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Revenge of the Auteur: As Bloated Franchises Bomb, Original Stories Own the Box Office

Movies like "Girls Trip" and "Baby Driver" are overperforming, while franchise openers like "The Mummy" and "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" are falling way behind.

“Girls Trip”

Michele K. Short

When it comes to the summer movie season, late July is the new August. Now that blockbusters jockey for attention in early May, we already feel wrung out by the barrage of spectacle. And with that, an exciting new box office trend has begun to make itself known: franchise fatigue, with a twist. Audiences seem to be rejecting force-fed franchises, and instead opt to check out original material.

The numbers don’t lie. While films designed to launch brand-new franchises like “The Mummy” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” burned out at the domestic box office, original offerings are making big bucks. Even more compelling? Those would-be one-offs could start their own franchises.

This past weekend was won by a pair of original projects that couldn’t be more different: Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” and Malcolm D. Lee’s uproarious girls-gone-wild comedy “Girls Trip.” Meanwhile “Valerian” debuted in a dismal fifth place (remember, this is the film that reportedly cost over $200 million to make and market) and “The Mummy” continued to limp behind the pack (it’s yet to break $80 million in domestic returns after seven weeks at the box office).

Still, Hollywood’s sequel obsession has been on full display this year — of the current top 25 films, a staggering 20 are part of some kind of franchise — but the year’s most unexpected hits have come care of brand-new, wholly original properties. And all-new franchises just don’t seem to be taking off, particularly ones obviously engineered to kickstart new series.

“The Mummy” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” are just the most obvious losers. Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” bottomed out with less than $40 million at the U.S. box office, hardly enough to engender confidence in planned sequels. The embattled “Ghost in the Shell” also underperformed, as did “Monster Trucks,” which seemed positioned to snap up “Transformers” fans looking for something equally bombastic. Even less action-heavy series openers, like the Dwayne Johnson-starring “Baywatch” feature, aren’t faring well.

Tom Cruise The Mummy

Tom Cruise in “The Mummy”

Universal Pictures

A good story well told is hardly a novel idea, but an increasingly rare one. They’re the real stars: These films don’t convince an audience they’re hungry for a sequel. Instead, the ideas prove so strong that they could start their own franchises — but they’re made to stand alone. Films made as standalone offerings can focus on the story at hand, building satisfying characters and telling holistic narratives. And then, the audience likes the first film and wants more. It’s how it used to be done.

Although no sequel has been announced for “Girls Trip” (yet), Lee and Universal would be crazy not to capitalize on the film’s enviable opening weekend, stellar reviews, and star-making turn from actress Tiffany Haddish. Lee is no stranger to unexpected sequels and accidental franchises — his first film, “The Best Man,” proved so popular that it eventually spawned a fan-demanded sequel 14 years later. A second sequel, “The Best Man Wedding,” is in the works and was announced soon after “The Best Man Holiday” finally hit theaters in 2013.

Similarly, Edgar Wright’s long-anticipated “Baby Driver,” which has already out-earned “The Mummy” at the domestic box office, might also inspire a sequel or two. Wright has never been a sequel guy, but the filmmaker hasn’t shied away from the possibility that his “Baby Driver” could clear the path for some sort of expanded Baby-driving universe. Could this week’s Charlize Theron-starring actioner “Atomic Blonde” stir up similar ideas? It’s starting to look like it.

Charlize Theron Atomic Blonde

“Atomic Blonde”

Earlier this year, M. Night Shyamalan managed to sneak a sequel to his lauded “Unbreakable” with “Split,” a movie that initially promised to be a return to form for the thrill-making director, only to shape up to be a literal return to the story that fans still seem to love the best. That film, which moves and operates as a standalone feature, is even more enjoyable when considered as part of the relaunched franchise, which now includes the follow-up feature, “Glass.” Few franchise films can claim to bridge the gap quite so well.

And while we’ll likely never get a sequel to “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s unexpected February hit has already opened the door for the director to make yet another “social thriller” in the same vein as his creative and canny first feature. That Peele recently turned down the opportunity to direct the long-gestating live-action “Akira” — which seems destined to be another ill-fated franchise-starter — is further heartening to the supremacy of original cinema.

Still, established franchises as a whole seem to be chugging right along, including the ever-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (including “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), DC’s own DC Extended Universe (thanks, “Wonder Woman”), the individual “X-Men” franchise (which went dark with this year’s “Logan”), and standalones like the “Planet of the Apes” series and the still-motoring “Fast and the Furious” series. Each of those films currently ranks in this year’s top 20 at the domestic box office.

But beside those buzzy, long-built franchises are titles like “Split” and “Get Out,” “Baby Driver,” and even “The Boss Baby” (kiddos are also eager for new stories, it seems), wholly original stories that may do something even more wild than make a ton of money: They introduce series that are earned and asked for, not engineered and forced upon audiences. That’s worth the price of admission.

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