Franchises have been around for a lot longer in Hollywood than some might think. In the 1930s and ‘40s, you had The Thin Man series or the Andy Hardy musicals or the Hope/Crosby Road films. Even then, Hollywood was working on various series of movies they could also sell with merchandising and make popular with audiences. It’s increased in the later decades thanks to the success of Star Wars and other series and has really taken off in the last decade. It’s the combination of the success of Marvel’s movies and young adult adaptations that makes Hollywood eager to get on board with these cash cows. However, too often, they make the mistake of putting the cart before the horse and planning the franchise before the first movie hits.
In a way, it’s like a classic episode of Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsey confronts an owner/chef in denial on his failings in both areas. When the man talks of his dream of franchising his crappy restaurant around the world, Ramsey yells “you haven’t got f----ing one right yet!” For every Harry Potter and Hunger Games, there are numerous other adaptations that fail to connect with moviegoers and leave plans for follow-ups in limbo. Many an actor has groused over signing on to what they thought would be a multi-film series only to have it fall apart. While it’s increased in recent years, it’s something that’s been happening for a while as too many studios plan the franchise without realizing you need to get the first entry done right. While many of these films are bad, others were actually good and should have kicked a franchise off but somehow never connected with audiences. Here are 16 movies meant to be the start of something bigger but never pulled it off.
16 The Lone Ranger
You can understand why Disney had hopes. The character has been an icon for decades, a fantastic Western hero with a famous theme and with Johnny Depp starring and Gore Verbinski directing, the studio was more than hopeful this would be a smash. However, casting Depp as Tonto seemed to throw things on a bad foot from the start and it wasn’t helped by the budget soon rising to Disney canning the production. They made the mistake of going ahead with Arnie Hammer in the lead and Depp doing a whacky performance but the production soon exploded into troubles with weather, a chicken pox outbreak and the death of a stuntman. It ballooned the budget to $250 million, meaning it would take one hell of an opening to counter it. Said opening never happened as the film died on its 4th of July opening and the critical ravaging helped bury it, causing a massive write-off for Disney.
15 The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Here’s a major case of counting your chickens before they hatch. Cassandra Clare’s series of urban fantasy novels have been a huge hit with young adult readers and with their focus on a battle of good and evil magic in modern times, was perfect for the screens. Constaintin Films felt confident when they got the rights, quickly adapting the first novel and announcing that production on the second, City of Ashes, would begin a month after Bones’ release. However, despite being faithful to the books (including, surprisingly, the pseudo-incest plotline), the movie had so-so reviews and the droves of fans didn’t turn out as expected, many feeling it was too dark and “Hollywood” to do it justice. It underperformed at the box office, only $90 million against a $60 million budget and despite some buzz from fans, Constantin decided to put off the sequels, leaving Lilly Collins and the rest of the cast without the planned jobs they counted on. The property is getting a second shot as the Freeform TV series Shadowhunters (with a totally different cast) but still notable for how a studio put too much of a bet on a franchise that couldn’t click.
14 Wild Wild West
By 1999, Will Smith was boasting “I own the summer” following the monster success of Independence Day and Men in Black, the latter with director Barry Sonnenfeld. Thus, you can understand why hopes were high for an adaptation of the popular 1960’s TV series that merged the western with sci-fi action. The casting of the joking Smith as Jim West (the straight man on the show) threw things off and Kevin Kline appeared off as master of disguise Artemus Gordon. Meanwhile, villain Loveless (a Mexican dwarf on the show) was turned in a Southern colonel with half his body blown off and Kenneth Branagh setting new heights of overacting. Salma Hayek was wasted as the beauty as the attention was on juvenile humor, huge FX pieces and a dumb storyline that put style over story big-time with word that the reason for the giant mechanical spider in the climax was because producer Jon Peters had wanted it in a movie for years for no reason. The reviews were horrific, tearing the movie on the story and acting and the $170 million film barely made it to $220 million worldwide, ending Smith’s “ownership” of summer. Warner Bros had been betting on this as their next big franchise only to find themselves in a serious financial hole and the adaptation just too wild for audiences to handle.
13 The Rocketeer
Here’s a case of a movie that most would have loved to see more follow-ups to. Based on a cult comic book, this film focused on an aviator who finds a rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes and tries to keep it from mobsters and Nazi spies. The cast was terrific with Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton and Paul Sorvino, critics loving its retro feel and James Horner’s beautiful musical score and Disney was pushing it as a major event for 1991. The merchandising and advertising were huge, that helmet and suited figure on everything from coffee mugs to pencils and the main cast contracted for a planned trilogy. But for some reason, audiences just didn’t turn out as expected to see it, the film barely breaking over its $40 million budget (a hefty sum back in 1991) and all that push to no avail. Since then, it’s become a huge favorite of action and comic book fans with Joe Johnston bringing that same quality to the first Captain America film, which has some folks wondering if a possible revival might be coming. If any movie on this list seemed deserving of taking flight as a franchise, the Rocketeer was it and its failure still hurts many.
12 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
It took a twisted genius like Alan Moore to come up with the inspired idea of a super-team based on Victorian literary characters like Alan Quatermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man. It was only natural Fox would jump on that for a film franchise and getting Sean Connery to play Quatermain was a true casting coup. Adding Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer for more appeal, the movie looked to be on its way to a success in 2003…and then it opened. Critics were very unkind as, after a promising start, the movie fell apart into a bloated FX-filled mess despite some decent performances. Word soon came of Connery and director Stephen Norrington nearly coming to blows during the production as the budget got out of control and Moore himself trashing it. While it did okay internationally, the terrible reaction made the studio decide against the planned sequel and Connery would decide to never act in another film again. A sad idea that this film broke his spirit as nothing more than an extraordinary failure.
11 Green Lantern
Some speculate that the reason Warner Bros is going “dark and gritty” for DC heroes on the big screen is the failure of this bright version of the Emerald Knight. With Goeff Johns (who’s written some great stories for the character) on board, this should have been a terrific experience but faltered badly. The casting of Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan always seemed off (most thought Nathan Fillion the best choice for the role) as he came off too joking for the character and Blake Lively miscast as Carol Ferris. Hector Hammond was a waste as the telepathic baddie and Mark Strong was great as Sinestro but not given enough to do. While the FX were needed for the character, they seemed way too much and complaints over the monstrous Parallax coming off too lame rather than menacing. It ended with a tease for a sequel of Sinestro going evil but making barely $220 million against a $200 million budget weren’t the numbers WB wanted. That’s not to mention comic book fans declaring it one of the worst movies ever and that bad-mouthing was truly the crushing blow. So not only did this movie fail on its own to start a franchise but it cast a shadow to make the studio think audiences wanted “darker” comic book heroes and we see its effects today.
10 The Phantom
Created in the 1930s, the comic strip character had a good origin: The mantle of a defender of the jungle in purple suit which is handed down from father to son for centuries with the natives thinking it’s been the same man all this time (thus his nickname “The Ghost Who Walks.”) While he wasn’t as famous as other pulp characters, Paramount decided to take a chance in 1996 with a big-screen adventure with Billy Zane in the title role and a then-unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones as a femme fatale. The movie did get some good reviews for its fun storyline and capturing the era well but the marketing campaign was a bit off (the “Slam Evil!” tagline was frankly embarrassing). What really sunk its chances was that Paramount had the brilliant idea of opening it on the same weekend as The Rock and so Phantom never stood a chance. The $45 million film only earned $17 million and while Zane had been contracted for two sequels, the performance sealed its fate. While there’s been loose talk of a revival, it looks like the Phantom as a franchise is truly dead.
9 Dick Tracy
An icon of comic strips, Chester Gould’s series began in the 1930’s and basically helped create police procedurals as we know them. For years, Hollywood had tried but the rush of love for comic book properties in the late ‘80’s finally pushed Disney to give the green light. Warren Beatty not only starred as the title detective but also directed with Madonna as vampy Breathless Mahoney and Al Pacino going wild as Big Boy. The movie worked in slews of the strip’s famous baddies like Flattop and Pruneface and critics praised the imaginative set design that worked in all primary colors although some criticisms of the storyline and Beatty’s performance. Still, the movie did great at the box office, $160 million which was a serious sum in 1990 and plans for a sequel (set in WWII) were made. However, Beatty and Disney had a major falling out involving the rights issues of the film and its profits and kicked off an incredibly messy series of lawsuits that would drag on for over a decade. The film was good and the franchise had plenty more to offer but that legal battle ended up being one problem even the great Dick Tracy couldn’t solve.
8 Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Sometimes, all it takes is bad casting to ruin a promising movie. The best-selling series of books focused on a trio of orphans who handle a sneaky Uncle Olaf trying to kill them for their inheritance. While dark, they also had humor and a good series waiting for the right touch. However, the casting of Jim Carrey as Olaf hurt the tone as the character is meant to be sinister and even frightening but Carrey turned him into a clownish figure that didn’t sit right. The movie did do well in the plotline and art direction but author Daniel Handler wasn’t happy with Carrey’s improve-filled performance marring his character and the entire Hollywood tone. The reviews were okay but the movie only made $200 million worldwide against a $140 million budget, not huge numbers. Major shakeups at Paramount also worked against any plans, not to mention how the child actors grew up fast to throw those plans off. There are reports of a new Netflix series but the casting of Carrey proved to be an unfortunate touch for the franchise plans.
Christopher Paolini was only 15 when he wrote this fantasy novel which was met with criticism for mixing so many properties (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc) but it, and its sequels, were bestsellers and so a movie version seemed logical. However, even the novel’s haters couldn’t imagine Hollywood would screw the adaptation up this badly, turning it into a mess that dropped plotlines, involved cheap FX and just enhanced how much of a rip-off of stronger fantasy stories it was. Jeremy Irons was phoning it in as the elder teacher, Rachel Weisz wasted as the voice of the dragon and John Malkovich (whose evil king character never actually appears in the novel) took scenery-chewing to a new level. One of the worst reviewed movies of 2006, it was in second place in its opening weekend and lost 70% of its audience the next as word got out on how bad it was. Naturally, the sequels were called off much to the relief of book fans who’d seen one volume butchered and didn’t want more while moviegoers were indifferent to any more trips to this lame fantasy world.
6 Van Helsing
After he turned The Mummy into a pair of box office smashes, it was only natural Universal would expect Stephen Sommers to do the same for the rest of the studio’s famed monster collection. The concept was terrific: Hugh Jackman as a 19th century James Bond fighting Dracula with Kate Beckinsale as a gypsy aide. How could it fail? Well, for a start, Sommers blew too much on the first film with the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster added to the mix which watered things down. Not helping was Richard Roxburgh turning Dracula into a campy figure, the massive FX overwhelming the story and how the movie played into Van Helsing’s mysterious past (supposedly, the character was to be revealed in sequels to be a fallen angel) serving as a distraction. It just turned into a bunch of set pieces with no time for real depth and a baffling climax. While it was a good financial success, it wasn’t as huge as expected and the massively terrible critical reaction convinced Universal not to do any follow-ups, a shame to waste a fun character on one overstuffed film.
5 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
For video game fans, the Sands of Time trilogy is considered one of the greatest series ever, mixing acrobatics, time-traveling powers, gorgeous graphics and a terrific story that still holds up today. So when Jerry Bruckheimer announced plans to adapt it for Disney, there were hopes it could beat the trend of video game movies being bad. That hope was crushed when the cast was announced. Not only was there not one actual Middle East actor in the main cast but the Prince was played by the decidedly non-ethnic Jake Gyllenhaal (a guy better suited for drama than action stardom) with Gemma Arterton and Ben Kingsley. Having a story set in ancient Persia featuring an all-white cast was hardly the way to win people over and gave the movie a bad buzz from the start. Throw in a hard location shoot and the huge FX and it’s no surprise the film boomed to a $200 million budget. It made about $300 million worldwide, nowhere near enough to balance it out and the bad reviews and reaction of fans worked to crush the franchise. Perhaps if the casting had been more true to life, the film might have done better for a good series.
4 The Golden Compass
Some believed that Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials would be a hard sell for Hollywood. Besides the storylines of animals as human souls and warrior polar bears, there was also how the books are a not-thinly veiled attack on religion. But New Line tried by adapting the first novel in 2007 with a budget of over $180 million. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig were among the stars and there was a good production overall. However, the issues began with criticism of the books led to the studio making significant changes in post-production over the protests of director Chris Weitz. This included dropping the original ending (which did keep to the dark gut-punch of the novel) as test audiences found it a bit confusing but in cinemas, came as a letdown. The marketing campaign tried too hard to make it sound like another Lord of the Rings when the two properties were far different and critical reaction was mixed. While the movie did fail in the U.S., it had a much bigger international take but because of various agreement, New Line Cinema didn’t see any of it. This, combined with the harsh reaction by even book fans, convinced them not to go ahead with the next two movies in the series. New Line would hit financial difficulties and that seemed to end what would have been their next big cinematic trilogy to show how some works just don’t translate as well to screen.
3 Alex Rider: Stormbreaker
It sounds so perfect: A teenage James Bond. The popular series of books and graphic novels follow this 15-year old who’s sucked into the espionage world which he realizes is far darker than he anticipated. It was only natural a movie would follow with Anthony Horowitz adapting his own work to ensure it would be faithful. Alex Pettyfur was cast as Rider with a supporting cast including Alicia Silverstone, Damian Lewis and Ewan McGregor, several big stunts and action galore. Confidence was so high that Horowitz was already working on a screenplay for the second film when Stormbreaker was released…and promptly sank fast. Despite a big marketing campaign in the U.K., the movie underperformed massively with only $23 million against a $40 million budget. Worse, it turns out the studio overestimated the character’s appeal in the U.S. as it opened on just 221 screens in North America for a pitiful $215,000 take. Horowotiz himself has admitted the whole thing was a mistake and realizing some characters are better on the page than in film.
2 The Last Airbender
Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender agree on two things. First, the Nickeloden series is one of the greatest animated shows of all time. Second, the live-action film adaptation is a complete travesty. It’s easy to put all the blame on writer/director M. Night Shyamalan but the show’s creators praised his original script as being true to the series and a great adaptation. However, Shyamalan soon hit major problems with the studio who insisted on the casting that not only whitewashed the more ethnic characters of the show but poor actors in the roles (Nicola Peltz was cast as Katara simply because her billionaire father was a studio contributor). The budget was cut mid-production so they had to shoot in Philadelphia of all places and the CGI rushed to look bad. Yes, Shyamalan deserves blame for the bad dialogue and changing the pronunciation of names but the “contributions” of the studio helped the rushed pace of trying to fit the entire first season of the show into one movie. Despite the fact it opens with a “Book I” label, the film’s terrible performance and place high on “Worst Films of 2010” list ensured that there would be no sequels and most prefer to forget it ever existed.
1 John Carter
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character is basically the pioneer of science-fiction adventure, a Civil War soldier turned into a hero on the Red Planet. For years, there were attempts to put it on the big screen, a great series of adventures that could enthrall audiences. It finally happened in 2012 under Disney and director Andrew Stanton…and the results were a complete debacle. To be fair, the movie itself really isn’t that bad but the budget ballooned to over $260 million with many feeling it should have cost only half that at the most. The casting of Taylor Kitsch in title role seemed off with no star power and Stanton seemed over his head with the direction. The key issue was that Disney removed the “Mars” from the title and the advertising campaign (supervised by Stanton himself) made no mention of the character’s rich history. The result was one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, Disney taking a $120 million write-off and the planned sequels adapting later books naturally canceled. It’s a shame given how the character who influenced so many sci-fi works deserved a franchise of his own instead of this horrid bomb.