"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" hardly marks an end.
With the latest in Walt Disney Co.'s lucrative series reaping an unprecedented $401 million globally in its debut through the Memorial Day weekend, the question of whether there will be a fourth installment has effectively been answered.
Sure, producer Jerry Bruckheimer is coy, saying he and his mates need a break. But he already has rights to a book that could end up as another installment.
Star Johnny Depp? He hasn't promised another voyage, but he clearly loves the flamboyant, irreverent Jack Sparrow character, telling one interviewer: "As long as you're doing it for the right reasons, why not?"
In today's Hollywood, blockbuster franchises function almost as independent corporations that, once up and running, can't easily be mothballed. Which is why another "Pirates" is pretty much a given.
"When these franchises become part of the world's culture, they take on a life of their own," said Dick Cook, Disney's studio chairman, who says he's on board for another "Pirates" if the script is right and the filmmakers are willing.
Enter the era of the unlimited sequel. DreamWorks Animation SKG began developing a fourth "Shrek" film more than a year ago -- long before "Shrek the Third" was even finished, said Anne Globe, the Glendale studio's head of marketing. The next installment is slated for 2010.
A fourth installment of "Spider-Man" -- the third one just debuted May 4 -- has been in the works for more than a month, with the studio circling screenwriters it may tap.
"If you want the kind of longevity we're hoping for with 'Spider-Man,' you have to think of them as stand-alone movies, not '1-2-3-4,' " said Amy Pascal, Sony Pictures' studio chairman. "They're sort of like the James Bond stories."
One reason the big franchise machines keep operating is the special effects-laden movies have become ever bigger and more costly -- making and marketing May's three megasequels cost more than $1 billion altogether -- and they require elaborate planning. Studios also need long lead times to line up marketing alliances.
Disney worked with 13 promotional partners to help spread the word on "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," including Volvo, Verizon, Coca-Cola, Circuit City, Best Buy, Toys R Us and Starwood Hotels. Even the obscure, Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration -- which recently made headlines when it reported recovering 17 tons of treasure from a shipwreck in the Atlantic -- signed on.
Nonetheless, the sheer size of the summer blockbusters can drain filmmakers. Bruckheimer said there would at least be a respite after the production of back-to-back sequels to the 2003 original "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."
"We've been working on this trilogy for 5 1/2 years, and the latest one was just a monster," he said in an interview from Tokyo for last week's premiere. "It's always about making sure you have a great story with interesting plots, themes and characters. There is a possibility -- we'll see what happens."
Though Bruckheimer and Disney executives say the "Pirates" trilogy has concluded, they hint that the series could continue through a spinoff or prequel. In an interview with an Australian film website, screenwriter Terry Rossio said he and partner Ted Elliott would take a crack at another "Pirates" script and see if they could make it work.
Big franchises also take on a life of their own by reaching beyond the multiplex into TV, stage and theme parks. DreamWorks Animation is wrapping up a network special, "Shrek the Halls," for this holiday season, and the big green ogre is headed for the Broadway stage in a 2008 musical.
The franchise sequels can pay off not just for studios but for the entire industry. For the first time, Hollywood could be en route to more than $4 billion in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales for its extended summer season, thanks largely to momentum from this month's trio of high-profile "three-quels."
"Spider-Man 3" reset the opening weekend standard with its $151-million domestic launch early this month, while "Pirates" this past weekend broke the domestic holiday record with $142 million, according to the research firm Media by Numbers. "Shrek the Third" set a new mark this month for animated films by debuting at $122 million.
On a worldwide basis, Disney says its "Pirates" overtook "Spider-Man 3's" $382-million six-day haul -- a 3-week-old record. Privately, Sony executives questioned Disney's decision to include Monday's overseas grosses, as well as Thursday night's "pre-opening" sales in the U.S., in the total.
In generating the huge box-office numbers this month, studios overcame concerns about the kind of sequel fatigue that in the past plagued such franchises as "Batman" and "Superman" before they were revived.
Using pricey marketing campaigns, Hollywood sought to convince prospective moviegoers that the latest versions of "Spider-Man," "Shrek" and "Pirates" weren't just retreads. Reviews were mixed, but fans still went in droves to see all three.
In Southern California, moviegoers interviewed were divided on the prospect of a fourth "Pirates" after watching the latest chapter, which clocked in at nearly three hours.
Elizabeth Lopez, 24, of Long Beach, suspected the latest "Pirates" might disappoint as the third film in the series.
"But it actually was very good," she said. "Yes, I'm hoping they make another one because of the way it ended."
But Richard Kirk, 69, of Bellflower, has seen enough.
"It just gets rather complicated, especially the first part of it," he said. "I really think they should leave it at three."
Times staff writer Robert Welkos contributed to this report.