More than ever before, blockbuster franchises are dominating the box office - driving ticket sales records higher and higher. With a few exceptions, the most successful films in movie history (both domestic and globally) are sequels to popular franchises - and, as shared universes become even more prolific, that trend is unlikely to slow down any time soon. The result? Hopeful films that are not tied to fan-favorite properties often struggle to break through the clutter - discouraging studios from investing large budgets in anything but proven properties.
Without a bankable star or visionary director, having a good idea (that will cost a lot) simply isn't enough to get a film made. Compared to a numbered sequel in an established franchise, a new IP is almost always a higher risk (without drastically bigger box office potential). It's a troublesome standard - one that was very much on the mind of producers on the set of Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Animation's new collaboration Monster Trucks.
If you're unfamiliar with Monster Trucks, here's a quick rundown of the basic plot - as we reported in our Monster Trucks preview.
Tripp's town has been transformed by all this oil money. Friends sold land leases and their parents moved across town to bigger houses - and he doesn’t have any of that wealth. He wants to get out of town, so he’s been building a truck at a junkyard out of parts. He thinks he’s about to finish it - and then this thing comes and it gets him into trouble. But he befriends this thing, the creature, and he hides it. The creatures in our world are like octopuses on a beach. This giant thing can hardly move, but once it gets into the truck, it’s a super suit for the creature and it’s a super car for Tripp.
Some moviegoers will scoff at the idea. There's no question it's a zany premise - and would require the right filmmaker to turn that setup into a satisfying film. However, it's also not a premise the studio could deliver on a shoestring budget. Much of Monster Trucks was shot practically, with high-flying car action that was filmed using stunt cars (not CGI), and amended in post-production with a computer-generated main character inserted into each scene - meaning that in order to bring Tripp and his monster (Creatch) to the big screen, the studio would need to invest heavily in the idea and hope that audiences give the film a shot.
It's a challenge the producers know well - especially considering that Paramount Pictures is already familiar with big budget CGI franchise filmmaking, thanks to the mega-successful (and mega-costly Transformers series). Speaking to the challenge of introducing a new movie property into a medium dominated by sequels and superheroes, producer Mary Parent suggested the opportunity to do something new is both rewarding and extremely stressful:
I love the Transformers movies; it’s a high-class problem, you know what I mean? When you have a property like that. But, we don’t have the pressure of the creature not looking the way it does that we’ve know forever and ever and ever. We don’t have the pressure of those expectations. Certainly there’s the pressure of launching something new, but it’s also the excitement of it, as well. That’s one of the things I love about movies, having stories play out that could only play out on screen.
We’re trying to reverse engineer, we’re just trying to make a good movie and hope the rest comes from it. We’re just trying to tell a story that feels as though it would unfold this way, and bring it to a satisfying end. Certainly, it’s emotional, even in the previews it’s emotional to see Tripp and this creature, and the hope is that you would like to see them reunite. But, right now you just try to make a good movie, and again, the rest comes. It always seems when you try to reverse engineer, it just never works out that way.
Parent elaborated on how the creative team approached introducing viewers to a new tale - crediting director Chris Wedge with ensuring that, even in a story about monsters that wield trucks as super suits, there's a relatable humanity to the main heroes - amidst fun visual spectacle:
He’s very human and he wants to tell stories that are about people that you care about and relate to, and he wants to tell positive stories and he wants to deliver an experience that can be for all audiences, and it’s nice to see that as opposed to what will just look cool, you know what I mean? It’s always: What would the characters do? What will be happening here first and foremost? And, then he understands the visuals, as well. When you look back at Scrat, which he’s also the voice of, he’s created some iconic characters. He understands how to use that medium and achieve storytelling from a purely visual sense, as well, or create other characters.
It'll be interesting to see what Wedge and his team have been able to do between their on-set stunts and post-production creature effects. No doubt, there's potential in the premise, especially as a film that will appeal to young moviegoers, but in order for Monster Trucks to ultimately make back its sizable budget and years of development, it'll need to make a major splash with audiences. If the director succeeds in blending high-flying car stunts, a fantastical creature, and grounded human drama, Wedge and Nickelodeon Movies may have something special on their hands - with the potential to build a new franchise.
Still, that's a tall order - especially when so many members of the Monster Trucks target audience have been wooed by established properties (Star Wars and Marvel, especially) that are dominating the box office and retail store shelves.
Monster Trucks is set for release on January 13, 2017.