Nine Films That Failed To Launch Franchises

Last month, Tom Cruise’s film Jack Reacher failed to make enough money at the box office to make the possibility of a sequel a sure thing. That comes as a blow as the film, an adaptation of the first book in a popular string of thriller novels from writer Lee Child, was being looked at as a potential new franchise for the star and the studio. But this is certainly not the first time that a potential franchise series has flamed out before it really had the chance to get going. We’ve taken a look at nine potential franchises – both book adaptations and original concepts – that had hopes dashed for further continuing adventures. (Don’t worry, we have a whole other list of just comic book adaptations that we will examine in the future.)


The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The 8th Dimension (1984) – Neurosurgeon – particle physicist – race car driver – rock star Buckaroo Banzai wasn’t just a renaissance man, he was a classic pulp hero filtered through the early 80s New Wave sensibilities. Surrounded by a group of scientists who were not only experts in their fields but every inch as intrepid an adventurer as he was, Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers could be seen as Doc Savage and his Fantastic Five in skinny ties, ready to stop the machinations of an evil Asian crime lord or an invasion of interdimensional aliens at the drop of a cowboy hat before heading out to the local blues club to lay down some hot licks.

Unfortunately, being dropped into the crazy world of Buckaroo and friends created by screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch proved a bit too hard to penetrate for some moviegoers. Lackluster support from the studio didn’t help matters and despite the film finding a devoted audience once it hit home video we still haven’t gotten the promised Buckaroo Banzai Versus The World Crime League. – Rich Drees


Sahara (2005) – Sahara was actually the second attempt to create a franchise out of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt character. The first failed attempt was 1980’s Raise the Titanic. Cussler, only five years into his writing career when the movie was filmed in 1978, did not have any creative control over the production. After the debacle of that film, which was both a critical and commercial flop, Cussler promised never to sell the rights to any of his novels to Hollywood ever again.

That promise stood for 20 years until Hollywood came to him with an offer Cussler, who by that time had a franchise worthy 15 Dirk Pitt novels, couldn’t refuse–$10 million per novel and creative control. Cussler exercised that control to the fullest, returning script after script for three years until the studio and producers had enough and finally cut ties with the author in 2003 and invalidated his agreement. An incensed Cussler sued–and used the publicity tour for any new novel to say how rotten the film would be and advising fans to stay away.

Having the author bad mouth the adaptation of one of his novels is never good, but casting also played an issue. Matthew McConaughey lobbied Cussler and the producers for the role of Dirk Pitt, a role he was ill suited for. McConaughey’s laid-back, beach bum persona and sun-kissed good looks were in contrast to Cussler’s Pitt, a gentlemanly rogue with a sarcastic wit, the type of man women want to be with and other men want to be, yet intelligent enough to figure out how a Confederate ship ended up in the Sahara desert. Think of Sean Connery of the 1960s, Burt Reynolds of 1970s, Harrison Ford of 1980s, George Clooney of the 1990s and the Gerard Butler, Clive Owen or Hugh Jackman (who was originally considered for the part) of the time the movie was made. You don’t think of Matthew McConaughey. I know of several Dirk Pitt fans who refused to see the film because McConaughey was in the lead role.

Cussler’s condemnation and McConaughey’s casting was a one-two punch. The film only made $122 million worldwide against a $160 million budget, and hope of a Dirk Pitt franchise sank. – William Gatevackes


Fletch (1986)/Fletch Lives (1989)– Based on the first installment of Gregory McDonald’s series of witty mystery novels, Fletch (1985) was the perfect marriage of star and material for comic actor Chevy Chase. And with the announcement of a sequel, Fletch Lives, it certainly seemed as if it could be a long and happy union. Unfortunately, the 1989 sequel did not fare as well with critics or ticket buyers and hopes for any further installments quickly dissipated.

So what happened? It seems that the filmmakers (director Michael Ritchie and screenwriter Leon Capetanos) decided to play up Chases comedic personality over the slightly more measured way he portrayed the character in the first film. Also, I would hazard to say that the idea to go with an original story rather than adapting another installment in McDonald’s series was a mistake. With a Presidential election just a few months in the past when the film opened, it seems like the smarter choice could perhaps have been to bring to the screen the novel Fletch And The Man Who, which sees the intrepid investigative reporter assigned by his editor to the pool of reporters following a popular presidential candidate through the election.

Since then, there have been attempts to relaunch a Fletch franchise from Kevin Smith, who stated it was McDonald’s novels that taught him about the importance of dialogue, Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, who was developing an adaption of the Fletch “origin” novel Fletch Won, and Hot Tub Time Machine director Steve Pink. All of which went nowhere. Currently, the film rights to the series are in Warner Brothers’ hands where former Seinfeld writer/producer Dave Mandel was reportedly working on “a reimagining, not a remake,” of the series. That was back in May of 2011, but since then there has been no further word. But I am sure that bit by bit, one way or another, Fletch will eventually make it back to theater screens. – RD


Megaforce (1982) – An ad for the Megaforce fan club ran on the back of every Marvel comic published in June of 1982. There were Hot Wheels tie-in replica vehicles and a Megaforce video game that you could play on your Atari 2600. A sequel, Deeds Not Words, was in the works before Megaforce even hit screens. It was obvious that people expected big things from film. Too bad it was completely horrible.

The film was mostly likely constructed in a boardroom by a bunch of 60-year old men who spend the better part of an hour racking their brains over what 12-year-old boys like. “My grandson Timmy likes dune buggies and motorcycles, let’s have our paramilitary unit ride those into battle. Only, let’s have them shoot rockets and fire lasers! And forget military uniforms, kids like pizazz! Let’s just ask the folks over at Solid Gold if they have any shiny spandex jumpsuits they can give us! And what bastion of masculinity should we get for Megaforce’s leader?  How about the the guy who played Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, only we put highlights in his hair, give him the feathered look and blow dry the dickens out of that mop of his! As for a director, why not that guy who directed the Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit! He’s the best choice to helm a futuristic war film!”

But all of these elements did not add up to the “cool” factor that Fox was looking for. Instead, it came off as so-bad-it’s-good camp. But not the kind of so-bad -its-good camp that puts butts in seats. Fox dumped $20 million into the film (by comparison,E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, released in 1982, had a budget of $10.5 Million, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, also released in 1982, had a budget of $11.2 million) and only made $5,675,599 in return. Not only did the franchise die, but also other planned merchandising tie-ins as well. As of yet, it still hasn’t received a proper DVD release. – WG


Brain Donors (1992) – Essentially a remake of the Marx Brothers classic A Night At The Opera, this is probably the least known product out of the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker camp that produced Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. But instead of the ZAZ team taking the directorial reigns themselves, they passed them off to Dennis Dugan (before he started doing all those Adam Sandler films), who worked from a screenplay by frequent ZAZ writing partner Pat Proft. John Turturro as ambulance chasing lawyer Roland T Flakfizer may seem like an odd choice to fill in the Groucho role, but he does so with a manic energy while rattling off such one-liners such as “A Flakfizer doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘No!’ We’re also a little fuzzy on ‘panaglutin’ and ‘viscosity.’” Add comics Mel Smith and Bob Nelson into the mix and you have an entertaining 80 minutes that leaves you wanting more.

Unfortunately, the studio dumped the film in just a few theaters in the spring of 1992 where it promptly vanished only to eventually find its audience on home video. A pity, as the comedic synergy between Turturro, Smith and Nelson could have been continued across a series of movies just like the Marx Brothers (Turturro stated in an AV Club interview that he was signed for sequels) with the trio being dropped into a number of situations to run riot and thumb their noses at establishment figures. – RD


The Golden Compass (2007) – The successful transition of the Harry Potter books to the big screen sent Hollywood scurrying to find the next popular kid-lit series that could translate into box office success. Not many of these potential franchises lived up to their potential (no mentioning any names Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Eragon). One that did was The Chronicles of Narnia. C.S. Lewis’ 1950’s classic was made into three very successful films in the Oughts before rights issues stopped the series cold.

In 1995, Phillip Pullman came out with  Northern Lights,the first of the “His Dark Materials” series, a series that many thought was a direct rebuttal of Lewis’ Narnia books. The Narnia books were heavy into Christian imagery to the point of becoming allegorical. Pullman’s work, on the other hand, was critical of the church to the point that he was accused of deliberately trying to undermine the Christian religion.

So, when filmmakers made The Golden Compass from Northern Lights, it wasn’t just an attempt to find another Harry Potter-like success, but also an attempt to play off the success of the Narnia franchise. However, even though the film toned down much of Pullman’s anti-church rhetoric, Christian groups still protested the film, calling for boycotts. The protest cost the film domestically, where it only made a shade over $70 million dollars. Although the film made more than its $180 million dollar budget back overseas (to the tune of over $302 million), New Line put production of any sequels on hold in 2008, and nothing has been heard since. One of the film’s actors, Sam Elliot, has been outspoken in blaming the Catholic Church for causing New Line to abort the franchise. – WG


Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – John Carpenter reteamed with his Escape From New York star Kurt Russell for this love letter to Hong Kong wuxia films filtered through distinctly western sesnabilities thanks to Carpenter’s twist of making Russell’s Jack Burton  the comic relief who just thinks he’s the lead character in this adventure. Unfortunately, it’s mixture of oddball comedy and adventure set in a world that may have been abit inaccessable to its audience placed it in the same club as The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai of films that finally found tehir audience on home video. (Unsurprisingly Buckaroo Banzai‘s director W. D. Richter worked on the final shooting script for Big Trouble which unfortunately led to the misten belief that one was originally indended to be a sequel to the other.)

The roaming nature of Russell’s truck driving Jack Burton was the perfect vehicle, if you’ll forgive the pun, to get Jack Burton from one adventure to another. And there is no shortage of regions in the country with its own supernatural beasties to fight. Just imagine Jack hunting bigfoots (bigfeet?) in the Pacific Northwest or fighting zombies in New Orleans or fending off some Lovecraftian horror in New England. – RD


King Solomon’s Mines (1985)/Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1987) – Many people might be asking, “If a film has a sequel, doesn’t that mean it is already a franchise? How could it fail to start?” Well, we are going to make and exception in this case. Why? Because King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold were shot at the same time. It was a pre-fab franchise right out of the box. However, odds are that if they tried to make a franchise out of the first film the old-fashion way, it might have been dead on arrival.

The film was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Indiana Jones franchise by adapting H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain series of books from the late 1800s-early 1900s to the big screen. Richard Chamberlain was miscast as the swashbuckling explorer and big game hunter and 27-year-old Sharon Stone chews up scenery as his ditzy consort.

The franchise faced a double-edged quandary. Why would anyone want a campy parody of the Indiana Jones franchise when the original  was still a going concern? And even if they did want a comedic look at the concept, why wouldn’t they go see the vastly superior Jewel of the Nile, which also released in 1985. King Solomon’s Mines did manage to earn slightly more than its production budget, but not enough for Cannon Films to feel confident in releasing the sequel until two years later. Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold only made $3,751,699 in theaters, which wasn’t even enough to have it listed in the top 100 highest grossing films of 1987. – WG


One for the Money (2012)Stephanie Plum, like Dirk Pitt, is one of the most successful characters in popular literature today. Created by Janet Evanovich in 1994, she has proven popular enough to headline 19 novels. Translating her to a big screen franchise would seem like a piece of cake. But it wasn’t.

Development on the film started back in 1997 but the character only made it to the screen in 2012. Katherine Heigl was cast as Plum and like Matthew McConaughey and Dirk Pitt, it was the case of the wrong actor for the role. Heigl’s silver screen work up to that point was in romantic comedies like Knocked Up and 28 Dresses and didn’t have the air of believability to play a bounty hunter, even a novice one like Plum. Also, even though she wore a brown wig for the role, the German/Irish Heigl wasn’t a good physical match for the image of the Hungarian/Italian Plum.

If the poor casting wasn’t enough, the film was so bad that the studio released the film in January and refused to screen it for critics. There was a reason–it was awful. When the critics did get a chance to review it, they savaged it. It holds a 2% fresh at Rotten with only one review out of 54 giving it a positive review, and he only liked it in a “guilty pleasure” sort of way. Ouch. The Stephanie Plum franchise was dead on arrival. – WG

Avatar für William Gatevackes
About William Gatevackes 1985 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken, and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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February 6, 2013 10:44 am

Great list, Rich!

I’ve read that DOG SOLDIERS was supposed to be the first in a trilogy. The premise was that Kevin McKidd’s character was going to be the John McClane of horror, finding himself in absurd situations against monsters.

also, does Asylum’s Allan Quatermain movie count as part of the franchise?

Mike Burgess
Mike Burgess
May 17, 2015 11:49 am

You forgot Eragon…

Worst movie adaptation EVAH!

Anthony Lovell
Anthony Lovell
October 4, 2020 1:52 pm

Jack Reacher was another bad miscasting, that dwarf Cruise is nothing like Jack Reacher.