Film Franchises, Platforms & IP: The Future of Superhero Cinema
Before tripling down on shared universes, the Majors need to honestly reassess the potential of their comic book IP. After all, no two superheroes or studios are exactly alike
In October, Disney did something extraordinary: it unveiled plans to take its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) through the end of the decade. Included in this eleven-film entrée were five pictures with characters largely unknown to audiences, two sequels to a film that won’t be released until mid-2015 and the studio’s first three-movie year (2016). The magnitude of what Disney is trying to achieve is hard to overstate. Not only will this slate cost nearly $3.5B and depend on another 1,650 days of audience interest in the MCU, but the studio’s ambitions go far beyond the theater. Marvel is currently producing seven live-action and three animated TV series, eyeing a number of Marvel theme parks worldwide, touring a live MCU show and, of course, publishing a wide range of video games and comics. Yet, the most amazing aspect of this Olympian effort may be the fact that it has become virtually commonplace. Warner Bros.’ DC has ten superhero films planned through 2020, featuring unknowns such as Aquaman, Cyborg and Shazam, and including a two-part Avengers-style meet-up entitled Justice League. At the same time, the studio will be producing a television show for each of CBS, Fox and NBC, three for the CW (which Warner Bros. co-owns) and one for cable networks AMC, Syfy and the WB-owned TNT, as well as managing its own line of comics, apparel and toys. Sony has also announced plans to release at least one Spider-Man film every year (many of which won’t even include the franchise’s eponymous hero), starting with 2016’s Sinister Six (an Avengers of villains, essentially). Earlier this year, Fox released the multi-generational epic X-Men: Days of Future Past (rumored to be the most expensive superhero film in history) in the hopes of converting the ensemble-oriented franchise into its own web of character-specific spinoffs (Spoiler Alert: the film ‘resets’ the narrative timeline such that all dead characters never actually died). What’s more, there are already talks about an X-Men cross-over with Fox’s soon-to-be-rebooted Fantastic Four franchise. Outside the comic book genre, Universal is attempting to reestablish the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe (starting with this year’s Dracula Untold) and Warner Bros. has begun pre-production on a trilogy of Harry Potter films that are set more than six decades before the Boy Who Lived was even born. Many argue that this strategy is creatively vapid and bound for failure. That may be true, but these criticisms ignore the ways super-franchises reflect the economic necessities of mainstream filmmaking. Not only is the theatrical channel almost always unprofitable, it is becoming more expensive and unpopular each year – and the industry’s most important ancillary revenues are rapidly eroding. Platform films de-risk theatrical performance, amortize costly production and marketing budgets across multiple films, and diversify ancillary product offerings. Yet, sound strategy doesn’t mean successful execution. As the major studios double and triple down on their superhero franchises, it’s worth looking back and evaluating their historical performance. After all, every committed date and dollar could be spent on another franchise – or at least reabsorbed by a corporate parent or distributed back to shareholders. In particular, I want to focus on active, un-divested comic book IP, as they constitute the largest committed future spend for each of Disney, Warner Bros., Sony and Fox. The best place to start is North America, which represents the most mature market (in terms of both theatrical consumption and overall familiarity with comic book brands), as well as the most influential when it comes to VOD, home video and syndication revenues. Furthermore, significant growth in the overseas box office makes it difficult to compare audience reception to a franchise’s later titles (i.e. sales should all trend up over time).
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