The Success and Failure of Shared Franchises

By: Brandon T. McClure

Last week Marvel Studios released Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of an unprecedented 22 movie arc that paid off with the largest opening weekend box office gross of all time. By the end of the films first five days, it had grossed $1.2 billion world-wide and, as of the end of April, is the tenth highest grossing film ever. This franchise has seen unparalleled success, in no small part due to how the films have touched audiences around the world.

Arguably, Marvel is at the peak of its popularity. It remains to be seen what the next few years are going to look like, but, it’s clear that this time is one for the history books. When films succeed, studios try to capitalize on that success by trying to recreate it. Superhero films are often referred to as the westerns of this generation, since when the westerns were doing well, every studio was putting one out.

There have been a number of attempts to create another shared cinematic franchise from Sony, Universal Studios, Fox and Warner Bros, but they tend to miss a key equation in the Marvel formula. Just after the release of The Avengers, there were talks of studios developing various shared franchises. For example, Sony was developing a “Robin Hood shared universe” which would have focused on developing movies based on each of Robin Hood's Merry Men.

“Shared Universe” is a buzz term in the industry that means a franchise that is made up of different film franchises that crossover together. For example, if Sony had gone through with Robin Hood, then they would have developed a film based on Little John and a film on Robin Hood. After the two “origin” films, they would meet together and fight the Sheriff of Nottingham. In short, a larger franchise that is made up of smaller “shared” franchise.

Universal Studios tried twice to launch a shared franchise of monster films (called “The Dark Universe,”) once with Dracula: Untold, and then again with Tom Cruise The Mummy. Both of these films failed to resonate with critics and audiences, and were scrapped. Guillermo Del Toro talked about how he was approached by Universal to kick start this, but they couldn’t see eye to eye. That project ended up turning into The Shape of Water for Fox Searchlight. Now, Universal is poised to try again with next years’ The Invisible Man from Blumhouse. Third time's a charm, right?

The biggest competition for Marvel comes with Warner Bros. attempts. Since the end of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, they have been pursuing a comic book franchise with a lineup of films based on DC Comics. This started with Man of Steel and continues today. While financially successful, the films failed to connect with audiences like the Marvel films did. Ever since the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. was in some form of restructuring. After Justice League failed to perform at the box office, Warner Bros. decided to refocus on creative driven projects like Aquaman and Shazam; something that seems to have worked in their favor.

Sony and Fox both attempted to recreate the Marvel formula with their own Marvel properties, but they ended up disastrous for each company. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was supposed to launch a large amount of villain centered spin-offs, but the failure of that film, and the now famous, “Sony Leaks” ended up forcing the company to make a deal with Disney to share the character of Spider-Man. Sony is still going forward with something they’re calling “Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters” which seems to be focused on Spider-Man villains such as Venom and Morbius: The Living Vampire, which is currently filming with Jared Leto as the lead. This franchise is unconnected to the one that Marvel Studios/Disney puts out.

The common denominator for all the failed shared franchises seems to be studio mandate. James Dyer of the Empire Podcast said in his discussion of The Mummy that “audiences know that films are made for money. But they don’t like being reminded of it.” He was speaking of the idea that The Mummy was a clear attempt by the studio to launch, what they hoped to be, a billion dollar franchise. James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films chimed in on the influx of shared universes by saying that you need to lay the groundwork before you start building these franchises. If you don’t, then they’ll collapse.

Audiences identify with creator driven products. It’s why Marvel did so well. Before 2012, The Avengers was a pipe dream for Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. He focused on one film at a time, in the hopes to someday make a film that crossed over the characters like Iron Man with Captain America. There was no studio mandate to make a billion-dollar franchise by including other characters, nor loose threads to be picked up in future films. The Mummy and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 both include plot threads that were meant to set up future spin-off films.

The Conjuring has done so well because they didn’t plan on creating spin-offs. They just focused on making one good film. Aquaman made $1 billion because it felt like a James Wan film. Conversely, Justice League did poorly because it felt like a studio mandated film, and not a film with a singular voice.

Marvel is not the only template to create a franchise like this, but, the key ingredient that everyone else was missing was a creator's voice. Going into the next year, it looks like Warner Bros. has found the missing ingredient and we can only hope that Universal has, as well. Success with properties like these doesn’t come from inherent crossover appeal. It comes from developing properties that people want to see crossover. It’s a small difference but it’s an important one. The Mummy was built to have crossover appeal with characters like Dracula, but Iron Man was built to develop a property that audiences would want to see crossover

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is successful, where all other attempts have failed. It’s a creator driven franchise, and not a studio driven one. The key to that same success isn’t to copy it. It’s to let the creators drive the content, not the studios.

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