06 April 2014

The perfect media franchise

One cannot help but notice that the mediasphere has become filled with sequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations of old classics. It’s tempting to lament the failure of originality, but the fetish for originality is actually a modern phenomenon; for most of human history, storytelling has been story re-telling, and I have a great love of an old story re-told well. Some of the greatest writers of all time — Shakespeare, Homer, the Jawhist, Murasaki Shikibu — were mostly re-tellers.

Like it or not, we seem to be stuck with it. For a host of reasons, media companies want franchises they can milk for years of sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and crossovers. It makes things easier to create and easier to sell. A strong entry in a franchise doesn't just sell itself, it sells the franchise as a whole.

The advantages are not only crassly commercial but artistic, as a franchise can build something real and interesting: consider how the Jason Bourne movies with Matt Damon were able to do some surprisingly interesting things with their interlocking narrative.

A while back I had a realization about what makes these things successful. Let's do a little thought experiment into what would make the perfect franchise.

A known quantity

It's best if the franchise is already known to people. It saves a lot of trouble marketing the material if people have already heard of it and have some positive associations with it.

Example: Tarzan. Everybody's heard of him and knows his basic story. Bring him onstage, and people are already bought in.

All kinds of fans

Ideally, you want a franchise that most people vaguely know and like, many people know well and like a lot, and a few people know intimately and love passionately. Each of element of the fandom provides its own benefits to the material. The not-quite-fans give you the advantages of being a known quantity, providing a bit of a head start in selling the material. The casual fans give you the advantage of a minimum baseline of audience: unless you really screw up, they can be counted on to show up to buy in. The hardcore fans are a mixed blessing: they can be fickle, but if you do a bit of work to please them they will work hard to generate buzz for you ... and buy up all the directors' cuts and collectibles and ancillary materials you can invent.

Example: Star Trek. Just about everybody has seen a bit of Trek, and most people have at least a little soft spot for it. Plus there’s a big body of people who grew up on it and have a lot of affection for it and will give any new Trek offering a try ... and there's a core fandom that is notoriously enthusiastic.

Multi-media opportunities

Ideally, you don’t want just a series of movies or just a TV show. You want to be able to make movies and a TV show and books and comics and video games and on and on.

Example: Star Wars, which has even been adapted to radio.

A range of possible scales

If you want to go multi-media, that means that you want to be able to make big blockbuster movies with lots of big budget razzle-dazzle or cheaply-produced television shows.

Example: Dracula can be done as a simple play enacted on a single set, or an elaborate costume drama with spectacular special effects.

Merchandizing opportunities

Indeed, you don't just want stories in various media, you want to be able to sell stuff: toys and t-shirts and jewelry and mouse pads and Hallowe'en costumes and collectable Pez dispensers and on and on.

Example: Batman. You can sell the Batsymbol on anything.

Age range

Ideally you want something that doesn’t just give you variants that appeal to either children or adults, but that actually gets you both at once.

Example: The Muppets. Their multi-layered appeal reaches little kids and bigger kids and adults ... and adults are now drawn in not just by their goofy charm but also by nostalgia.

Strong characters

You want a franchise anchored by characters which have a strong presence as characters ... in part because you want them to have a life beyond the actors who play them. Ideally you want a built-in ensemble of several characters.

Example: Robin Hood. Any dashing, handsome actor can play him. (Heck, these days you could cast an actress as Robin Hood and it would be even better. Somebody should get on that, actually.) And he comes with a whole supporting cast of cool and familiar characters, including some great villains.

Appealing roles for actors

For those movies and TV shows, you want good actors to take the roles, which makes it help if the roles are ones that actors want to play.

Example: James Bond. Who doesn’t want to play him ... or better yet, to ham it up as a Bond villain? Plus there are legions of sexy actresses — both good actors or just good-looking ones — who will line up to boost their careers or have some fun with a role.

Appealing material for backstage creators

Material that writers and artists and directors love have an inherent advantage in attracting the talent to make the next entry in the franchise a success.

Example: Star Wars again. The world is full of filmmakers, animators, sculptors, painters, and countless other artists who were inspired to take up their art by seeing Star Wars as kids, and would kill to get a chance to contribute to it as adults.

A tested framework

Re-telling a familiar story gives you the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of other tellings, borrowing from those experiments into what worked and what didn’t.

Example: Superman. There have been 75 years of writers trying all kinds of crazy stuff with Superman. We know a lot about what you can and cannot do with a Superman story.

A range of possible stories

Many franchises are committed to a single tone, but some franchises are a big stage on which there's the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories.

Example: Star Trek again. Part of what was crafty about the original series was that each week the show went to a new planet that could be anything, making it possible to deliver a horror story about a monster one week, a military drama about submarine warfare the next, a political allegory the next. The original series even included a comedy about Chicago gangsters.

A big backlog

It helps if you have a lot of material already done in one medium that you can adapt to another medium.

Example: Tolkien. When Peter Jackson went to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film, the biggest challenge was trimming it down to a trilogy of long films. And when it came time to go back to the well, it was easy to create another overstuffed trilogy. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

A big, interesting universe

Setting can be as much a character as the characters; a sufficiently interesting setting can in fact be more interesting than the story itself. Experiencing and exploring a setting can be a driver in and of itself, and creates a lot of opportunities for fun ancillary stuff in the franchise.

Example: Harry Potter. The Hogwarts School alone is a treasure trove of an interesting setting, but the Harry Potter world as a whole is expansive and delightful, with magic to learn about, creatures to encounter, and endless interesting people, places, and institutions.

I'm going somewhere with this.

The examples of franchises I’ve pointed to all have some of those virtues, but of course none have all of them. James Bond is fun and actor-friendly and offers a lot of opportunity for spectacle, but there’s a narrow range of kinds of stories to tell. Star Trek lets you tell a lot of stories, and has a great relationship with fans, but frankly other than Spock and Data, the characters are not that interesting. Robin Hood gives you a great ensemble of characters, and there are literally centuries of retellings refining how to use them so we really know what works, but the Robin Hood universe is small, and there's only so many stories to tell.

But there's one franchise that has it all. Plus a couple of magic ingredients.

Marvel Studios

Magic ingredient #1: Superheroes

I read a screenwriter saying once that Hollywood had figured out that love stories are the cheese topping of storytelling. You can take almost anything and make it better by stirring in a love story. Cowboys & romance. Spies & romance. Corporate intrigue & romance.

It turns out that superheroes are the same way. Tired of those old WWII movies? Mix in Captain America and all those old tropes are fresh and fun again! Never want to see another movie about a middle-aged guy wrestling with his mortality and his drinking problem? You do if he’s also Iron Man! Bored of brothers fighting each other over who will inherit the throne? Give one of ’em a red cape and a magic hammer!

Superheroes are silly, but they’re fun, and they go with anything. Which brings us to ....

Magic ingredient #2: The Marvel Universe

Everything that Marvel publishes takes place in the same universe. They’ve been publishing dozens of comics a month for decades, making it the biggest fictional universe ever created, with more named characters than Balzac and more stories than anyone could read in a lifetime. When I was a teenager, they took their in-house index that they used to keep track and started publishing an encyclopedia that ran to well over a thousand entries.

Along the way they’ve figured out how to make a gonzo everything-including-the-kitchen-sink sensibility work. The Avengers film — in which you have a Norse god, Howard Hughes in a flying robot suit, a spy femme fatale, Robin Hood in sunglasses, a WWII soldier, and Dr. Jeckll transformed into a big green version of Mr. Hyde fight off an alien invasion — is only scratching the surface of what the Marvel sensibility can do. There are sorcerers fighting off demons from Hell, vast empires of space aliens at war with each other, vampires and vampire hunters, cowboys and detectives and mad scientists, giant monsters from deep beneath the Earth, secret kingdoms in every corner of the globe, powerful cosmic entities from before time meddling in human evolution, and much, much more. And you can mix them together to make all kinds of wacky cocktails: when I was a teenager the X-Men fought off a goblin invasion of New York City with a little help from the Ghostbusters.

It’s goofy and fun and a huge canvas, and now they’ve built the brand to bring it all before a general audience. How many people saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy with its jokey style, weird space aliens, and a gun-toting raccoon and thought what the heck? ... and then saw the Marvel logo and thought, “Okay, maybe that sounds like fun”? The only other folks who have earned that kind of trust with strange ideas is Pixar ... and they don’t have a vast back-catalogue of stories to tell that they’ve already tried.

So when I saw the other day that Marvel Studios has plans for a decade’s worth of movie releases, I was not at all surprised. It’s been evident for a while that they are playing a very long game. They still have a lot to work with.


Joseph Max said...

About that female Robin Hood idea, how about this...

Marian of Nottingham is the real Robin Hood. She dons a male archer's clothes and a mask when doing "Robin's" deeds of derring-do. The Sheriff can't catch Robin Hood, because he's looking for a man!

Jonathan Korman said...

Genius, Mr Max!