The Devin’s Advocate: Post-TRON, What Is Disney’s Franchise Future?

Disney did well at the box office in 2010, but they were hoping to launch boy-friendly franchises. With most of them dead in the water, what’s next for the Mouse House when it comes to courting the powerful boy market?

A quick note: This editorial is really only interested in live action films.

2010 could have been a huge year for Disney. Don’t get me wrong - with a billion bucks (global) going to the rancid Alice in Wonderland, with Toy Story 3 breaking animated film records and taking the number one spot at the year-end box office, Tangled doing reasonable and a bunch of other films making some money, Disney isn’t hurting. They’re doing great. Beyond great - Disney is one of the big winners of 2010.  And they’re poised to keep doing great.

But 2010 was a year where Disney aggressively went after boys (and geeks). They attempted to launch three franchises, each of which would have been very boycentric. Two were dismal flops, with Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice being essentially stillborn. The third, Tron: Legacy, isn’t embarrassing anybody yet, but it also doesn’t seem to be on a trajectory that screams ‘sequel.’

At the end of its second week of release, Tron: Legacy hasn’t cracked 100 million; putting in costs (real or advertised - Disney has, as is the style these days, played down the expense of the film) and advertising Tron has to break 200 million for Disney to even realistically think about bringing out a sequel. The film has earned less than 90 million in two weeks, and the math and history indicates that it will be very, very tough for Tron to get to 200. What’s worse, the film’s precipitous fall in week two, during a very, very weak frame (the top two movies from last Christmas outgrossed the combined top ten this Christmas) indicates that nobody really wants to see Tron. It’s not doing mediocre business because of competition.

But there is a hope for the future of the Tron franchise - the film’s producer, Sean Bailey, is now president of production at Disney. He could, conceivably, strong arm a sequel into existence, but that would be the kind of thing that, if done wrong, would end a career (it is almost certain that Disney will keep Tron in theaters as long as humanly possible to nickel every dime out of it; look at how Warner Bros just kept Superman Returns earning a couple of bucks a week until it finally made a face saving - but franchise ending - 200 million*). If Bailey puts everything into Tron: Legacy 2 and it doesn’t do any better than Tron: Legacy, he’s done at Disney.

Of course I’ve called franchises dead too early before. I never thought the reasonable  but unspectacular grosses of Batman Begins would get Nolan a second at bat (yikes, sorry for the pun), but home video really carried the film. Also carrying the film: 205 million in theaters. Once upon a time 100 million was the line movies wanted to cross, but that’s been pushed back  to 200. You have to make 100 just to be not humiliated. Even if a movie isn’t exactly ‘profitable’ at 200, there’s enough argument to be made for a part 2 (and, as was the case with Batman Begins, that argument can pay off).

Still, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that barring a tremendous plateau or a rousing, historically unusual bump, the Tron franchise shall forever be a duology. This leaves Disney 0 for 3 when it comes to new boy franchises in 2010. Where do they go now?

I’d say the first casualty here (even if Tron: Legacy does somehow get to 200) will be the remake of The Black Hole. I’m not sure that Disney wants to go back into the well of live action expensive boy movies that didn’t work for them 30 years ago AGAIN. It was an interesting gamble with Tron and it either didn’t pay off or broke even (we’ll know in two weeks), but it’s hard to imagine they try that again.

So what’s next? There’s Pirates, which is pretty much a gimme; it’s hard to imagine that On Stranger Tides is so bad that it doesn’t get Disney going on the next two films (although it looks to be one tough summer in 2011; Johnny Depp will really be put to the test in May). After that comes Real Steel, a major question mark as far as I’m concerned. The buzz I’ve been hearing - from the script and from people close to the production - is mediocre. Hugh Jackman opens movies where he’s Wolverine and little else. Good marketing could go far, though, and the film has interesting robot designs. The addition of Jackman is a plus that Tron never had; while the fighting robots appeal to boys, and while Real Steel is mostly a boy film, it needs to appeal to women as well. Women didn’t want to see Tron, but they may want to see Hugh.

Disney also has The Muppets next year, but that’s not really a boy franchise. And it’s almost a guaranteed hit; the Muppets have been out of theaters (in major films, anyway) long enough to make their return an honest to God event. The Muppets, barring a movie that kills audiences, is a guaranteed winner, but it still doesn’t plug the boy franchise hole that Disney has.

Which is what brings us to the great unknown - John Carter of Mars. Setting aside personal preferences (I am beyond excited for this film), John Carter offers up lots of mystery when it comes to connecting with the audience. Will people reject it (wrongly) as an Avatar rip off or will they embrace another exotic alien film? Will the Pixar touch still work when brought out of animation (we’re going to be kind and forget that Pixar had anything to do with Tron: Legacy)?

But by the time John Carter is released in the very distant year 2012 Disney will have to have a plan for their continued outreach to the boy market. I suspect that they already have that plan, though, and they’ve implemented it.

That plan is Marvel.

One of the most brilliant aspects of Disney’s purchase of Marvel was the acquisition of a ready-made set of boy franchises, and they’re not all just superhero films. I wonder if Disney would have went ahead on Sorcerer’s Apprentice if they had known for sure they would have Dr. Strange in their stable a few years down the road. And with The Avengers coming in 2012 and who knows what else after(Marvel, always a studio to think big and defy all expectations, has plans for a 2017 major event in cinemas), all of a sudden Disney’s boy franchise problem feels solved.

Which can’t be good news for anyone clamoring for Tron: Legacy 2. Why take another expensive flying leap at a property that hasn’t quite connected twice when there’s Iron Man 3 to be made? But this is good news to Marvel fanboys (such as myself, I must admit). If the three franchises of 2010 had launched Marvel would be looking at a Disney release slate post-2012 littered with in-house competition. But with 2010 being mostly a bust, the Marvel Movieverse suddenly becomes Disney’s best immediate hope.

Of course Marvel is about to enter its own tricky year; let’s talk again after the summer of 2011 and after we see how the public takes to Thor and Captain America. But even if one or both of those films don’t quite take off (and The Avengers somehow becomes Iron Man 3: The Avengers Initiative), the studio is still looking to be Disney’s go-to boy movie factory.

* to  those who will cry “But there’s another Superman movie coming!,” remember that this is a reboot, with no connection to Singer’s film. It is, in effect, a whole new franchise.  The intellectual property (and various legal machinations around it) is what is getting the film made, not the gross of Superman Returns.