Hollywood’s Billion Dollar Club: In Defense of the Imaginative Potential of the Franchise

(Originally published 4 June 2015 at: http://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2015/06/hollywoods-billion-dollar-club.html)

In the history of the world, there have been twenty-one movies that have earned more than a billion dollars at the box office. Two-thirds of them have debuted since 2010, two of which—Furious 7 and Avengers 2—came out just this year. Jurassic World and Minions might join the billion-dollar movie club this summer, the newest James Bond and the final Hunger Games might join in the fall, and the Star Wars installment to be released at Christmas certainly will.

What makes me so confident in these predictions? It’s easy to extrapolate from recent film history what the winning recipe of a blockbuster film looks like today. All twenty-one of the billion-dollar movies hail from Hollywood, most are episodes within larger franchises, and all can boast an international fan base. The trends behind these mega-hits are pronounced and consistent—what can they tell us about movies today?

A common perception of the state of the industry is that Hollywood studios are out of ideas, and that as a result they principally make big, dumb movies—sequels—aimed at foreign markets. Leaving aside the implicit nastiness in the notion that foreign audiences want dumber movies than domestic viewers, this cynical stereotype only only glosses over crucial current trends in blockbuster films.

At face value, it’s true that Hollywood aims, at least in part, to appeal to an international market. Though all of the films in the billion-dollar club may be distributed by Hollywood majors they earn most of their box office outside the US and Canada. In the billion-dollar movie club, only one film—The Dark Knight—made more domestically than abroad, and even that was close—so close that it would likely have gone the other way had Chinese authorities allowed it to be distributed there.

New foreign markets—not simple inflation—have been crucial in inaugurating the advent of the billion-dollar movie, and of these new markets China is the most important. Of the twenty-one highest-grossing films, four would not have yielded 10-figure box offices without their Chinese grosses—and two of them grossed more in China than the US & Canada (Furious 7—$389m vs. $345m—and Transformers: Age of Extinction—$320m vs. $245m). Given the scale of these returns, it’s little wonder that major studios have ample incentive to reach these audiences—and will continue to try to appeal to them. What is more, the agency that oversees Chinese media restricts the exhibition of US films to 3D and IMAX theaters only—film formats that require costly recording and post-production work and that seem better suited to massive action sequences than intimate human stories. That the second largest movie market can only be tapped via these costlier, more spectacular presentations only compounds the push toward enormous films.

Higher price tags encourage filmmakers to look for ways of reducing risk, and the billion-dollar movie club indicates that part of the studio formula for establishing relatively reliable streams of revenue is the multi-stranded serial narrative. Twelve of the twenty-one films in the club are traditional sequels, another (The Avengers) is the first synthesis of the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and two more are installments in well-known franchises (Star Wars: Episode I and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). All of these serials have enjoyed marvelous success at the box office—a trend that holds relatively stable outside of the billion-dollar movie club as well.

So on the surface, the accusations are true—Hollywood makes enormous sequels aimed at foreign audiences. And this observation has led to no shortage of cynicism regarding the dearth of creativity in contemporary Hollywood. The movies in the billion-dollar club exemplify massive changes in production, distribution, and exhibition in the last twenty years—and studios’ attempts to keep apace of market demand. Yet, paralleling these industry changes, there have also been changes in storytelling that are just as profound.

Notice that the biggest films in a series are frequently the final installments: Toy Story 3Deathly Hallows Part 2, etc. Franchises and sequels didn’t always follow a path of ever-increasing returns. For a prime example look no further than the bottom half of the billion-dollar movie list; there you’ll see only one Jurassic Park—the first. The subsequent movies never quite measured up. That’s the way sequels used to work. Revenues would erode and costs would rise as stars demanded more money, while the need to be bigger and badder pushed up location and effects expenses. At some point declining revenues, increasing costs, and narrative fatigue made it necessary to pause the series—either for good or for later rebooting.

To avoid diminishing returns, today’s transmedia properties are launched with several episodes in mind—one for each book in a YA adaptation (two for the final installment). Foretold franchises like Harry Potter and Hunger Games have inverted the older pattern of sequel fatigue. Erosion can still happen—it’s all but certain to happen with Avatar—but the long life of movies (video-on-demand, Blu-ray, and streaming) allows new audiences to catch up with “early franchise adopters.” While domestic audiences tire of the Transformers movies, the build-out of IMAX theaters in China makes the fourth installment much more popular.

In this most recent era of serialization, the sequel has taken on new responsibilities. Instead of simply trying to give audiences “the same thing, only more of it,” as the old slogan put it, sequel writing has become a complex art of managing fan expectations and intensities across many films, and that management has become one of Hollywood’s strengths—one as important as distribution muscle.

Today’s franchises are constantly evolving. A story gathers up new characters, each with a fan base that wants its hero to have a narrative arc. That demand in turn puts pressure on the movie to run longer. But a movie can only be so long (2½ hours before it really cuts into revenue) and can only tell so many stories at once. This is the management problem Joss Whedon faced in the first Avengers, and he not only solved it, he took time to display that solution. At a crucial moment, Agent Coulson explains that he has assembled a complete set of Captain America cards—“Near mint. Slight foxing around the edges.” When Coulson is killed, Nick Fury gathers the squabbling Avengers together and slaps the bloodied cards on the glass table. There they both are, assembled, shuffled like a deck, an allegory for each other and for the film.

Coulson's cards

A still from The Avengers (2012).

Marvel is making the sequelization process unfold effortlessly. In contrast, The Fast and the Furious is the most radical embodiment of continuous revolution in contemporary cinema. What began as a cops-and-robbers-and-cars series set in LA (episodes 1 & 2) tossed aside its stars, location, and genre for episode 3, Tokyo Drift. That shift cost the franchise, but out of the reinvention, it gained key new characters and a new director (Justin Lin), writer (Chris Morgan), and cinematographer (Stephen F. Windon). The new vision carried over, and the cast came back for number four (“New Model, Original Parts”).

Reinvented again in the fifth installment as an international espionage series, F&F was free to roam the globe. By Furious 7 the cast had expanded to the point where important characters had to be shunted aside for long stretches of screen time: The Rock is simply put in the hospital; Jordana Brewster is stuck on an island. Yet by cultivating an audience that could accommodate drastic transformation, F&F was even able to overcome the death of charismatic co-lead Paul Walker. To be sure, some of the crowds went for the chases, some for hot bodies, and some because the cast’s diversity captured their world. But everyone wanted to know how the movie would handle Walker’s death. Today’s audiences and today’s auteurs can be as fascinated by franchise management as any Hollywood executive.

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