Brand recognition helps drive viewers to movies: thirteen out of the top fifteen worldwide grossing films of all time (unadjusted for inflation) are either adaptations or sequels. Only two entries are entirely original (Avatar and Titanic), indicating that casual viewers are eager to support new installments in established franchises or big screen adaptations of popular book series, among other familiar properties. In fact, despite strong critical support and positive word of mouth, Inception only comes in at number thirty-six on that list - suggesting that many moviegoers respond to branding and name recognition over original (and as a result unknown) movie experiences.
It's no wonder that studios are always on the prowl for a new comic book to adapt, a new toy line to resurrect, or a new young adult readership to exploit. That said, for every Iron Man, Transformers, or Twilight, there's a franchise bomb waiting to happen (Green Hornet, Battleship, or Beautiful Creatures). For that reason, not every established IP is going to mean big box office dollars.
In the last two years, Disney produced two highly publicized bombs based on known characters (John Carter and The Lone Ranger) - both of which cost over $200 million to produce. On paper, adaptations of either property might have sounded like a good idea (John Carter even secured decent reviews) but their flat box office returns indicate that neither brand was as strong as studio heads assumed. Instead of committing a nine-figure budget to a proposed movie, based predominantly on branding and merchandising potential, Hollywood needs to adjust (especially considering that overstuffed summer movie slate) and show a little more restraint. Executives would benefit from becoming more selective (and a little less naive) regarding which properties will compete at the modern movie theater - or, at the very least, which ones can actually make good on a $100 million+ budget.