'Terminator: Dark Fate': What makes a franchise live or die?

Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

On the surface, "Terminator: Dark Fate" and "Joker" share basic similarities: both are R-rated movies based on well-known characters that appeal to predominantly male audiences. Further, the films got virtually identical Rotten Tomatoes scores.

But the box office results could not be more different.

The Warner Bros.-DC film "Joker," made for $60 million, became a global phenomenon, grossing nearly $940 million worldwide. The latest "Terminator" movie, which cost at least $185 million to produce, landed with a thud, grossing $29 million domestically, well below studio expectations. It did little better internationally, collecting a modest $28 million in China.

Major movie studios have been under pressure to mine their film libraries for franchises that will help them compete at the box office. But "Terminator: Dark Fate," produced by David Ellison's Skydance Media and co-financed by Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Co.-owned 20th Century Fox, shows what can happen when a studio bets big on a piece of intellectual property that has lost its cachet with audiences, analysts said.

James Cameron's 1984 hit "The Terminator" and its early '90s sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" are landmarks of sci-fi action cinema. But like many other long-running studio properties, "Terminator" faced a key test this year: Is it a true franchise that audiences want to revisit, or did it run its course decades ago? Beyond that, could its producers make something old seem new and relevant for younger audiences? The answer to both, it appears, was a resounding no.

"In the case of 'Terminator,' its heyday was 1991, and that was a long time ago," said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "Unfortunately this is everything we have seen before, they're not bringing anything new to the table."


Skydance, Paramount and Disney declined to comment.

It's a challenge that every studio is facing as the audience's bar for quality and newness rises amid a growing number of entertainment options. In the last several months, audiences rejected sequels and reboots, including Lionsgate and Millennium's "Rambo: Last Blood," Disney's "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" and Sony Pictures' "Men In Black: International." But they've turned out in droves for the latest installments in franchises such as "John Wick" and "Toy Story."

None surprised the industry more than "Joker." Ahead of "Joker's" release, even Warner Bros. executives were unsure that the movie would succeed, given its pitch-black tone. But the movie's depiction of the Batman villain's origin resonated with audiences so much that protesters in Hong Kong have donned clown makeup similar to that worn by Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck in the movie.

"'Joker' managed to be sold in a way that made it feel original," said one producer not connected to either film. "'Terminator' did not clear the audience threshold."


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