Recently, I discussed how one possible reason for Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) hiring Channing Tatum to play Gambit in X-Men: Apocalypse might be to place Gambit in the "starring" role that Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has had in the series thus far. This wasn't exactly a popular notion, and the reaction to the article brings up a very good point: even though some fans think that Wolverine has gotten too much of the focus in the X-films, he's still a very popular character and won't be easily replaced.
While it's unlikely that Fox would lock down a major multi-film contract with Jackman to get him to reprise the role in a number of films and spin-offs, the studio would be well served by a contract similar to the one Robert Downey Jr. signed with Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Studios. This would allow Wolverine to appear in a few more core "X-Men" films, while stand-alones and spinoffs could focus on other characters.
The 'Iron Man' solution
There are several similarities between Jackman's position regarding Wolverine and Downey's position on playing Tony Stark/Iron Man. Both actors are among the oldest members of the current casts of their franchise (in Jackman's situation, this would refer to the younger X-Men: First Class-era cast, who will be the main cast of the franchise moving forward). Both have expressed concerns about the roles eventually being recast within the past year, especially in regard to Wolverine whose healing factor significantly slows his aging.
When Downey's contract expired, negotiations led to him signing a smaller contract to reprise the Iron Man role in upcoming "Avengers" films but not in stand-alone films. Such an agreement would work well for Jackman and the "X-Men" films, allowing both Jackman and the studio (and hopefully the fans) to benefit.
Why the studio should act now
Fox would likely benefit the most from such a deal, as it would lock Jackman in to reprise the character at least a few more times at what would likely be a lower rate than if each film were negotiated separately. It would also ensure that the studio could plan out at least a few more Wolverine appearances without having to recast, since a film-to-film approach would depend on Jackman's willingness to reprise the role as well.
With the positive reviews that X-Men: Days of Future Past has been getting and the franchise working its way back up from the lows it hit after X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (two films that were negatively received and which may have played a part in First Class' box office slump), now would be the time to negotiate. If Apocalypse receives a bump from Future Past's rising star (similar to the post-Avengers bump that several Marvel films received and the post-X2 bump that made The Last Stand the biggest box-office success of the franchise despite being panned by fans) then the cost of securing the actor for additional follow-ups will likely only rise.
Spin-offs and stand-alones
A contract that covered two or three films (similar to Downey's two-film "Avengers" contract) would ensure that Wolverine was present for major team-ups while allowing the studio to test the waters with its new talent as well. While a "Magneto" stand-alone was once planned as a follow-up to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, plans for it seem to have been scrapped once the first Wolverine solo film was reviewed so poorly. Now, such films could help to fill the gaps between primary "X-Men" releases similar to the approach that Disney is taking with its Marvel and Star Wars properties.
In addition to potential stand-alone films with characters like Michael Fassbender's Magneto (which has been hinted at a few times, though is far from confirmed), Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique (who James McAvoy suggested might make a good "face" for the franchise), or Gambit, the studio could also create stand-alone appearances for popular mutants as a way to introduce them to the X-Men cinematic universe. While this may seem crowded, writer-producer Simon Kinberg has stated that the studio is looking at how to manage the future of the franchise and is taking some cues from Marvel Studios (to the point of possibly considering an X-universe TV series as well.)
Setting the stage for annual film releases exploring different characters wouldn't be that far-fetched, especially since other teams such as X-Force are purported to be in the works. Adding solo films every few years would help the studio to keep a consistent release schedule without having to rush to churn out additional X-Men films or sequels for the sake of sequels for untested properties like the "Fantastic Four" reboot.
Will the studio sign Jackman?
Signing Hugh Jackman to a multi-film contract would make a lot of sense for Fox, though as yet there's no indication that negotiations are under way. If such a contract were signed, it might not be for a few years; as Jackman still has at least one or two more appearances planned as the character, there isn't any pressure on the studio at the moment despite the potentially increasing pricetag of signing him for additional appearances.
If such a contract does eventually get signed, though, it will be interesting to see whether it's for only "X-Men" films or if the character will continue to dominate the solo films as well.