After a long spate of bad movies, the Terminator franchise is back with Dark Fate, premiering this Friday. For even the most frustrated fans, there’s a lot to be excited by, perhaps primarily the fact that it’s ditching the past three films and is instead a direct sequel to James Cameron’s 1991 mega-hit Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This is also the first Terminator movie since 1991 that Cameron helped provide the story for and produced; plus, Linda Hamilton is back, reprising her role as Sarah Connor. Basically, Dark Fate is a Terminator fan’s dream.
And yet, it still shouldn’t exist.
In a sensible world, Universal Studios shouldn’t have been allowed to make another Terminator movie after screwing up three of them in a row. There’s a reason Dark Fate is completely ignoring Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Salvation and Genisys, and that’s because they were bad movies that sullied the franchise as a whole. In this moment, before the new film arrives, we’re living in a world where three of the five Terminator movies — a full 60 percent! — are shitty. If the franchise had any stewards that weren’t Universal employees, none of them would’ve allowed the studio another opportunity to further defile the metal scraps of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killer cyborg.
Which is why I’d like to offer this simple — dare I say modest — proposal: If more than half a movie franchise sucks, that franchise should automatically end.
Admittedly, “sucks” is a broad term that’s hard to quantify. It’s not something that can be measured merely by a film’s box office, because a bad movie often determines the next installment’s profits, rather than its own. The Phantom Menace, for instance, earned a tremendous $474 million at the U.S. box office in 1999, but very few people would say it’s a good film — it certainly wasn’t good enough to drive that massive audience to Attack of the Clones, which only earned $310 million. But on the other hand, Attack was arguably as bad, if not worse, than Menace, and the third installment, Revenge of the Sith, managed to bring in $380 million (admittedly probably driven by the promise of seeing the birth of Darth Vader, rather than any goodwill driven by Attack of the Clones).
You can’t trust Rotten Tomatoes’ collection of critical reviews, either, because audiences and critics are two different beasts. The site’s “Audience Score” is a better gauge, but even then, it’s not perfect, since sometimes the only people who go to see a bad movie are the series’ staunchest fans. Take the weakest link in the Fast & Furious franchise, for example — 2006’s Tokyo Drift, which has a 69 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but earned less than half that of the two F&F movies that preceded it.
So while all of this data is useful, the truest indication of whether a movie sucks or not is the pop-culture consensus, which is generally pretty clear: The last three Terminator movies sucked; the Star Wars prequel trilogy sucked; Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy made a ton of money, yet also sucked. You may not personally agree with these assessments, but they’re the pervasive ones, and the truth is that Hollywood is just as invested in the public perception of a movie as its box office. Case in Point: Batman v Superman made nearly $900 million worldwide, but audiences (especially nerds) complained how grim it was, so much so that a desperate Warner Bros. wildly overcorrected with the silly, nonsensical Justice League — which was also considered to suck, destroying the studio’s plans for a DC Comics movie universe.
If Warner Bros. had just abandoned 2013’s highly disparaged Man of Steel as a one-off, rather than treating it as the beginning of its attempt to ape Marvel Studios’ success, the DCEU would have had a fresh start. It could have — should have — done the same after Batman v Superman sucked even harder. Instead, we have a mess where Warner Bros. is still hoping for some of that sweet shared universe action, except that they’ve dropped not only Henry Cavill but the character of Superman entirely from its current movie slate, as well as giving up on a Justice League sequel. It has, in other words, been forced to call it quits on two of the most potentially lucrative pillars of the DC superhero franchise, because they’ve made such a giant, convoluted shambles of it so far. To add insult to injury, the studio has had to reboot Batman anyway (with Twilight’s Robert Pattinson), after Ben Affleck finally pried himself loose from the wreckage.
As Batman and Superman prove, even the most recognizable brand names and beloved characters in the world can’t prevent a movie from sucking. The Terminator franchise is another perfect example. Up until Dark Fate, Universal Studios seems to have naively believed that hiring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular cyborg and slapping the Terminator name on a pile of crappy movies would be an eternal source of revenue. Instead, every Terminator movie since the series’ undisputed apex, Judgment Day — which made over $200 million in the U.S., an immense sum in 1991 that made it the second-highest-grossing film of the year — has earned less money than the entry before it. Rise of the Machines made $150 million, then Salvation earned $125 million, and finally the garbage mess that was Genisys grabbed less than $90 million in the U.S. (In full disclosure, Genisys was inexplicably a hit overseas and earned more than Salvation overall — but it was also supposed to be the start of a new trilogy, a plan thoroughly scrapped by the film’s low domestic gross.)
These three crappy Terminator movies have hemorrhaged its fanbase, so even if Dark Fate ends up being the best Terminator movie since Judgment Day, that won’t matter if people don’t see it. Right now, the movie’s projected opening weekend U.S. box office is only around $40 million — comparable to Terminator 3 and Salvation, and over Genisys — but given that Dark Fate is the first Terminator movie to bring back Cameron and Hamilton and is the “official” sequel of the original mega-hit, it’s safe to say Universal was hoping for more.
But what else should the studio expect, when it’s made more shitty Terminator movies than there are good Terminator movies?
This leads me to some of my proposal’s other benefits (beyond stopping studios from indefinitely churning out crap). Again, the stink of the last few Terminator movies might prevent people from giving Dark Fate a try, because franchises can sometimes be broken beyond repair. This is exactly what happened to Michael Bay’s Transformers films. Now, you can argue that none of these movies are good (I certainly have), but 2007’s inaugural Transformers was exciting and unique enough to get a massive amount of people in theaters to see the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, which earned $400 million in North America alone. Of course, Revenge of the Fallen is legendarily garbage (please remember, Shia LaBoeuf briefly dies and goes to robot heaven in it), and since then, the Transformers movies have been consistently bad and less profitable than the prior installment, with the most recent entry, The Last Knight, earning only $130 million in the U.S.
Here’s the kicker: The spin-off movie Bumblebee came out last year, and it garnered the best reviews of any Transformers film so far. Now, that probably doesn’t sound like it’s saying much, but according to Rotten Tomatoes, the second-highest reviewed movie is the original Transformers at 58 percent. Bumblebee has a whopping 92 percent, the only non-rotten tomato in Michael Bay’s metaphorical Transformers garden. Bumblebee is a good movie that finally captured the charms of the original 1980s cartoon that earned the franchise its fandom. But after four or so terrible Transformers films leading up to it, audiences had little interest in checking Bumblebee out, regardless of its acclaim, and it ended up earning less than The Last Knight.
Now, if Paramount had pulled the plug after Transformers movie #3, it would have avoided the tragedy of finally making a good Transformers movie that no one bothered to see — and saved a lot of money.
Next, let’s compare those mentioned above to film franchises that (inadvertently) followed the “50 percent good” policy, and how effective it’s been. While critics never liked the early Fast & Furious films, the first movie was solid, the second was decent and the third, Tokyo Drift, was a mess, lacking original stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. With only 1.5 good movies of three behind it, the franchise recalibrated in a big way, bringing back Diesel and Walker for 2009’s much improved fourth installment Fast & Furious, beginning a franchise renaissance that’s led to some of the most popular and financially successful movies of the decade.
Or consider the Star Wars films prior to the Disney acquisition. The good original trilogy, balanced out the bad prequel trilogy, forcing new Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and director J.J. Abrams to figure out what fans really wanted from a seventh Star Wars film. Many critics felt The Force Awakens played it too safe, but it bought an immense amount of goodwill with fans, effectively relaunched the franchise and made a shit-ton of money.
Look, I’m not naïve. Complaining about Hollywood focusing on sequels and prequels and reboots is like being mad at Hollywood for trying to make money. Franchises like Terminator have brand recognition, which gets people to buy tickets, which makes the most money, which is why studios make so many of them. But that’s exactly why my proposal would be useful, not just to fans who would get a better ratio of decent flicks, but to the studios. If movie executives knew (or rather, admitted to themselves) that they have a finite amount of chances to keep a profitable movie franchise alive, they’d likely try harder and be more discerning about their releases. This is math even the most stereotypically cocaine-fueled movie studio exec can do: Better movies bring in more people who buy more tickets — and who will be more excited to see the next installment, too.
So come on, Hollywood. Make my proposal a Movie Law — not just for the fans, not just for the quality of the movies themselves, but for your studio’s bottom line. Because, like it or not, a dark fate potentially awaits any studio that fails its franchises one too many times.