TALKING MOVIES In these times of exorbitant costs, Hollywood and Bollywood are betting big on rebooting proven formulas for success.

Lazy filmmaking, or energetic marketing — or two sides of the same coin? Franchise films are the name of today’s celluloid game, a point vividly brought home as I sat through the amazingly underwhelming reboot of Spider-Man. The main film was preceded by two franchise trailers — Batman Part 3 and Ice Age Part 4 — and followed by a clumsily structured epilogue that screamed “Spidey sequel coming your way”.

Director Marc Webb’s Spider-Man felt like a tired rehash. But when I query why the franchise film is thriving, Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 Presidential Campaign slogan is paraphrased back at me, “It’s the box office, stupid”. We’re talking big numbers: for example, the Harry Potter film franchise earned about $ 7.7 billion worldwide.

Spider-Man — and this is truly amazing — is said to have chalked up the highest-ever opening weekend for a Hollywood film in India, with receipts of approximately Rs. 34 crore. Other franchise films released this year in India — Mission Impossible 4, The Avengers — did extremely well too.

The numbers speak

Meanwhile, drifting inexorably on a collision course with local theatres is Ice Age: Continental Drift, the fourth film in the animated series. It’s already taken the top spot at U.S. and Canadian box offices last weekend (15th) with US$46 million — at which time Spidey’s worldwide box office run was at US$ 521 million.

Then there’s the money-spinning muscle of merchandising and promotional tie-ins — that can go on, and on, and on, especially with a Superhero franchise. The new Spidey is said to have 90 promotional partners in the West, endorsing everything from the obvious — action figures, toys — to the downright odd — nail polish.

A long time ago in a kingdom close at hand, it was Star Wars that showed the merchandising way. Over the years — and the ka-ching of cash registers hasn't stopped — the franchise is believed to have raked in some $20 billion from licensed goods sales, apart from the $4.4 billion in tickets and $3.8 billion in home entertainment products. Amusingly — though not for Fox — the studio undercut Lucas’ directorial fee by US$ 500,000, and gave him the licensing and merchandising rights instead.

But it’s not just fantasy, sci-fi and superheroes; franchises can be profitably centred on “ordinary” heroes such as agent Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible. No wonder Tom Cruise has taken on another potential franchise hero — or rather, anti-hero, Lee Child’s ultra-successful creation Jack Reacher. Child’s addictive thrillers guarantee a fan base, though there has been much muttering over the 5’ 7” actor cast as the 6’ 5” Reacher.

Thing is, films with big special effects and/or top stars are getting so expensive to make that most financiers are chary of bankrolling something completely new — Christopher Nolan’s Inception was a notable exception. In the notoriously fickle world of entertainment, top actors and big studios all chase after the successful franchise as one of the few moneymaking guarantees — or as close to one as it can get.

In marketing terms, building on an already successful film makes life that much easier; it’s the celluloid version of the brand loyalty mantra.

Bollywood too

The franchise film is very much a Hollywood malaise but Bollywood is not far behind the curve. Recently, Indian movies have been exploring the viability of riding the franchise wagon by embarking on numerous sequels to initially successful films such as Munnabhai and Golmaal, whose remakes have fared well too.

Last year was unofficially dubbed the Year of the Bollywood Sequel, with films like Bheja Fry 2, Double Dhamaal and Murder 2, and reputedly some 75 sequel/franchise films under discussion or already green-lit.

No surprise then, that this year, a mindboggling list is in production that includes vampire thriller Raaz 3; superhero film Krrish part deux which just may be titled Krrish3 for complicated reasons; Salman Khan’s masala hit sequel Dabangg 2; and Pooja Bhatt’s erotic thriller Jism 2.

Oh and not forgetting the fuss over Dhoom 3, given that Dhoom (2004) and Dhoom 2 (2006) took home such a large chunk of our entertainment rupee. Dhoom 3 chatter includes a rumour that Rajnikanth was approached to join the film’s line-up that includes Abhishek Bachchan, Jackie Shroff and Aamir Khan.

The franchise film offers a valuable fall-back safety net for actors who are a little down on their luck. The flip side is that it’s not always easy to entice the hit team of the first to reprise the magic in the sequels.

One solution is to make changing leads part of the franchise mystique — as with one of the most enduring film franchises of all time, James Bond. Skyfall, the 23rd Bond film, will touch ground this year — as will Middle-earth, thanks to the Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Not unexpectedly, the franchise film journey seems set to carry on for quite a while yet.