The Future of Franchising: The Shared Universe

Pim Razenberg on the future of franchising…

Around the start of the new millennium a change occurred in Hollywood; a change that had been brewing for a while. The production of cinematic sequels to popular movies proved to warrant a strong outcome at the box office and studios were looking for ways to exploit their sequels in a more effective manner.

Without further warning, 2001’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring broke all box office conventions. Due to their immense success, the concept of “media franchises” dawned on the world, giving new meaning to the business term “franchise”. Hollywood’s adaptation of the term – their substitution for the then more common term “(film) series” – indicated a fusion between media and merchandise aimed for longevity. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings proved that producing movies and sequels based on pre-existing material was a good strategy to create a steady stream of sure-fire box office hits, rather than betting on the next Ivan Reitman-movie to become a success.

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Though sequels were already commonplace at the time, they were, with some notable exceptions, planned one by one, step by step, based on the outcome of its predecessor’s success. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings ignored this approach and instead contracted its stars for a set number of films, guaranteeing their return to the big screen if the public’s response was favourable. The Lord of the Rings took the new approach even further than its magical British cousin, by filming all three of its instalments back-to-back like only a handful of film series had done before.

The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean quickly followed suit and many, many other new “franchises” were planned by the Hollywood studio heads, more often than not signing the franchises’ main stars for a “three picture deal”. Some of these franchises (re)launched well, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hunger Games and Twilight, but not all proved to be successful: Prince of Persia, The Golden Compass and The Mortal Instruments, as well as the planned “sequel trilogies” to The Mummy, Indiana Jones and The Terminator failed to become the “blockbuster franchises” the studios had hoped for. Hollywood’s newly adopted “franchising strategy” was thus successfully applied to produce a series of great box office hits, but like other strategies, also at times faltered when results felt flat of expectations.

Each new strategy – whether it’s the latest fantasy-fad or the application of a business-wide franchising model – is eventually met with stagnating profits, and within Hollywood’s multi-billion dollar industry, that’s not considered as a good thing. Steady profits are considered unfavourable; as any other business, most Hollywood studios aim for a yearly profit increase, which means having to continuously search for new business models that can provide them with a steadier, more secure way to produce movies at a high success rate.

With so many franchises clogging up the yearly box office it was only a matter of time before “the next big thing” would come along: in 2012 Marvel Studios introduced Hollywood to a new business model: interconnected franchising, or: the merger of pre-existing franchises into one singular mega-franchise, stretched across all aspects of the industry, branching into film, television, online media, music, gaming and merchandising.

Marvel Studios’ so called “cinematic universe” was the first of its kind, but its base can be found in the publication of both traditional American comic books as well as similar earlier conceived cameo-based “shared universes”, such as the Disney universe, in which random Disney characters pop up in other movies and Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse, in which characters from one film would often reappeared in other instalments. Marvel Studios was, however, the first studio to combine the 21st century-franchising and contracting business model, while also interlinking a series of major franchises into one mega-franchise: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

One mega-movie and 1.5 billion dollars later, studios wrote the 2001 Hogwarts express off as old-fashioned, strapped on their capes and scrambled up all their forgotten toys from the basement floor to put them all together on the big screen, ready to flood the world in a sea of “cinematic universes” – much like they had started to flood the world with “franchises” a decade earlier.

Sony was the first to head-over-heels rip up its intended plans for The Amazing Spider-Man franchise to make way for an adaptation of Marvel Studios’ new mega-franchising model… and by doing so wound up ripping apart their entire franchise. Warner Bros. followed Marvel Studios’ example with more caution, pushing back their release date for the Man of Steel-sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, not just to allow for the film to be properly developed, but also to be able to flesh out the overall intended storyline for their new-born “DC Comics cinematic universe”.

What arguably should’ve ended there since then progressed into idiocracy. Universal, having none of the world’s classic superheroes under its belt, introduced audiences to their version of the “shared universe” with Dracula Untold, hoping to re-launch a series of franchises based on their back catalogue of classic monster movies, the same monsters who then one day will unite in an Avengers-style mega-movie. Much like 2004’s Van Helsing; but surely better…

Meanwhile, Sony admitted to having screwed up the (Amazing) Spider-Man franchise and decided to instead put other ideas for “shared universes” in production, such as the “Robin Hood shared movie universe” with movies dedicated to Robin, Little John, Friar Tuck and Maid Marion; and the “Ghostbusters shared universe”, detailing an all-female and an all-male spin-off movie. Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures then added a six-movie ‘‘Knights of the Roundtable’ King Arthur shared universe’ to the mix, Valiant Comics promises to create “the largest independent superhero universe” based on their own heroes, and Columbia Pictures is contemplating to make a 21 Jump Street and Men in Black crossover, because, why the hell not? Additionally, existing franchises such as The Expendables, Star Wars, X-Men, Madagascar and Despicable Me are also attempting to expand their “cinematic universes” by producing (spin-off) movies based on old and new characters.

As it seems, a new production strategy has taken over Hollywood; a strategy that comes with the promise of box office gold to those who handle it well, yet a strategy that will also no doubt claim just as many victims as the franchising strategy did before. Though at the moment we only have the widely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe and two cinematic universes’ “first instalments” – Man of Steel and Dracula Untold – to enjoy, it won’t be long before audiences will be invited to join the major studios in their attempts at cinematic world-building… and those same audiences will no doubt start to feel the queasy aftereffects of 2012’s The Avengers soon enough.

For now it seems the Hollywood studios are pampering their previously much-ignored fan-boy audiences, creating a series a mega-franchises coming straight from the pages of America’s favourite comic books, as well as producing a plethora of prequels, sequels and “soft-reboots” of old fan-favourites to keep their existing franchises alive and kicking. If anything, The Avengers taught Hollywood’s studios that a bit of long-term investment can lead to a very rich pay-off, and while today most of their cinematic universes are still in their infancy, the studios’ plans are getting increasingly bigger. To keep their plans in check, Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. already started signing their main stars for “six picture deals” or more.

Whether the idea of “shared universes” will grow tiresome before its largest tent pole centrepieces, Avengers: Infinity War – Part I & II and The Justice League – Part One and Two roll into cinemas is questionable, however, it can be assumed that in a decade from now that shiny superhero cape the studios heroically strapped on will look far less attractive to Hollywood’s money-hungry studio heads. Though both story-wise and financially it wouldn’t make much sense now to merge the different studios’ separate (mega) franchises, it is not unthinkable that in 2028 Superman, Wolverine and the Hulk will be squaring off against Galactus together…

Meanwhile, I think now is the time to make that Roger Rabbit-sequel!

This article was first published on FlickeringMyth.com.

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