LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood is banking on the future this summer -- and not just a future where Capt. Kirk orders warp speed or Tony Stark builds a better Iron Man outfit.
Though some film franchises seem to live on forever, most come with a shelf life, leaving studios always hunting for new ones.
The new stuff this summer could be a sign of what you'll be seeing for years to come if movies such as Brad Pitt's zombie fest "World War Z," Guillermo del Toro's robots-vs.-sea-monsters tale "Pacific Rim" and Johnny Depp's buddy Western "The Lone Ranger" connect with audiences. There's also that orphan from Krypton in the latest Superman revival, "Man of Steel," who seems ripe for a new franchise in this age of superhero blockbusters.
"Introducing a new audience to a new idea about Superman is great and fertile ground, because there is so much to be explored," said Amy Adams, who plays Lois Lane opposite Henry Cavill as Superman in director Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel." "There's such a rich comic-book history and so many ideas that have not been touched on over the years."
"Man of Steel" distributor Warner Bros. has had tremendous franchise success with "Harry Potter," "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," "The Dark Knight" and "The Hangover," whose finale arrives this May.
The studio tried reviving the Krypton kid with "Superman Returns" in 2006. The movie's nearly $400 million worldwide box-office receipts were OK, but in an era of billion-dollar blockbusters, it didn't warrant more of the same with that cast and crew.
As Sony Pictures did with last summer's "The Amazing Spider-Man," a fresh beginning for that superhero after three smash films, Warner started over on Superman, with no guarantee "Man of Steel" will do franchise-worthy business.
Superman at least has an audience and track record. Hollywood's bigger risks this summer are costly action spectacles with little or no big-screen history.
Warner's "Pacific Rim" has a visionary creator in filmmaker del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy"), but he has yet to deliver a monster hit. "World War Z" has Pitt and is inspired by the best-seller about a global zombie outbreak, but Paramount had to delay it from last year for a month of reshoots that included a new ending. Clayton Moore's "The Lone Ranger" has lived on for half a century in TV reruns, and the new film reunites the crew behind "Pirates of the Caribbean": Depp, Disney, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
But the Wild West generally has been on the outs for decades, while fans have to wonder if Depp's Tonto, opposite Armie Hammer's masked Lone Ranger, is just his latest exercise in costumed weirdness. Audiences bought Depp's Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Mat Hatter; they didn't buy his bizarre vampire in last summer's dud "Dark Shadows."
"This has been a big, expensive Western, and if it doesn't do well, it's probably going to be one of the nails in the coffin of big, expensive Westerns," said Hammer, best known for a dual role as the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network." Yet Depp, Verbinski and Bruckheimer are "like a franchise factory. They know what sells popcorn."
The thing that's always lacking with new ideas, no matter how big the stars, is audience goodwill for what came before. Robert Downey Jr. was a huge question mark with 2008's "Iron Man." Now, next week's "Iron Man 3" is almost a guaranteed good time after what he's delivered before.
J.J. Abrams' take on "Star Trek" was a gamble in 2009. His sequel, "Star Trek Into Darkness," is hotly awaited after the first one took off.
"Starting something new, you're taking a huge risk," said "World War Z" director Marc Forster. "When you have a built-in audience, you can take bigger risks knowing it worked before. That's not a guarantee it's going to work again, but doing something more original I find more exciting and interesting."
Audiences weren't excited by most of the new worlds they saw last summer. The 2012 record box-office year faltered during its busy season, when franchises such as "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" soared but newcomers such as "Battleship" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" flopped.
This summer's newbies have promise -- on paper, at least. Among them: Will Smith's sci-fi adventure "After Earth"; Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx's terrorist tale "White House Down"; Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds' back-from-the-dead cop story "R.I.P.D."; and Matt Damon's futuristic thriller "Elysium."
"Elysium" writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who scored a summer 2009 hit with "District 9," said he's not set against the franchise business but that he prefers developing original ideas.
"From my perspective, the only reason that those kinds of decisions get made is really just a fiscal reason. How do we as a publicly held company get money this year? Well, let's make films we know are going to generate profits, because audiences like them and we can make sequels," Blomkamp said. "That's not always the best place to start off if you want to make something newer or a little different. I want to see new stuff. I want to make new stuff."
"White House Down" director Roland Emmerich ("The Day After Tomorrow," "2012") has never been big on franchises, either, though he's developing ideas for follow-ups to his 1996 blockbuster "Independence Day."
"Working in this town for 22 years, I can see how the whole business is more and more determined by franchises. I know why. That kind of marketing and just making the films is so expensive, what you're buying yourself is already a known name that also already has fans," Emmerich said. "There are some crazy people out there like me who try to do original movies. There are some terrific sequels, but most of the time, it's more of the same."
Among the summer sequels and prequels ("The Wolverine," "Fast & Furious 6," "Grown Ups 2," "Monsters University," "Despicable Me 2" and "The Smurfs 2") are newcomers that include the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy "The Internship," the Seth Rogen-James Franco apocalypse spoof "This Is the End," and the cartoon tales "Epic," "Turbo" and "Planes."
Who knows which ones will connect with crowds and return with a "2" or a "3" after their titles years down the road?
Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann at least can make a pledge about his summer offering.
"I can pretty much tell you there's not going to be a 'Great Gatsby 2,"' Luhrmann said of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire.
"There are a lot of `3s' out there. That doesn't mean to say 'Iron Man 3' can't be great. It can be fantastic, but it's the third one. Whereas, there are a few first-timers out there, and that makes for a nice smorgasbord. We all look forward to a good summer franchise picture, but there better be a few births out there, too."