By Sean Collier
May 15, 2009
In about three and a half days of release, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek relaunch (creatively titled Star Trek) pulled in just under $80 million. For reference, the last film in the franchise, 2002's Nemesis, pulled in $67 million. Worldwide. Over its entire run. The average take for a Star Trek film is about $75 million domestic, a mark this film hit sometime Sunday evening.
Got a franchise? Can't milk anything else out of it? Start over. The relaunch has become incredibly big business, as long-running series have struggled to hook audiences on tired characters. When Bond relaunched with Casino Royale, the global take improved by about $130 million over the predecessor, Die Another Day; Batman Begins improved on the box office tallies of its dreadful predecessors before The Dark Knight became the second biggest film of all time. Even Friday the 13th rebooted, earning more on opening day than the last three pure Jason Voorhees flicks had made in their entire run.
Key to the success of these movie mulligans is a certain sense of reclaimed sincerity on the part of the filmmaker. In all four of the aforementioned franchises, the reboots followed overblown, somewhat cartoonish entries. It's not difficult to understand why these franchises tend in this direction; after so many entries with the same continuity, coming up with another two hours of plot requires seriously pushing the boundaries of what audiences will accept.
However, the gravitas attached to the relaunch goes beyond a back-to-basics approach. Something of an unspoken apology exists between the franchise and the audience; "Okay, we're sorry for what we did with your beloved characters and stories. Let's try that again, shall we?" Fine directors are hired, the script is given care and thought, and forgotten concepts like meaning and theme take the place of gimmicks and fluff.
The question, really, is why the audience is so quick to buy it. To be fair, most of the major relaunches have been pretty darned good (Rob Zombie's Halloween is a major exception.) But the very concept of a franchise hitting the reset button seems to create buzz and convince audiences to give a stale franchise another look; the numbers, especially those on opening weekend, reflect this. Is there a sense of misplaced nostalgia at play here – the notion that we're not going to see another Bond film, we're on some level going to see the first Bond film? Bond is the best example of this built-in relaunch bump; the star was untested, the director less than a household name, the script rewritten and tossed around. Still, audiences were hooked by the concept of the relaunch and an effectively marketed film.
A renewed sense of realism doesn't hurt, either. Verisimilitude may be a preposterous thing to look for in series like Star Trek and Bond, but this is the era of reality TV, after all. Audiences want to be close to their characters; far from fanboy worship, we want not just to admire Batman, but to actually understand him. The signature of the reboot movement seems to be making humans out of aging characters; showing the uncertainty of a James Kirk or the pain of a James Bond seems to be what the crowds are asking for. Even Zombie's Halloween went that route, despite the fact that exploring Michael Myers' psyche is laughable (a fact reflected by both critical response and box office returns.)
A portion of the relaunch bump can be attributed to new fans eager to start from the top; the casual fan may not want to fill in the blanks between a long series of Star Trek media, but be more than willing to give the characters a shot if they're willing to start fresh. And, to be sure, a portion of this effect is little more than effective and convincing marketing, packaging something old as brand new to great effect. There is an indisputable quick response to the presentation of a relaunch, however; audiences are too easily brought in for it to be coincidence and marketing.
The fact of the matter is simply that moviegoers want to like what they're presented with, and want to be big film fans. Any self-proclaimed film buff worth his or her popcorn gets sheepish when faced with a franchise they know nothing about; even casual patrons enjoy the opportunity to feel like a follower of a series and a true believer in a set of characters. Endless strings of sequels turn off casual viewers with complicated continuity and infuriate diehard fans by pushing reality aside; the relaunch can entice new and old fans alike by remedying both problems. I expect we'll be seeing more and more reimaginings throughout the next decade, and inevitably, many will not be as good as the first few out of the gate. Still, the trend towards the relaunch is good for box office, and ultimately, the only thing saving many a tired franchise.