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Hollywood seeks safety in franchises

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 2005

Batman is being retooled for the 21st century - and not just with a new utility belt. After a lengthy absence from the big screen, the superhero returns this week in "Batman Begins," a blockbuster that's much darker and less cartoony than previous films about the dark knight. About the only thing that remains unchanged is the mask - its famous silhouette still resembles a Great Dane with pricked-up ears.

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Batman is not the only icon coming back to a theater near you. As Hollywood producers search for the next surefire blockbuster with sequel potential, they're reviving long-dormant movie franchises such as "The Pink Panther," "Superman," "Indiana Jones," "Herbie, the Love Bug," and even "Rambo." What's next, a return of "Smokey and the Bandit?"

If anything, the attempts to revive old franchises point to Hollywood's increased reliance on blockbusters that can be presold through brand-name recognition, even if a new generation of moviegoers is only dimly aware of the originals.

"It's all in the name and the concept, that's what sells in many cases," says Borys Kit, movie columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. "You can't blame anyone for going back to that well over and over again."

To some, that's a sign of a creative drought in Hollywood. Why else would anyone hire Steve Martin to play Inspector Clouseau, a role immortalized by Peter Sellers in "The Pink Panther" series, asks Ty Burr, film critic for The Boston Globe. The reason, he says, is that people over 30 tend to rent DVDs rather than go to the cinema, so movies are increasingly aimed at a whole new generation.

"It makes absolutely brilliant business sense to take an old property ... that in its original incarnation starred a [performer] who is not even known to your average 18-year-old now, and put Cameron Diaz in it - or whoever is the current flavor of the month," says Mr. Burr.

In the case of "Herbie: Fully Loaded," that role is filled by teen star Lindsay Lohan. Oh, and the original 1963 Volkswagen Beetle is back, too.

"I didn't think you should change the core qualities of what Herbie is or the style of comedy," says director Angela Robinson in a phone call from Los Angeles.

Like many franchises on the comeback track, the story has undergone a tune-up. Lohan gets behind the wheel of the anthropomorphic VW and comes to believe that she can compete on the NASCAR circuit.

Arriving just weeks after rookie driver Danica Patrick came close to winning the Indy 500, the plot seems uncannily in step with the zeitgeist. In fact, Disney has been trying to bring back Herbie for years. The boom of NASCAR and a spate of car movies such as "The Fast and the Furious" convinced the company that this is an opportune moment for a new Herbie, so it commissioned market research to see if anyone still remembered the original movies.

"Even Disney was surprised at the recognition level of the character," says Robinson.