Written by Sam Kohn

Been to the cinema recently? If yes, chances are you went to see the latest Marvel movie or James Bond flick – or at least, that’s what the box office numbers are telling us. And while bums in seats are certainly no bad thing in the post-COVID world, the message from moviegoers is clear: if your film isn’t a sequel, reboot or remake, don’t waste your time.

Well… that may not be strictly true, but things are definitely not looking good for non-franchise movies right now. Just FYI, by non-franchise, we mean any theatrical release that doesn’t belong to an existing series or cinematic universe. That means no DC superheroes, no Wizarding World spinoffs, and no Star Wars reboots. But what does that even leave us with?

Your Titanics. Your Inceptions. Your Forrest Gumps. Box office smashes that came out of nowhere and won over audiences on strength of concept and star power alone. We used to get several of them per year – big-budget projects from big-name directors with blockbuster casts and original scripts – but now we’re lucky to get even a handful, and for good reason.

In 2021, there seemed to be a neverending stream of high-profile flops from former box office heavyweights. Ridley Scott’s medieval epic The Last Duel, starring Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver, was well received by critics but failed to win back even half of its $100 million production budget.

Guillermo Del Toro’s star-studded Nightmare Alley fared even worse, posting a measly $3 million in its opening weekend against a $60 million budget. And they weren’t the only ones…

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho pulled in only $23 million internationally, the lowest of his career. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story also became a box office bomb despite landing seven Oscar nominations and a host of other awards. And the Will-Smith fronted King Richard resulted in a loss of $12 million for Warner Bros despite positive audience reactions and a last-minute dose of controversy courtesy of Chris Rock. Talk about a slap in the face. The numbers don’t lie, and movie execs are nervous. And when movie execs get nervous, something troubling happens: distribution companies stop funding original ideas and start focusing more and more on franchises. Why?

Because nothing draws moviegoers to the big screen more reliably than characters they already know and love. Let’s take the top-grossing movies at the 2021 domestic box office, for example:

  • Spider-Man: No Way Home ($573 million)
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ($225 million)
  • Venom: Let There Be Carnage ($213 million)
  • Black Widow ($184 million)
  • F9: The Fast Saga ($173 million)

Four out of the top five came from Marvel Studios, demonstrating the stranglehold the MCU (and by proxy, Disney) currently has on the industry. And with superhero fatigue looking unlikely any time in the near future, it begs the question – where do we go from here? And will Hollywood ever get over its obsession with IP?

“IP stands for intellectual property, referring to any creations of the mind covered by trademark and copyright (e.g. a book, movie or character).”

If this year’s data is anything to go by, the trend looks set to continue. Sitting at number one at the worldwide box office is The Batman, already on its third iteration in a decade. Elsewhere in the top five we have Uncharted and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – both video game adaptations – and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. This speaks not only to Hollywood’s decreasing willingness to take risks, but also to the diminishing creative returns of the franchise model.

Instead of introducing us to new characters and new worlds, we are increasingly being marched down memory lane and told the same stories again and again. Instead of funding original content, studios are now scrambling to establish their own franchises to muscle in on Disney’s monopoly. And instead of coming up with something new, filmmakers are relying more and more on IP adaptations to bring in the punters.

We are already seeing kickback from various figures in the industry. Writing in the New York Times, Martin Scorsese said: “The situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art.”, likening superhero movies to “theme parks”. When asked if she would ever be interested in directing a Marvel movie, director Jane Campion had this to say: ‘I hate them, I actually hate them. I think it’s safe to say that I will never do that.‘ Ben Affleck – a former Batman – has even sworn off IP movies for good.

Could it be that the tides are turning? As always, only time will tell. But for now at least, franchise filmmaking seems like it’s here to stay. Want to do something about it? Visit your local arthouse cinema. Keep an eye out for releases from studios like A24, Neon, and Searchlight Pictures. And maybe wait for Spider-Man 3000 to hit streaming services before buying a ticket. The way things are going, it won’t be long.