When Iron Man 2 obliterated its competition en route to a $133 million opening weekend, it not only entered the box-office record books, it also continued the most disheartening trend in films today: the unstoppable supremacy of brand-name movies.
According to the website Box Office Mojo, every top-grossing movie of every year between 1999 and 2008 was part of a franchise (e.g., Spider-Man in 2002), a series (Shrek 2 in 2004), a trilogy (Revenge of the Sith in 2005) or was an adaptation of a pre-sold property (2000’s The Grinch or this year’s Alice in Wonderland).
The last three top-grossing movies that didn’t fit the franchise-movie definition were 1997’s Titanic, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and last year’s Avatar. However, it could be argued that James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are two of the rare filmmakers who are franchises unto themselves.
In fact, only three of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2009 were nonfranchise pictures—The Blind Side, The Hangover (which has a sequel in the works) and Up, although Pixar/Disney could also be considered a pre-sold brand.
This box-office branding is an extension of the industry’s increasingly revolting penchant for product placement. Much like advertising, it’s a pernicious appeal to cheap nostalgia and lowest-common-denominator thinking that always, always works. People are eating this stuff up, to the point that there is actually palpable anticipation for a sequel to Tron.
So where do we go from here? As long as there’s money to be made from a familiar brand name, the beast is going to keep regurgitating and eating itself. I predict that within the next 10 to 20 years, we will see, among other atrocities, a new Star Wars trilogy, another round of Harry Potter films, and even a redo of the meta-horror franchise Scream.
What’s stopping them? Certainly not shame.