When it comes to summer blockbusters, Hollywood is always looking for the next big franchise. I’m writing this in mid-July, and every single week since April has had at least one big franchise film released. In just the last two months, we’ve had three comic book movies, multiple fifth films in series, multiple third films in animated series, and multiple remakes of classic source material. And this isn’t even an exhaustive list of the franchise films of the last 10 weeks.
When I refer to a big franchise, I’m talking about a film adaptation of a popular work or a series of connected films. This would include adaptations of books, TV shows, classic stories, remakes, reboots, or sequels. Today, it’s becoming more and more common for franchises to feature spin-offs, shared universes, and television adaptations.
But it wasn’t always like this. Now, certainly, Hollywood has always looked for familiar stories to tell, but the current obsession with making movies intended to setup multi-film, multi-media series is fairly new.
In many ways, Planet of the Apes (1968) was the original modern day franchise, and way ahead of its time.
La Planète des Singes
In 1963, a French author named Pierre Boulle published a book titled, La Planète des Singes. Shortly afterward, the book released in the United Kingdom under the title, Monkey Planet, and in the United States as Planet of the Apes. Before the book had even been published, a Hollywood producer purchased the rights to the story. When it came time to hire a screenwriter, one of the first people to write a version of the script was Rod Serling, the creator of and writer behind The Twilight Zone. Eventually, one of the biggest actors at the time, Charlton Heston, signed on to star in the film.
Looking back on the movie, the special effects and make up look incredibly dated. At times, the ape make-up is borderline laughably bad but, at the time, it was revolutionary. Eventually, the film went on to win Academy Awards for both the make-up and the costume designs.
Upon release, the film was an instant hit that made the studio a lot of money.
Quickly, they started to scramble to create a follow up. Once again, Rod Serling was brought in to brainstorm ideas. Eventually, his ideas were discarded, but that didn't slow down the push for sequels. From 1970 to 1975, four cinematic sequels, a live action television series, and an animated series were produced based off of Planet of the Apes. While none of the sequels had the critical acclaim of the original film, the series cemented it's place in the pop culture.
Looking back on The Planet of the Apes series, it was truly ahead of its time. So many common troupes of modern day franchises are present within The Planet of the Apes series.
From the beginning, the first film was a big budget adaptation of a book with big name talent in front of and behind the cameras. The sequel, like so many sequels, feels like a cheap rehash of the first film. While the story goes in a very different direction, the film starts with a very similar premise of astronauts crash landing on the planet, and the new lead actor looks unusually similar to Charleton Heston. Since the ending of the 2nd film didn't really lend itself to a continuation of the story, the third film did what so many recent franchises have done, and functioned as a prequel. Technically, the events of parts three, four, and five continue the characters’ journey forward in their lives but, since the plot involves time travel, it also functions as a prequel to the first film. Then, finally, the fifth film petered out with a lackluster and totally forgettable story that was supposed to lead into the first film. Likewise, the television shows have mostly been forgotten by time.
Eventually, in true franchise fashion, the series received a blockbuster remake with a massive 21st century budget, an a-list director, and an a-list cast. And, like many remakes, it did well at the box-office, but it wasn’t necessarily received well by fans. Then, defying the odds, it received a second reboot/remake that was loved by both fans and critics, starting a brand new franchise inside of the franchise.
While I can’t say with a straight face that this is a great franchise (the quality is wildly inconsistent), it did forge the path that has now been mimicked, ripped-off, and improved upon. Planet of the Apes truly was the original modern day franchise.