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Graham: 'Charlie's Angels,' 'Terminator' prove not all franchises created equal

Franchise films have flopped at the box office three weekends in a row, showing that Hollywood's reliance on sequels is far from foolproof

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

They came to fight. They ended up getting run over. 

The rebooted "Charlie's Angels" disappointed at the box office last weekend, marking the third weekend in a row that a returning franchise underwhelmed the marketplace. 

Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott in "Charlie's Angels."

It's a trend that should have Hollywood taking notice.

"Charlie's Angels" followed "The Shining" sequel "Doctor Sleep" and the latest "Terminator" film, all of which performed below expectations.

Meanwhile, overall box office is in a slump; last weekend's Top 10 films earned 10% less than the same weekend 20 years ago. Figuring in increased ticket costs, that accounted for a 49% dip in attendance compared to 1999, when the cinematic chestnut "Pokémon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back" opened in theaters.

Despite the massive success this year of films such as "Avengers: Endgame" and "The Lion King" — overall, Disney is responsible for five of the year's top six grossers — box office is down some 6.4% compared to last year.

It's common knowledge theaters face increased competition from Netflix, Disney+ and other home streaming options, and it's a radically different entertainment world than it was 20 years ago. 

Hollywood has attempted to fight back with an onslaught of franchises and sequels, but the last three weeks have shown that the old tricks aren't working anymore. 

Sequels and franchises remain Hollywood's bread and butter, of course. "Frozen II" will clean up this weekend, and there's another "Star Wars" just around the corner. 

What "Terminator: Dark Fate," "Doctor Sleep" and "Charlie's Angels" show is that not every title, however successful in the past, is ripe for revisiting. 

The writing should have been on the wall for "Dark Fate," the title of which was unexpectedly telling. The film acted as a sequel of sorts to 1991's "T2: Judgment Day," but the three intervening "Terminator" movies — "Terminator 3: No Schwarzenegger," "Terminator: The One With Christian Bale" and "Terminator: Now Publicly Disgraced, Schwarzenegger's Back!" — were franchise killers. By the time "Dark Fate" picked up the old storyline, no one cared. (Also, the movie was bad.) 

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, reunited in "Terminator: Dark Fate."

"Doctor Sleep" was an all-around risky proposition, a sequel to 1980's "The Shining," picking up on the character of Danny Torrance, now a grown man. Star Ewan McGregor doesn't carry much box office clout, and the horror-themed movie was inexplicably released post-Halloween. It opened behind "Midway," director Roland Emmerich's critically savaged WWII movie, and showed audiences didn't much care for a return to the Overlook Hotel. (That said, the movie is quite good.) 

"Charlie's Angels" is the most interesting failure of the three. The reboot of the 1970s TV series (and the early 2000s film franchise) attempted to spin the story about female spies forward into a woke statement on female empowerment. Its missteps are multi-fold: it lacks the bubbly fun of both the show and the previous movies and its action scenes are clunky, but mostly, it's starpower-deficient. Where the 2000 version gave us Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu, the new version stars Kristen Stewart and two relative unknowns, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska. This was not the film for one star — a reluctant star at that — to make two new ones, it needed a can't-miss trio out front who could blanket everything from magazine covers to soda cans. (And yes, the movie was bad.)

Meanwhile, last weekend's No. 1 movie, "Ford v Ferrari," had a powerful duo out front in Matt Damon and Christian Bale. It's a film about a car race in the 1960s, it was made for and marketed to adults and wasn't based on a franchise, but it still managed to open to more than $31 million, nearly quadrupling the gross of "Charlie's Angels."

All things considered, it was a minor triumph and showed that when done right with the right people, good stories can still attract healthy audiences. Let's hope someone is paying attention.