Upsides of Creative Franchising


Hollywood has latched onto the cinematic universe model as a safe bet, letting in more risky intellectual properties

The franchise, or cinematic universe model, has been gaining traction in Hollywood for good reason. Moviemaking is an expensive business, and linking a new movie to a pre-existing fan base provides a guaranteed audience. That’s the holy grail for a studio executive. Taking that into account, dismissing the franchise model is unrealistic and naive. Would you invest half a billion dollars into a movie that might simply not resonate with audiences? Probably not.

This is only the newest in a series of economic models which have been set up to keep the whole industry from crumbling. Remember the “Old Hollywood” studio system? They contracted directors, writers and movie stars for a given number of movies, which meant that movies were often made on an assignment-basis. Even in that potentially stifling pipeline, movies like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Citizen Kane” came into being. As some would say, necessity is the mother of invention.

The red tape is as old as Hollywood itself, and the cinematic universe might be as good as it gets. Franchises allow Hollywood to take chances on edgier content. “10 Cloverfield Lane”, for instance, was not originally part of J.J. Abrams’ “Cloverfield” universe. Initially titled “The Cellar,” the movie was in “The Hit List,” a compilation of highly-rated, unproduced screenplays. There is no question that its inclusion in the “Cloverfield” universe generated interest and hype from the pre-existing fan base, which allowed what was designed as a super-low budget indie script to become a box office success.

Even outside of a business dimension, franchises can coexist with creativity, by enabling and encouraging storytellers to find further dimensions to existing cinematic properties. Any given cinematic universe is potentially boundless, containing stories with all kinds of styles and tones “” all you need is the right filmmaker to bring them out. When Alfonso Cuarà³n directed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” he transformed the tone and style of the franchise into the darker, edgier feel which matured into the latter installments of the saga. “Star Wars” took a similar step with a dirtier, tragic finale in “Rogue One.”

Studios might get it horribly wrong every once in awhile, but the fact is that franchises provide a security that can let them keep taking risks. “Suicide Squad” was widely panned by critics and deplored by audiences, and still brought in $745 million at the box office. Even if it further damaged DC’s credit as a superhero universe, the fans are willing to pay for the movie ticket, out of the comfort and familiarity of their favorite characters.

By anchoring itself in pre-existing characters, the cinematic universe has reconnected to a much older kind of storytelling. Remember how “The Odyssey” was born out of the “Iliad?” Or how Agamemnon shows up in both stories, and then gets a series of plays dedicated to his family in the Oresteia?

Shakespeare did it too, by using history, a rich creative well, as his franchise. Plays like “Richard III” and “Henry IV” utilized well-known British canon as the platter on which to serve a brand new tragedy, to Queen Victoria no less.

It’s a mistake to think of this interconnected storytelling as new. In the past, they were called mythologies, now they are called “transmedia narratives,” and they are the thing of the future. The “Star Wars” universe already spans movies, books, video games, comics, fanfiction and even LEGO sets.

The result is a universe of “˜mineable’ content “” a realm that can be endlessly mined for new stories, interpretations, and remixes, done by producers and audiences alike. How is that stifling anyone’s creativity?

Like any kind of storytelling, a cinematic universe must be built consciously, using the existing texts to expand into new narrative territories, not allowing previous successes to weigh down the future installments.

Hopefully, studios will allow creators greater and greater artistic license as their comfort with franchising grows, using the currency of intellectual property as the launching pad towards a better film industry less fearful of risky content.