Today sees the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Yes, another of those movies. This is the third installment in the franchise, which started off sorta promising but has grown more dire over time. When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrived in 2016, there was reason to be optimistic. Starring Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne and directed by David Yates, who had been at the wheel for several of the Harry Potter films, this prequel franchise hoped to extend the magic that had made J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World such a cultural juggernaut.
But Where to Find Them made “only” $814 million, and critics weren’t as kind as they’d been to Daniel Radcliffe and company. Two years later, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald made even less and earned worse reviews. Plus, there was the presence of Johnny Depp as the villain, the star’s toxic reputation helping to further dampen enthusiasm for the new film. And who can forget Rowling’s offensive anti-trans comments in the media? The franchise has seemed cursed, and with The Secrets of Dumbledore expected to make even less money than The Crimes of Grindelwald, things don’t look good for a series that’s supposed to generate two more films.
Or maybe not. This week, Variety reported, “At the moment, there’s no screenplay for a fourth installment. … Executives at Warner Bros. are waiting to see how The Secrets of Dumbledore is received before giving films four and five the greenlight.” It’s very possible the studio will just pull the plug, an ignominious end to a faltering franchise that wouldn’t even have a proper ending. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that The Secrets of Dumbledore’s conclusion assumes future installments are coming, which now may never see the light of day.
If that should be Fantastic Beasts’ fate, the filmmakers can at least take heart in the fact that they’re hardly alone in being part of a franchise in which the studio decided, essentially, “You know what, let’s just stop making these.” Plenty of modern-day films and reboots try to be the start of something big, flaming out after just one installment, but there’s something especially awkward about a franchise that produces two or three movies, determined to become something — only to fade away because the audience just isn’t interested. Below are five memorable (and recent) examples of this weird, embarrassing phenomenon.
What do they have in common, beyond crashing and burning at the box office? They all tried to capitalize on another franchise’s success — or they tried to breathe new life into an old property. But viewers weren’t having it.
The Divergent Films (2014-2016)
What Was This Franchise About? The Hunger Games hit theaters in the spring of 2012, launching the lucrative YA dystopian sci-fi series and inspiring copycats to try to emulate its success. Funny enough, the same studio that put out the Jennifer Lawrence franchise was also behind Divergent, the 2014 film that starred Shailene Woodley as Tris, who’s going to help lead the revolution against an authoritarian government.
Like The Hunger Games, Divergent was based on a book and featured a resourceful young female protagonist, who was played by an up-and-coming indie ingénue. Lawrence had become a superstar thanks to The Hunger Games — everyone expected the same thing for Woodley, who had gotten rave reviews in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now.
What Happened? Audiences sensed that the adaptation of the Veronica Roth novel was a Hunger Games redo, and Divergent only grossed about $289 million worldwide, in comparison to the $694 million that Lawrence’s movie collected. But Lionsgate stuck with the franchise, releasing two sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant, in the next two years.
Allegiant was actually only half of Roth’s book of the same name, with another film, Ascendant, planned as the grand finale — sort of how Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games concluded with two-part films. But Lionsgate eventually realized that the franchise wasn’t taking off — Allegiant only grossed $179 million — and decided to switch gears, reconceiving Ascendant as a television movie that would be the launching pad for a spinoff series. Problem was, Woodley bailed, delivering the sick burn, “I didn’t sign up for a TV show.” Soon, the idea for the series got canceled, too. (Ironically, around the same time, Woodley did sign up for a TV show, but in that case it was the superb HBO series Big Little Lies.)
The Percy Jackson Films (2010-2013)
What Was This Franchise About? With Harry Potter winding down at the start of the 2010s, Hollywood was in the market for another franchise about an ordinary boy with incredible powers. Enter Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), who’s about to find out he’s Poseidon’s son, setting up a saga full of Greek gods and adolescent hormones.
The first film, 2010’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, was directed by Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two Harry Potter installments. Naturally, that meant Columbus had to answer a lot of questions about how similar the two franchises were. “If I felt there were any similarities … I really, really tried hard to remove them from the film,” he said before The Lightning Thief’s release. “I didn’t really want the comparisons, but the comparisons, when you’re doing anything in the fantasy genre, are inevitable.”
What Happened? By that point, the Harry Potter movies were each bringing in at least $900 million worldwide. By comparison, The Lightning Thief grossed just $226 million, and the 2013 sequel, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, made even less. The author of the original books, Rick Riordan, had written more installments, but Fox got cold feet about greenlighting more sequels. In 2014, Lerman admitted, “If we want to make a third one I have to do it, I’m contractually obligated to three movies. I love those movies, they’re a lot of fun to make.”
Sadly for Lerman, the fun was over: In 2022, Percy Jackson’s future is clearly on the small screen. Disney+ is working on a rebooted TV series, and Riordan is supposedly intimately involved since he hated the movies, telling disgruntled fans of the books, “[T]o you guys, [the films are] a couple hours’ entertainment. To me, it’s my life’s work going through a meat grinder when I pleaded with them not to do it. So yeah. But it’s fine. All fine. We’re gonna fix it soon.”
The Chronicles of Narnia Films (2005-2010)
What Was This Franchise About? Based on the C.S. Lewis novels, these films briefly seemed like they were going to be the next epic fantasy series, inheriting the title from The Lord of the Rings, which had been such a sensation in the early 2000s. Certainly there was a lot of anticipation around this franchise: Shrek director Andrew Adamson was making his live-action debut, and alongside the young actors at the film’s center, the ensemble included respected veterans like Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent and Liam Neeson as the voice of the mighty lion Aslan. (Remember, this was back when people liked Neeson.)
Things started off encouragingly: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a sensation over the 2005 Christmas season, toppling what everyone assumed would be the holiday’s biggest smash, King Kong, which was directed by none other than Lord of the Rings auteur Peter Jackson. Hell, The Chronicles of Narnia was even the subject of the first viral Saturday Night Live video, “Lazy Sunday.” It sure seemed like a blockbuster-in-waiting.
What Happened? What a difference three years makes. When the 2008 sequel, Prince Caspian, came out, the box-office grosses shrunk from $745 million to $420 million. Plus, Prince Caspian had cost a lot more, resulting in the producers insisting that the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, be made much more cheaply — and with a more veteran director, Michael Apted, at the helm.
“I was on a very tight budget after Prince Caspian didn’t perform as well as they wanted it to,” Apted admitted. “So I was aware that everything was being carefully monitored, but we navigated it fine.” It didn’t matter: Dawn Treader made about as much as Prince Capsian, effectively killing the franchise. At the moment, Netflix is developing a reboot series, which would be weirdly appropriate timing since we’re going to be getting a Lord of the Rings series this fall.
The Amazing Spider-Man Films (2012-2014)
What Was This Franchise About? It seemed like a perverse idea at the time. Just five years earlier, Spider-Man 3 had come out, and although the reviews hadn’t been great, it still made close to $900 million worldwide. But Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi stepped aside, prompting Sony to quickly reboot the franchise. And in 2012, we got The Amazing Spider-Man, starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, who’s about to be bitten by a radioactive spider. Hey, if the studio had been able to produce one lucrative trilogy out of the iconic web-slinger, why not another?
What Happened? I’ve defended Garfield’s Spider-Man films before, but they were probably always destined to reside in the shadow of Maguire’s. The reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man were vaguely positive, but the overall reaction was, “Wait, we’re doing this again?” But more crucially, the film and its 2014 sequel each made about $700 million, which sounds like a lot of money until you consider that we were now operating in a Hollywood where multiple movies grossed over a billion dollars annually. In 2014, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 collected less than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy — not to mention Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and Maleficent — and as a result, the franchise’s future was doomed. Sony fired Garfield and began serious negotiations with Marvel to include the character in the MCU, which opened the door for Tom Holland to play Spider-Man.
Of course, last year’s mega-successful Spider-Man: No Way Home, which featured Garfield, helped soften the blow of the Social Network actor’s aborted Amazing Spider-Man franchise. “I think what was so wonderful was how Andrew was able to kind of make amends with the character and the studio, you know, to kind of win the general public back,” Holland said about the warm reception for No Way Home.
Not that Garfield probably cares all that much: He recently earned his second Oscar nomination for Tick, Tick… Boom!
The Alien Prequel Films (2012-2017)
What Was This Franchise About? In 1979, Ridley Scott made one of the great horror/sci-fi films with Alien, which spawned several sequels — one of which, 1986’s Aliens, is actually good. But in the 2000s, the franchise hit a new low thanks to two spinoff films in which the alien from Alien squared off with the predator from Predator. So it was greeted as fantastic news when Scott returned to the musty franchise with Prometheus, a prequel that dramatizes an earlier encounter between humanity and these terrifying extra-terrestrials. In fact, Scott had conceived Prometheus as only the beginning, suggesting that he would make a series of films that would lead up to Alien.
“The whole point of it is to explain the Alien franchise and to explain the how and why of the creation of the Alien itself,” he said. “I always thought of the Alien as kind of a piece of bacterial warfare. I always thought that that original ship, which I call the Croissant, was a battleship, holding these biomechanoid creatures that were all about destruction.”
What Happened? The idea of Scott doing an Alien prequel — one that starred Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron — was very exciting. But although Prometheus was a modest commercial and critical success, it didn’t really feel like a game-changer that would elicit newfound excitement around the franchise.
But the $403 million worldwide that Prometheus collected was far better than the $241 million generated by the sequel, 2017’s Alien: Covenant. Scott was hopeful about making another sequel “within 14 months” if Alien: Covenant had been a hit, but since it wasn’t, it’s been back to the drawing board for the series. First, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp was going to do an Alien movie, but that fizzled out. (“It’s possible that Ridley watched Chappie and he was like, ‘This guy can’t do Alien so let’s just go ahead and move on,’” Blomkamp said later.) And now Noah Hawley, the man behind the Fargo and Legion television series, is working on an Alien prequel series for FX.
I guess we’re never gonna find out what happened to Fassbender’s ominous android David. But as with all of these aborted franchises, the bitter takeaway of Scott’s failed Alien prequels may be there was never enough of an audience that cared in the first place.