Update: This post serves as an introduction to the concept of what a Megafranchise is. It is worth reading if you are interested in this. However if you are interested in the current happenings in the world of megafeanchises, please check out an update I recently wrote: The Return of the Rise of the Megafranchise
Up until October 2012, I had not been paying too much attention to big-budget Hollywood blockbusters for many a year. Michael Bay had destroyed my faith in humanity with his version of Transformers, and I could not really be bothered to go see the latest half-assed superhero movie that was being sold to me by ads on the internet. Then in October 2012, George Lucas sold the Star Wars Universe to Walt Disney Studios. One of the key things I remember from the press release of that deal was the CEO of Disney proclaiming that their plan was to ultimately release one Star Wars movie, every year. As It took me a while to process the fact that my disillusionment with Star Wars would be forever directly related (indeed: a function of) how many years I remain on this earth, I realised that the blockbuster business must have changed somehow. Surely there was no public demand whatsoever for a new Star Wars movie. I believe I was right, no one wants a Star Wars Episode VII. Yet the Star Wars brand had innocently got caught up with demand from the other side of the industry: big movie studios did not want to buy the rights to movies anymore, they wanted to buy universes.
What’s a Megafranchise?
The traditional format of a high profile movie franchise involves a simple linear structure. There is a first movie, which introduces the characters, and perhaps could be an origin story of how a superhero gets his/her powers. This first movie ends with the character relatively comfortable in his/her environment, but also sets up any potential tension which could appear in a possible sequel (Batman Begins, The Matrix, you can think of many more). If the film does well financially, further movies are scheduled. Movie II will run with what was set up at the end of the first movie, and will often be a much darker story, putting the protagonist through a whole lot of grief, leaving him/her torn emotionally, and these issues are resolved in Movie III, which wraps up the Traditional Movie Trilogy, the benchmark of cinematic franchises. By this time, half a decade has passed in our world, and the stars of the movies, who were cast years back as relative unknowns, will now cost a whole lot more to resign for further deals, and anyway, the story arc that the moviemakers have been working towards is complete, so why do more movies? Unfortunately the Hollywood system demands more of everything that makes money, so the time comes for a reboot. This is the traditional life-cycle of a Hollywood movie franchise (Batman, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four), and when we think about it, it is perfectly linear: each movie in the trilogy goes in one direction, moving the story along towards the inevitable climax at the end of the third movie. Contrast that now with the story progression of the main arm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which deals with the Avengers. The road to the first Avengers movie started in summer 2008, with the release of the first Iron Man movie, and an Incredible Hulk movie a few months later. These movies, and the Thor, Captain America and second Iron Man movies which followed over the next four years, were all subtly interwoven, as elements from each individual hero would crop up in each movie, reinforcing an idea that they all existed in the same fictional world. Inevitably, this led to all of the characters meeting up and joining together for Avengers Assemble in 2012. Events in that movie have an effect on all of the main characters, which sets up their once-again individual adventures in movies that have appeared over the past two years. The universe will be shaken up again next year when they all get together for Avengers: Age of Ultron, which will once again set up the next ‘wave’ of individual stories for the main characters.
The scope here is far from linear: it is not correct to say Iron Man is a prequel to Avengers Assemble, nor is it correct to say that Thor 2 (Thor: The Dark World , but come on, who has seen this??) is a direct sequel to the original Thor. While not exactly a mosaic of rich storytelling, there is something going on here which departs significantly from the traditional Hollywood franchise system, and this is best defined by referring to plot progression. In summary, everyone can do their own thing on their own time, but the only thing that drives the plot forward are the main gangbang movies. Tony Stark can have an existential crisis, Thor can work through his issues with Natalie Portman, and Captain America can battle corruption in Washington DC, but at the end of the day they will all reappear in the next Avengers movie in a world pretty much unchanged from the end of the last one.
In the traditional linear franchise system, the entire of the MCU Wave 1 (until Avengers: Assemble), would have been the first movie, the origin story. The problem was that introducing the entire Avengers cast in one movie would be impossible, and most importantly, from a financial point of view, each of the main Avengers is individually highly marketable, and therefore solo movies to introduce them were scheduled, culminating in a get-together. This was planned all the way back in the mid-2000’s, when Marvel Comics established Marvel Studios and appointed Keven Feige to curate the long-term direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first of what is now known as a megafranchise. Actors cast in major roles were signed on for up to 10 movies at a time, meaning the studio could not be ransomed by a newly famous star that they had created. There was no way at the time to know how successful the project would be, yet 9 movies later, the main MCU movies have earned over $6.5 billion from a production budget averaging about $170m per movie, not counting merchandising revenue (nor marketing costs). In a Hollywood era going through real decline due to movie piracy, these numbers are significant, and the megafranchise model was obviously going to reverberate throughout the industry.
The most glaring admirer of the MCU has to be Warner Brothers plans in ramping up the expansion of their own DC Comics back catalogue. In the past year, alarm bells have obviously been ringing at the studio, since 2015s Man of Steel II has evolved from a simple Superman sequel, into a Superman v Batman movie, and now has been pushed back a year in order to fit as many elements as possible in there that will set up its Justice League movies, as well as ancillary characters such as Wonder Woman and The Flash, for individual movies in between. Warner Brothers have directly copied the Marvel approach, albeit with seemingly less planning, as last years Man of Steel has now been retroactively designated as the beginning of the DC Cinematic Universe.
As well as DC Comics, Disneys acquisition of Star Wars was done with the express intent to ultimately release one Star Wars movie per year, forever. This will be achieved through the production of endless sequel trilogies, as well as spinoffs for popular characters (Han Solo and Boba Fett will have their own mini-franchises within five years). Kathleen Kennedy, who was appointed as head of the new megafranchise, emphasises that spinoff movies will not affect the main plot of the series however, which is a minor blessing.
As a true fan of both Batman and Star Wars, I weep for the inevitable dilution and saturation of both ‘brands’, yet I do see the business logic behind it, and appreciate that the people behind it are just playing catch-up in a crowded market. The DC and Star Wars megafranchises will be highly lucrative for their respective movie studios. Pity however, Sony and 20th Century Fox, who were played a bad hand in the megafranchise game and now have to try and do the best with what they were given. Both benefitted from a turbulent period in Marvels history at the beginning of the millennium, when the comic book company was close to bankruptcy, and each studio bought the rights to superhero characters that they would turn into highly successful film franchises in the first decade of the 21st Century.
Sony own Spider-Man, while Fox have the X-Men. In order to keep up with the other studios, both studios have to try and create a megafranchise out of these relatively sparse fictional worlds. The team behind Spider-Man are furthest ahead in all of this, as anyone who saw this year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 will realise that they have just been force-fed a crappy Spider-Man side story along with an introduction to characters they want us to pay to watch in a solo movie in the next few years (Sinister Six). Of all the megafranchises, this one seems to have the least substance to work with, and looks destined to fail. The story of Sony and X-Men seems less clear. This years Days of Future Past brought a lot of characters together that could spinoff into solo movies (I would be very surprised if Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique doesn’t get her own movie), and I expect an announcement on future series expansion in the next few months (this post will be updated if this happens), but at the moment all that is planned is an ensemble X Men: Apocalypse movie. This movie is likely to set up characters for solo adventures like Hugh Jackmans Wolverine outings. In addition to these two megafranchise wannabes, Sony also owns the rights to The Fantastic Four, and if things go well with their reboot next summer, it is likely they will try to build a similar megafranchise around that fictional universe.
What’s The Plan?
To put all this into perspective, here is the current official release slate of megafranchise movies until (and after) the end of this decade. The emphasis on the ‘official’ here is important: all of the studios have planned this strategically and have contracted actors, directors, writers etc to produce all of these movies already. 2014 will be remembered as the year that studios committed to the megafranchise model, as every major player in the industry committed vast resources, over many years, into what amounts to singular projects. Only 5 years ago, this would have been unthinkable in such a risk-averse industry as the Hollywood system.
Three megafranchise movies were released this year (2014), and 2015 will equal this as all studios are busy making their output for the latter half of the decade, which will see 2016 and 2017 offer 8 megafranchise movies each. As the narrative cycle of each megafranchise reaches a climax at the end of the decade, the output decreases as actor contracts etc will need to be renegotiated. The table below shows the complete megafranchise output and the release dates for all movies, as well as the megafranchise each movie belongs to. I mentioned in the Avengers exposition above that really the only important movies (from a storytelling point of view) are the ensemble gangbang movies where everyone joins together. The individual, smaller movies that surround them and populate most of the list are merely there to expand on characterisation of the protagonists and hopefully convince you to go to the next big gangbang release. I have thus highlighted the important movies in green. Movies in italics have confirmed a release date and project outline, but no official title or subject. There is no outline for the final announced Star Wars spinoff, so I just had a guess.
You can spot immediately that everything culminates in 2019, where the current Avengers cycle ends, and the prospective Justice League opus and Star Wars sequel trilogy also reach their conclusions. After being very impressed by Guardians of the Galaxy recently, I hoped that they would be given their own franchise within the megafranchise, however it now looks obvious that they are being set up for merely another sequel, which will introduce Captain Marvel. She will then get her own movie and contact the Avengers, and then act as a bridge to bring the two superhero teams together for the final Avengers movie. As you look along the list, you will see more and more unfamiliar names, as the megafranchises attempt to leverage their brand recognition sufficiently to expand their universes even more. It is also a way for them to build awareness of other characters to focus the series on in the future, as the contracts of the original megafranchise cast will certainly be up by then, and I would not like to be Marvel while negotiating with Robert Downey Jr to play Iron Man in five more movies.
an update of this release schedule can be found here
What Does It All Mean?
With regards to making a judgement on the merits of megafranchisement, it appears too early to tell. In fairness, the output of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been of extremely high quality, and there is no reason for that quality to diminish in the future. If the other megafranchises take as much care in creating their universes, they will all be entertaining to witness. A plus point is that the megafranchises act as a launchpad for characters, and demographics, that would not see the light of day in a traditional stand-alone Hollywood blockbuster franchise system. DC have been trying to make a Wonder Woman movie for 30 years, but Warner Brothers were never convinced a female superhero would bring in the crowds. Back her up with the Justice League however, and she could have a solo movie every three years. Similarly, both DC and Marvel have plans for black superhero stand-alone movies (Cyborg and Black Panther respectively). It is difficult to see this happening outside of a megafranchise environment. The key point in all of this however is hidden in the release table I posted above, where the half-baked Spider-Man Expanded Universe megafranchise has already scheduled a release date in April 2017 for a ‘female superhero movie’. They don’t even know themselves who it will be about, they just want to exploit the demographic who will pay to see such a movie, and hopefully pay to see the female superhero when she joins the main cast in the gangbang movie the following year.
Megafranchises are attractive to Hollywood studios because they can attract as diverse a crowd as possible, carving them up into demographic niches, and then bringing them all together to see the moneyshot. Guardians of the Galaxy is aimed at a different age-group than the Avengers, yet come Avengers: Infinity Wars II, both audiences will be watching the same movie. I suspect that with regard to the Star Wars spinoffs, one will be aimed at children, while another will be aimed at older fans, and eventually all of us will be brought together for the main narrative. It’s clever and relatively risk-free from a business point of view, but brand dilution is inevitable, even if the quality remains high. When I was growing up, there was this trilogy called Star Wars, and it was special because there were only three of these things, and that was all there needed to be. A few years ago George Lucas made three more, and no matter how much anyone tried, they still had a negative impact on the interpretation of the original trilogy. That’s simple brand dilution: it’s worth less because there is more of it. Unfortunately, no matter how bad the prequel trilogy was, it’s nothing compared to what Disney are about to do to Star Wars. I’m too old to care too much about the direction of superhero movies, as they have been constantly rebooted throughout my moviegoing life, yet what they do to Star Wars cannot be undone, and this is the reason I am so wary about the megafranchises. As melodramtically as I can put it: If they mess up, they won’t just ruin a movie, they could destroy whole fictional universes.