Hollywood seeks safety in franchises
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.
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.
One reason producers are keen to relaunch franchises is that they can cash in on nostalgia for the originals by reissuing them on DVD. When Universal released last year's "Van Helsing," a period monster movie featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, it dusted off every Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi movie in its vaults and also set up a "Van Helsing" ride at its theme park in Orlando, Fla. In a world of vertically integrated media conglomerates, studios value properties that can be spun off into everything from video games to comic books. It's no coincidence that Warner Bros., the film studio behind Superman and Batman, is owned by Time Warner, the parent of DC Comics.
"Library assets are increasingly important to a lot of conglomerate's portfolios, and that was behind the  MGM deal with Sony," says Dade Hayes, coauthor of "Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession." "Not just the physical library of having an additional several thousand titles, but also just knowing that you have Bond and Pink Panther and other properties that you are trying to exploit."
Established franchises are lucrative targets for remakes because they're cheap to develop. Studios already own the rights to the stories and they can hire inexpensive writers and relatively unknown stars. But if a remake strikes audiences as a poorly conceived stunt, it can backfire - witness the poor turnout for updates of "Planet of the Apes" and "Shaft."
The stakes are high for coming installments of iconic series. Fourth installments of Indiana Jones and Rambo are currently in preproduction, but Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone will have to rely on fedoras and bandanas to hide their graying hair. Next summer it will be up to Brandon Routh, the unknown star of "Superman Returns," to convince teens that wearing underpants over a pair of tights is a viable fashion statement. And Christian Bale, the latest chin to fill out the Batman cowl, doesn't have the name recognition - or pouty lips - of predecessors Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney.
The previous bat film, 1997's hammy "Batman & Robin," was such a flop that it become more of a punchline than the '60s TV series starring Adam West.
"We wanted to return to Batman's roots," says screenwriter David S. Goyver via e-mail. "In order to do that, we felt we had to ground the story in a sense of reality that hadn't been attempted before. So we had to shed any campiness - any of the knowing winks to the audience."
To date, "Batman Begins" has been critically well received. But if audiences tire of the franchise several years hence, then all the studio has to do is wait. As long as there's money to be made, every classic story will be subject to a comeback sooner or later.
"I think it's a matter of letting them lie fallow," says Burr. "Properties will come around again. There certainly will be another Frankenstein movie."