From Harry Potter to Naria: The Pressure of Film Franchises to perform
From Harry Potter to Narnia: thepressure on film franchises toperformIn the world of film franchises, its billions or bust –anything less than Harry Potter-style success spells theend for a series. Cath Clarke reports on how Narnia wentto the brinkDumped, downsized, delayed ... TheChronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the DawnTreader. Photograph: 20th Century FoxThe omens suggest there may be ahappy ending in sight in the saga of theNarnia franchise. Last week snow wasfalling – as if Aslan himself had orderedit – as The Voyage of the DawnTreader, the third in the Chronicles of Narnia series, waspremiered as the royal film performance. (Rumour has it theQueen shed a tear or two; maybe it was from relief – last year shehad to sit through The Lovely Bones.) But in 2008 it was differentstory: it looked like curtains for Narnia afterDisneyunceremoniously dumped the series – disappointed with theperformance of film No 2, Prince Caspian. Production of DawnTreader was downsized, then delayed; for a while it looked likelythat it wouldnt get made at all, and the projected seven-film serieswould be cut off at the ankles.It wasnt the first high-profile franchise to be rejected by its parentstudio. A year earlier, the planned trilogy of Philip Pullmans HisDark Materials was canned after the first film, The GoldenCompass, failed to live up to expectations at the US box-office. Tothe casual observer, neither Caspian nor Compass looks much likea failure: both took hundreds of millions of dollars. But there is nomargin for error in the new generation of multi-film, factory-linefranchises – with their whopping CGI bills and budgets that wouldkeep a despot in military trifles. Get it right, like Harry Potter ($6bnand counting) or Twilight ($1.7bn), and its golden. But films haveto match those takings to have got it right. Anything less is afailure.Franchises have been around longer than Bond has been
bothering blondes, or Dracula has been sucking blood. Whathas changed is that now Hollywood studios are desperatelyseeking properties to nail their sails to, committing upfront – intheory at least – to making a string of films. Mike Goodridge, editorof the film industry paper Screen International, compares new-formula franchises such as Harry Potter and Twilight to Saturdaymorning serials, with storylines that run like a thread through themovies: "Its a dream situation for a studio to have a captiveaudience, which will inevitably come back for the next helping." AsHarry Potter and Twilght grind to a close, eyes are on the nextprize: which might just be Suzanne Collinss post-apocalypticteen trilogy The Hunger Games; Kaya Scodelario and ChloeMoretz are in the running for the lead."If you can pull them off, they are a license to print money," saysdirector Michael Apted. He has been on the other side, too – hewas already hard at work on The Dawn Treader when Disneypulled the plug. Did he think it was all over? "For a bit."Whats Apteds verdict on Prince Caspian – the film that promptedDisney to bail? "I dont think it did go wrong. I dont think it wasmessed up. I just think they just took it for granted they were on toa successful franchise like Lord of the Rings." In reality, adaptingCS Lewis is a trickier proposition than Tolkien or JK Rowling. Eachof the seven Narnia titles is its own universe, with a changing castof characters. "Prince Caspian is much darker than the first book,"says Apted. There was less of the wonder and magic of The Lion,The Witch and the Wardrobe; it was bigger and scarier, with twomonster battles. With The Dawn Treader, Apted says he has goneback to Narnia basics with a fairytale adventure on the high seas,featuring a stonking comic turn by 17-year-old Will Poulter ascousin Eustace.In 2008, after Disney backed out, a replacement studio, Fox, wasfound within a month. Still, Apted must have felt like he wascaptaining a sinking ship. "It was daunting. We were put in theposition that we had to retrieve the franchise, both in terms of tone– to make it more family-friendly – and to do it for less money." Ifappearances are anything to go by, he is exactly the man youdwant in a crisis. A 69-year-old veteran (his credits include Enigmaand The World is Not Enough), he is dry as bone and seeminglyunflappable. His budget was shrunk to $140m. Which is still ascary amount of money ("well, you dont think about that").
How poorly, exactly, did Prince Caspian perform? It went to No 1in the US, and was Disneys second most successful film of 2008."When you do the math, it doesnt look quite so pretty," saysApted. "The second film cost more and made less." Hes right:Prince Caspian took $420m worldwide. It cost $225m to make, andthe same again to market. By comparison The Lion the Witch andthe Wardrobe took $745m, having been made for $180m.There was another layer of intrigue to the saga: bad bloodbetween Disney and Walden Media, the company that holds therights to the Narnia books and which co-financed and co-producedthe movies, and which is owned by Phil Anschutz, a billionaireconservative Christian. Apted describes a situation in whicheverybody was blaming everybody else: "There was a lot of illfeeling. I think that poisoned the water a bit."If $420m in box office receipts isnt enough to secure the future ofa franchise, how much is? These days $1bn is the new benchmarkfor a bona-fide smash (though only seven films so far have madethat much). What that means for audiences is that if you have apulse you are in the target demographic. Heres ScreenInternationals Mike Goodridge again: "I hate to say it, but withthese films you have to hit what the studios call the four quadrantmarket: men, women, young and old. You have to hit everybodyand then you have a genuine phenomenon."Prince Caspian, it was thought, pandered too much to teenageboys. Fox and Walden took no chances with The Dawn Treader.Earlier this year Christian leaders and assorted CS Lewis expertswere invited to a "Narnia Summit" in LA. "We went through everyline of dialogue and every scene with them to make sure it was areally faithful adaptation," Walden Medias president MichaelFlaherty told Christianity Today at the time.One obvious solution, surely, would be to make the movies morecheaply. No, says Michael Apted. While he was happy to trim thebudget of The Dawn Treader ("I wanted to make sure thetechnology didnt overwhelm the emotion of the film"), he saysswingeing cuts to fantasy films are out of the question. "If youpenny pinch, youre dead. Audiences are so savvy, and if you do iton the cheap youre out of it."One person who disagrees wholeheartedly with that is PhilipPullman, whose His Dark Materials books looked set to become
another major franchise. When New Line Cinema – which wasbehind The Lord of the Rings – filmed the first instalment, it wasthe most expensive movie it had ever made. Released under thebooks US title, The Golden Compass, it did roaring businessoverseas, but just $70m in the US – and because New Line hadsold overseas rights to the film in order to fund the production, itdidnt make its money back on the international box office. It was acrucial failure for New Line, which was absorbed into its parentcompany, Warner Bros, shortly afterwards.Pullman reckons we are now seeing diminishing returns from CGI."We dont believe it any more. Or we know that its onlycomputers." If there were ever to be a Golden Compass remake,he has an entirely different film in mind. "I would rather it wasmade in someones shed with tin cans and bits of rope. I think itwould be more involving – to be made for about 10 quid, ratherthan $200m."Talk to Pullman and you get an impression of the head of steamthat builds behind a mega-budget franchise. He was delighted withthe young actress Dakota Blue Richards, who was cast as his 12-year-old heroine Lyra ("she was absolutely terrific"). The film-makers looked at 10,000 girls before finding her. But she would betoo old for the part if the His Dark Materials franchise wasresurrected. "They would have to recast. Its lost really. Its gone."(Makers of franchises featuring kid actors have to move quickly –the little blighters have a habit of getting bigger.)The curious case of The Golden Compasss poor US performancehas been widely put down to the controversy surrounding its anti-religious themes. Though fudged somewhat in the film itself, theoutcry from the Catholic League ("atheism for kids") and the restmay have been fatal. "The Golden Compass didnt hit Americasheartland, and thats what killed it, really," says Goodridge.Pullman says: "It was always going to be a difficult film for thatreason. The only way to do it is to take the issue bravely to thefront and wave it like a banner."When studios first looked at his trilogy, did they assume they hadthe next Lord of the Rings on their hands? "Oh they always think Xis the next Y," Pullman says. "They have no idea at all aboutlooking forward. Publishers are just the same. They can only seewhats coming in terms of whats been. Nobody was looking for thefirst Harry Potter, only JK Rowling. Studio and publishers: I dont
rate them very highly as originators or visionaries."And its not just writers like Pullman who believe there is a failureof imagination at work. Heres Goodridge: "The problem withHollywood at the moment is that they need an identifiable brandbefore they go into an expensive movie production. Which is aproblem for creativity." So while there are trend-bucking examplesin the system – the auteur-cleverness of Christopher Nolansbrooding Batman movies, for one – overall were looking at rebootad nauseum: Superman again, a Spider-Man rework. SaysGoodridge: "Its no secret. Hollywood is scrabbling to put on thescreen properties people already know. They cant take a risk onoriginal ideas any more."