Is Christopher Nolan correct that we’re living in a “post-franchise” era of cinema now?

As “Madame Web” opens in cinemas this week, could it be the latest film to suffer from a “post-franchise” cool down from superhero films?
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Christopher Nolan recently spoke about the nature of cinema at the moment, after the success of both “Oppenheimer” and Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” at the cinema - two films that were not affiliated with any other franchises that have dominated the box office for so long. 

“I think the success of “Oppenheimer” certainly points to a sort of post franchise, post intellectual property, landscape for movies — it’s kind of encouraging,” the director suggested on Alex Zane’s “Countdown To The BAFTAs” podcast, and going by box office figures for several film franchises, not just the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he could be onto something.

In a piece for NationalWorld in December 2023, Steven Ross and I took a look at the recent problems Disney have faced at the box office with their once-near dominance, and how their slate of films post “Avengers: Endgame” hasn’t reached the dizzying heights of their previous successes, while the bosses over at Warner Bros. Discovery have been content with culling some of their films, such as “Batgirl,” as tax write-offs fearing that the “franchise fatigue” has well and truly sunk in.

For example, the “Transformers” series of films, helmed by Michael Bay and produced by Steven Spielberg, has seemed to have their box office shine dimmed after the most recent two films from the franchise, “Bumblebee” in 2017 and “Transformers: The Last Knight” in 2018 pulling in a combined box office that is $40 million short of the opening “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” earned in 2009.

What does “post-franchise” mean?

The term "post-franchise" in cinema refers to the period or context after a film franchise has reached its peak or concluded its primary storyline. It signifies a stage where the initial narrative arc or main characters of a franchise have been resolved or exhausted, and subsequent films within the franchise may explore new directions, spin-offs, or standalone stories within the same fictional universe.

In this context, "post-franchise" can imply a shift in focus from the core storyline or characters that defined the original franchise to new narratives, characters, or thematic elements. 

It may also involve a reimagining or rebooting of the franchise to introduce fresh perspectives or appeal to contemporary audiences while still leveraging the existing brand recognition and world-building established by the original franchise - or in Nolan’s example, people eschewing “franchise films” for more “traditional” cinema, in the case of “Oppenheimer” or Martin Scorcese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” another vocal dissident towards “superhero” movies previously.

Are franchises about to emerge on streaming services instead?

Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie in The Last of Us. Picture: HBO/Warner Media.Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie in The Last of Us. Picture: HBO/Warner Media.
Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie in The Last of Us. Picture: HBO/Warner Media.

That is the working theory here at NationalWorld’s TV and Film team; with the successes of TV shows such as “The Last of Us,” a very well-crafted HBO series based on the video game of the same name, that’s led to other franchises looking to the small screen now to carve out a market that is perhaps too lazy to go to the cinema.

Sony is looking to expand upon the success of “The Last of Us” with a reported “God of War” TV series in development, while Phoebe Waller-Bridge has been rumoured to be working on a “Tomb Raider” television series after the last movie in the franchise only took in $23 million with a reported budget of $94,000,000 back in 2018. It almost feels like the fatigue many have for franchise features has led some creatives to skip the cinema and go directly to streaming services. 

This is understandable; if your audience is no longer coming to the cinema, then bring that cinematic quality to them, akin to how Disney have with “WandaVision” and the recent success of “Loki” Season 2. But what when the rot starts to appear when franchises transition from the big screen to streaming services? Where then do the big companies go? Back to the cinemas after a break? Some philosopher did once say that time is a flat surface, and the lifecycle of franchises seems to mirror just that.

Isn’t it just cheaper to release straight to streaming rather than into cinemas?

It used to be a common thought that if it won’t work on film, it might be cheaper to try on television. But after the successes of big-budget television shows, that adage has been flipped on its head.

Let’s take for example Amazon’s recent “Lord of the Rings” series, which cost $58 million per episode to make, coming to a total of $465 million to produce. That’s over twice as much as the combined budget of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” film series which cost in total $281 million to make. With “prestige” television comes “prestige” pricing, and while back in the day hiring the likes of James Gandolfini or Bryan Cranston would cost at most a salary of $1 million or $225,000 per episode (respectively), those figures pale in comparison to the $2 million Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon are making on AppleTV+’s “The Morning Show,” or Chris Pratt’s $1.4 million for the first season of Prime Video’s “The Terminal List.”

Shooting locations have also changed from the typical studio set up to audiences being taken to far-off worlds such as those in “Game of Thrones” - itself many have considered an early casualty of “post-franchise” syndrome - which have also added to the expenses television shows have to endure. It’s not cheap filming at a Hilton, as we’ve found out looking at where the next season of “The White Lotus” may film.

When will the “post-franchise” era of film end?

Normally when public interest is reinvested in a franchise - look at the recent adaptations of “One Piece” and the forthcoming reboot of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on Netflix; both properties suffered somewhat of a wain in interest from the general public’s consciousness, but both have been eagerly anticipated by a new era of fandom.

That’s where the post-franchise fatigue ends though, when something we used to be interested in wears off and a brand new generation of fans pick it up and appreciate it (or in the case of “Friends,” demonstrate how problematic it is) giving the franchise a new lease of life. But for now, perhaps the likes of Marvel or James Gunn with the DCEU might reflect on what hasn’t worked and why people are now skipping sequel number X in favour of one-off, more linear storytelling.

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