by Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES - Hollywood got you something pricey for the holidays.
It's not exactly new, but it cost in the nine digits.
Hark! the franchise heralds sing. Teetering on the brink of a year that threatens to dip below 2011's anemic sales and low attendance at theaters, the industry invited some of its biggest franchise heroes to sit at the holiday table this year.
James Bond, Bilbo Baggins, the famished kids from Twilight and the fretting fortysomethings from Knocked Up will align over the next eight weeks to bring some holiday cheer - and, executives pray, profits - to the cineplex.
Tinsel Town could use good tidings. Despite a blistering start to the year and a summer that spawned the third-biggest film in history in The Avengers
($623.3 million), few other movies became must-sees.
Ticket sales, once 16% ahead of last year, have dwindled to 3% over 2011, according to Hollywood.com. Attendance is a little better at 4% over last year - but that's hardly a comfortable lead.
And if brand names are going to carry the day for studios, there will be fewer offerings. A staggering economy and flat-lining studio revenues mean a leaner crop of franchises. Last year's holiday season saw seven big-studio series, sequels and spinoffs, and there were six in 2010. This year sees just four - and Knocked Up has yet to establish a sequel, let alone a series.
"If we're going to break last year's (ticket sales) mark, we'll have to do it with quality, not quantity," says Katey Rich, executive editor of film site Cinemablend.com.
Rich sees 2012 as yielding "one big story so far, and it's superheroes" - a reference to the all-star tale The Avengers, a comic-book film that raised the bar that no film would approach afterward.
"It's a little depressing to think that there were so few success stories we could claim," she says.
Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo says the franchise invasion could be timely - and was inevitable this season, given how dependent the industry has become on series. He counts 27 sequels, prequels and spinoffs this year, a figure that has become typical over the past decade. He says the franchise slate "represents roughly 20% of the nationwide releases" this year.
Four of the biggest will be back for the holidays to say farewell or reintroduce themselves: Skyfall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, This Is 40 and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2. Combined, those franchises have done $3.8 billion in North America alone. And several upcoming films, including the animated Wreck-It Ralph (Nov. 2) and Tom Cruise's crime drama Jack Reacher (Dec. 21), have franchise aspirations.
The holiday season, Rich says, "is about the only time you can go to the mall and find a big-budget fantasy and adult drama playing at the same time. The kids can see the fantasy, and you can see the Oscar bait."
USA TODAY looks at the season's series, some ghosts from the past and the outlook for the latest franchise entries (dates are subject to studio change).
Franchise: James Bond
Ghosts of franchise past: Dr. No (1962), Live and Let Die (1973), GoldenEye (1995)
Ghost of franchise future: Skyfall (opens Nov. 9)
The present: A spy never shaken. James Bond turns 50 this year and hasn't aged a day over 007 in nearly two dozen films. Daniel Craig returns as Bond, who finds his loyalty to M tested as M16 comes under attack.
Producer Barbara Broccoli, who has been working on Bond movies since 1979's Moonraker, says the series has been emulated so often that audiences forget how trailblazing it was when Sean Connery first appeared as a brutal spy in Dr. No. "If it weren't for Sean, we aren't here," Broccoli says. "Back then, he was an anti-hero, and each new Bond has been redefined for the time. I think that's one of the reasons he's lasted so long. And you've got all those great gadgets."
Ghosts of franchise past: Twilight (2008), New Moon (2009), Eclipse (2010)
Ghost of franchise future:The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (Nov. 16)
The present: A white-hot franchise. Of all the series entering the holiday season, only Twilight enters as a farewell, the final installment of a teen- and mom-friendly franchise that has done more than $1 billion domestically.
That doesn't take the pressure off, says Breaking Dawn director Bill Condon. "It's more than just box office," he says of the vampire love story, this one surrounding Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) as they seek allies to protect their family from a supernatural menace. "You also feel like you want to say goodbye in the right way, in a way this very interactive fan base enjoys."
Franchise: The Lord of the Rings
Ghosts of franchise past: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003)
Ghost of franchise future: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14)
The present: Director Peter Jackson, the three-time Oscar winner for Return, took more than a decade off to craft this adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's ancestor to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He shot it at 48 frames per second - a rate he says will make the images lifelike.
More importantly, he says, the time allowed him to view the spectrum of stories differently. "I'm glad it was a 12-year break. I certainly don't think I would have been in the right head space to come back after The Return of the King. I did need to go on to other things. But what it ultimately means is that returning to Middle-earth became a joy and a pleasure."
Franchise: Knocked Up
Ghost of franchise past: Knocked Up (2007)
Ghost of franchise future:This Is 40 (Dec. 21)
The present:Humor czar Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed Knocked Up, returns with the story of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the harried-yet-loving couple from the original. In this story, we follow their parenting foibles a few years after the circumstances of the first film.
Apatow says he never intended to do a sequel to the hit starring Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. But over the years, he found himself fielding more questions about Pete and Debbie, a relationship he decided mirrored that of many Americans' and therefore warranted another story.
"It's an interesting time in life," Apatow says. "You hit midlife, and you think, 'This is my family. This is my wife and this is my kid and this is my job. How did I get here?' I'll probably be able to do the same thing 10 years from now."
Apatow says he hopes audiences don't see the holiday season as the welcome mat for franchises.
"I"m actually not a big fans of franchises," he says. "I don't need to see a sequel to action. What I'm a fan of is furthering the stories of interesting people. Hopefully, that's what we're doing."
Contributing: Brian Truitt