It’s doubtful that audiences love shared universes as much as studio execs do. Just look at poor Spider Man.
The not so amazing spider man
Blockbusters often divide audiences and critics. Yet the Amazing Spider Man 2 managed to unite them in modestly hostile indifference. A Rotten Tomatoes score of 53% was enough for the website to withhold a ‘fresh’ rating from the film. Meanwhile, it went on to become the lowest grossing Spider Man film of all time. Despite a boost from inflation, larger global audiences, the greater popularity of superhero films and a budget twice the size, it earned more than a $100 million dollars less than the original Spider-Man released twelve years before. For a film featuring an icon of popular culture recognisable around the world this was a disaster. Such a disaster in fact that Sony, the studio behind it, subsequently made the painful decision to share their prized property with their rivals Marvel.
The failure of the Amazing Spider Man series should serve as a warning to studios that are going increasingly franchise mad. But the potential financial rewards involved appear so large it has been ignored.
Not a license to print money
Franchises are undoubtedly big business. Survey the top grossing films of 2014 and you’ll see that all bar one of them are sequels, spin-offs, remakes, adaptations of popular novels or some combination of those. The exception Interstellar comes in right at the bottom of the list and even that had the advantage of sharing a director with a massive franchise. So studios are clearly right to think there is money to be made here.
But they are probably wrong about why they are making it. The prevailing view amongst movie execs seems to conflate familiarity with popularity. The theory seems to go that lots of us recognise, for example, Robocop and therefore presenting us with a new Robocop film will elicit a Pavlovian reaction that will compel us to go out and watch it.
However, as I’ve blogged before, a more plausible model is that franchises function as brands. Scott Mendelson of Forbes made this point well when he suggested that we should see Marvel as a new Pixar: audiences are drawn to its output not just because they recognise the characters (otherwise Guardians would have flopped) but because they treat its name as a marker of quality. It still follows that being part of a franchise can give a film a boost but it’s by making it more visible not more appealing.
The problem for studios is that this process can go into reverse. Fox had to struggle for years with the bad taste left by X-Men: the Last Stand. They had to make a couple of good films before the franchise produced another big hit with Days of Future Past.
How a franchise can eat itself
Much the same problem afflicted Sony and its Spider Man reboot. By the time the Amazing Spider Man 2 came along audiences had seen the studio serve up duds for a decade. Why suppose this film would be any different?
Had it actually been different then, like Fox, Sony might have found themselves on a trajectory towards future hits. In fact, it compounded the problem. It staggered between an excessive number of subplots and characters only a few of which actually held much interest. That was in large part, a product of the fact the film served its own logic less than that of its franchise. Most of that superfluity of characters and subplots added little the film: some made the necessary gestures towards the source material but a larger number were part of Sony’s efforts to launch spin-off films about a group of villains from the comics. It thus wound up being – to borrow a joke from its Honest Trailer: “as much a set up for a Sinister Six movie you didn’t ask for, as it is a sequel to the spider man reboot you also didn’t ask for.”
The damage wrought by Sony’s efforts to turn the Spider Man films into a Shared Universe make it strange that so many other studios are embarking on similar projects. The indications are that within a few years we will have Shared Universes for Marvel, DC, the X-men (possibly encompassing the Fantastic Four), Star Wars, Lego, Harry Potter and Transformers. Even the Sinister Six may still happen. Were I a shareholder in a studio, I would look at the number of eggs being put into this basket with great concern.
It would be one thing, if there a demonstrable demand from audiences for Shared Universes. But it’s not altogether clear there is. Besides the success of Marvel and the failure of the Amazing Spider Man, we don’t have much to base a judgement on: Batman vs Superman, Deadpool, Rogue One, Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them etc have not yet been tested with actual audiences. We can consider the two Wolverine films Fox has spun off from the X-Men films but their success has been moderate and even that relied on sharing a lead with the main series of films. The evidence that we have does not appear to bear out the notion that Shared Universes are an easy path to big hits.
If one wants to be bullish about the prospects of these forthcoming films, one could observe that Shared Universes have a proven track record in TV and books. But those are very different mediums from film. Almost every fictional TV series is already a shared universe of sorts requiring continuity to be maintained by multiple authors working on multiple instalments. Hence tying together multiple TV series is a less fundamental change than doing the same with films. Books work for pretty much the opposite reason; a literary shared universe likely has a single author which makes it easier to maintain continuity. Plus they are not constrained by things like actor’s contracts.
I suppose one could make a more abstract case for Shared Universe: we’ve not seen it yet but they have all these properties that mean they’ll make loads of money. One film can advertise the others and a desire for completism will compel moviegoers to see films they would otherwise skip. The problem is that like the case for franchises in general, these can equally flip round. If audiences feel they need to see all the films in a Shared Universe to truly appreciate any of them, they might skip the lot. And if audiences dislike some of the films in a Shared Universe then that’s precisely the wrong kind of advertisement for future instalments.
The weakest link?
Were I looking for a Shared Universe to short, it would probably be DC’s. I liked Man of Steel but an awful lot of people didn’t. And it actually made less money than the Amazing Spider Man 2. Despite this Warner Bros is planning a dozen films in four years that will maintain continuity with it. I am sure that the afterglow of the Nolan and Burton Batman films mean that the next instalment, Batman v Superman, will do well. Beyond that things look rather dicey. One really has to wonder how they’ll mesh the bleak tone of Snyder’s films with more jovial characters like the Flash. One also wonders whether what is supposed to be a safety net for studios is actually encouraging Warner Bros to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t. In particular, I suspect that if brought the idea for a standalone film about a character as apparently corny as Aquaman, they’d have said no. I also suspect that even as part of a larger DCU they’ll have a hard time encouraging audiences to embrace him and that if the films that precede it are a disappointment then it may be a forlorn effort.
Waiting for the crash
Which is not to say that some of these Shared Universes won’t be big hits. Age of Ultron maybe hints that Marvel is becoming overambitious but it would take a huge reversal before it’s anything other than a substantial success. Star Wars is a rich universe that lends itself to spin offs and some interesting talent is being pulled in to work on those films. X-Men seems to have found its groove again though how we will have to see how it will cope without Hugh Jackman as an anchor.
But the existence of successes would not preclude their being a bubble. Amongst the companies whose shares rocketed during the dot com bubble were Amazon and Google. But there was also a company that sold only pet food and accessories that nonetheless attracted $300 million in venture capital before going bankrupt in less than a year without ever having made a profit. A proposition that seems only slightly less unreasonable than the notion that Dracula Untold is going to kick off a successful franchise.
I suspect that a lot of Studio Execs have similarly sceptical views. But a degree of herd behaviour may be kicking in: if you make a mistake it’s better for you to make the same one as everybody else because that way you can’t be singled out for blame. This is a key part of how bubbles emerge in financial markets: everyone buys the same stock and its value rises until it becomes apparent that it’s overpriced at which point its value plummets and a lot of people lose a lot of money. I’m afraid that the stock of Shared Universes may be similarly overvalued and that a crash may be on the way.