Down With the Roman Numeral, Up With the Colon

Studio Marketers Might Be Able to Create Sturdier Franchises With a Simple Bit of Punctuation

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Photo: Walt Disney Pictures
'G-Force' has all the makings of a franchise. But will the sequel be 'G-Force 2'?

The Friday matinee audience in attendance when I saw "Up" during the Pixar film's opening weekend was easily (OK, so I'm kind of guessing) 50% men with their children. And those dads, and not their tykes, easily gave two previews the biggest laughs, "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" and "G-Force."

Pretty much right there I suspected good box office for the two movies, especially after the nonstop marketing campaigns for both soon got under way. (The "G-Force" ad push, by the end, was particularly driving me nuts. If I had to hear Tracy Morgan say "Holla!" one more time, I was prepared to take out a sizable squirrel population in Central Park.)

So I wasn't surprised that "G-Force" did well this past weekend. OK, scratch that: I was shocked, as were at least a couple of folks, that the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced 3-D extravaganza toppled "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" from the top perch at the box office ($32.2 million for the talking guinea pigs vs. $30 million for the boy wizard in his second week out). I assumed it would do pretty well at No. 2 for its debut, because, well, those dads laughed. And because of the aforementioned marketing barrage. And, well, family films have ruled lately.

Sequels a summer staple
As Box Office Mojo's Brandon Gray reminded me recently, summertime at the movies is still largely about sequels and franchise films. And as anyone with children will tell you, parents know all the words to all the songs and dialogue from all the TV shows and movies their kids see endlessly on DVD. I think we're past the point of assuming children are begging their parents to take them to see sequels of their favorite flicks. Why else would three of the top movies be sequels this summer?

We all know sequels -- especially those aimed at families -- have been standard issue for Hollywood. But many believe sequels started with "Star Wars" and "Jaws," and while those films arguably did launch the whole summer blockbuster spectacle we now contend with, we've always had sequels, from Tarzan to Andy Hardy to Dr. Kildare to, well, James Bond. So we're not living in some kind of sequels golden age, or a renaissance of brilliant family films. I think we're seeing clever marketing.

The Dallas Morning News' Tom Mustard a couple of weeks ago penned a good article about why movie franchises are box-office gold. The main takeaway: Moviegoers have "grown up in a world shaped by the concept of branding, and that is what franchise filmmaking is all about." My favorite bit in the piece was what I like to think of as the death of the Roman numeral. Studios have begun to shy away from simply tacking I, II, III, IV, etc., onto the latest chapters of their franchises, because numbers imply a retread of the same plot. Recent horror franchises from "Final Destination" to "Saw" have mostly stuck with a numeric system, which has been a popular convention dating back to the "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" days that the endlessly referential "Scream" series nodded too. Maybe this is why many box-office prognosticators feel sequels lose ground over time; other than the die-hard genre fan, most audiences stay away from chapter 5 of some slasher flick because nothing new is being carved up.

Let's see some snappier titles
With the current mania for the franchise reboot (even Freddy Kruger will be back in the guise of Jack Earle Haley in 2010), hopefully we'll see a bit more wit in titling, which will also aid in marketing. The colon -- you know, that bit of punctuation used to make eyes in emoticons :) -- is a great tool to keep titles sounding fresh. Of course, sometimes not even that will help a franchise if it runs out of steam (hello "Star Trek: Insurrection"). But let's hope the next installment of the new "Star Trek" or, gulp, "G-Force" (it does have sequel written all over it, I'm afraid) follows the "Batman" route and goes with a great title like "Dark Knight" for their sequels. And I'm really hoping that by the time it hits theaters, "Iron Man 2" will have a snappier title -- I'd even settle for a colon! ("Iron Man: Heavy Mettle" ... or maybe not.)

Then again, what are we to make of Starbucks' Fifteenth Avenue Coffee and Tea name? Where are the branding experts these days?

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