall in love with, not just building and building on something that's reached it's peak. Because eventually you're gonna get Rocky V.
EDIT: Like, 5 minutes after I posted, this came up on my Twitter feed. MEGA SIGH!