Tony Earnshaw: How to make a successful film franchise

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt.  PA Photo/Paramount Pictures/Bo Bridges.
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. PA Photo/Paramount Pictures/Bo Bridges.
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Movie history is littered with the desiccated husks of blockbuster films that everyone expected would launch a revenue-rich franchise but which for some reason inexplicably crashed and burned.

Think of Thunderbirds (an execrable reboot) or The Golden Compass from Philip Pullman’s series of novels, neither of which hit the mark and lead to the plans for hoped for franchises being scrapped. One can only imagine the howls of frustration from studios and filmmakers with an agenda who lost millions upon millions upon millions. Branding is what it’s all about these days and when it’s right a branded franchise can go on forever.

Even the 007 series has undergone a revival via resurrection. Then take a moment to consider Tom Cruise who in 1996 was part of a big ensemble in the first Mission: Impossible film and who now leads a huge branded product with himself as the centrepiece. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how to engineer a brand and be self-serving at the same time. What am I banging on about? Well, news has emerged that yet another director has exited the Star Wars franchise. Star Wars you will remember is one of the original mega budget franchise operations and recently sold to Disney. The mouse house spent billions buying an established brand and whilst they may be prepared to tinker with it, they do not want to muck it up.

But the departure of Colin Trevorrow is perhaps another indicator of the desperate financial position some of these big studios find themselves in, and the overwhelming pressure they feel to get their branding just right. Trevorrow has left Episode IX of the Star Wars series even before shooting has begun. The reason given was that he and veteran producer Kathleen Kennedy had differing opinions on the direction it should take. He follows in the wake of Lego Movie creators Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, let go from the currently shooting Han Solo adventure (replaced by Ron Howard, a safe pair of hands) and Josh Trank, who was reportedly ditched from a stand-alone Star Wars film following the panning of his movie Fantastic Four. Rumour has it that Miller and Lord favoured a comedic element that upset the traditional Star Wars feel. And tradition means giving the fans what they want. The balance has to be right. Billions of dollars rests on it. It is inconceivable that a Star Wars film could be a flop. Time has not been kind to the prequels made by George Lucas between 1999 and 2005 but they were box office gold. History needs to repeat itself, but in the positive. Failure is not an option. And thus the franchise bandwagon keeps a-rollin’ on…