It is July 2019 and Avengers: Endgame (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019) – a flagship release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise – has just surpassed Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) as the highest-grossing movie in history. 1 This box-office milestone reflects the formalisation of franchising as the defining modality of Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking in the early 21st century. As a mode of production practice, franchising is an intensified industrialisation of authorship, narration, and spectacle mediated and managed by the legal procedures of intellectual property (IP) and licensing. This constitutes a synergistic model of exchange between the tenets of law and economics and developments in creative expression and innovation: this dynamic is reciprocal because IP ownership and licensing relations secure and support creativity and, conversely, the economic viability and longevity of franchise production is enabled and enriched by the strategies of creative development (encompassing sequential form, transmedia storytelling, adaptation, and storyworld design).
Henry Jenkins explains that “everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry was designed with this single idea in mind – the construction and enhancement of entertainment franchises.” 2 This is exemplified by The Walt Disney Company’s business practises over the last decade: in 2009, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion; in 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm Ltd for $4.05 billion; and in 2019, Disney acquired 20th Century Fox for $71.3 billion (including each company’s IP). As an entertainment conglomerate with a franchise-focused creative strategy, Disney’s continuing box-office success demonstrates the viability of franchising as a mode of practice in early 21st century Hollywood.
The dominance of franchising as a strategy of blockbuster Hollywood in the 2010s signals an emerging creative, technological, and economic equilibrium centred around the management and development of IP. This prevalence is reinforced by the broader slate of high-grossing theatrical releases: nine of the ten highest-grossing movies in history are franchises instalments – with eight of these released in the 2010s alone – and of the ten highest-grossing movies of this last decade all are franchises. Among the 50 highest-grossing releases are multiple instalments of franchise properties such as ‘Star Wars,’ ‘MCU,’ ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Fast and the Furious,’ ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter,’ ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘Bond,’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ – these are globally iconic brands that engage multiple media, genres, and generations. When Kristen Thompson asserted that “today the franchise is often the star,” 3 she signalled an operational shift in the centrality of established branding strategies and production systems in Hollywood: the franchise system thus appropriates and reconfigures traditional applications of stardom, genre, high-concept, and even auteurism, in the service of extending the value of intellectual properties (IP) across multiple texts and media platforms. As Carolyn Jess-Cooke says, “the blockbuster era – which has arguably morphed now into what could be called the franchise era – made the sequel’s inherent excesses, or its latent suggestion of ‘more’, a box-office star.” 4 The inherent excesses and the dormant potential for ‘more’ not only establishes a foundation for the franchise era in the present, but also enables industrial futurity.
Franchising works to fulfil Hollywood’s ongoing pursuit of commercial success and longevity, which it has strived for since its emergence at the beginning of the 20th century. As an industry that commercially trades in storytelling and creative expression, Hollywood must negotiate an often-complicated dynamic between artistry and business while also securing its industrial survival and prosperity. This is reflected in Disney CEO Bob Iger’s definition of franchising as “something that creates value across multiple businesses and across multiple territories over a long period of time” 5 – or, as Adam Rogers at Wired foretold, “you won’t live to see the final Star Wars movie.” 6 Franchising thus enables Hollywood to restore the stabilisation of creative form and economic growth that it enjoyed during its golden age: according to Hollywood journalist Ben Fritz, “it is undeniable that the dawn of the franchise film era is the most meaningful revolution in the movie business since the studio system ended.” 7 This revolution, however, is not so much about reinventing the industry, but about reassembling it using contemporary tools and strategies. Indeed, the crucial principles of franchise production – commercial interest, legal procedure, and creative formulation – are not particularly new in Hollywood (they go back as far as early cinema). Also not new, therefore, is the industry’s systematic interest in adaptable creative conventions that can be reformulated through strategically structured patterns of familiarity with variation. In the franchise era, Hollywood systems like studio house-style, genre, high-concept, and stardom are reappropriated to articulate differentiation across properties. For example, Marvel Studios employs different genres and directors – working in dialogue with the studio’s ‘house-style’ – to inscribe variation into the franchise’s familiar brand. Similarly, Lucasfilm experimented with serialised form with its anthology movies – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018) – to renegotiate its continuity (and future). This dynamic between familiarity and variation is among the creative strategies that enable successful franchises to remain ‘evergreen’ across multiple generation: as transmedia practitioner Jeff Gomez explains, “successful cinematic universes are the gift that keeps on giving. When properly developed, they can be thrilling, artful, and tremendously lucrative.” 8 In this way, franchising represents the discursive progression of Hollywood production and its creative-industrial history and works to fulfil its ongoing drive towards industrial security.
It is perhaps contentious to attribute such significance to Hollywood franchising because, as Derek Johnson concedes, “to some, media franchising is a bit of joke.” 9 This is because traditional lenses of cultural taste and value continue to dogmatically assume that the franchise’s engagement with sequelisation, rebooting, remaking, and commercial branding is culturally and creativity redundant – even destructive. Following the release of Endgame, Luke Buckmaster asked “what hope remains for the ravaged, apocalyptic state of modern cinema?” – arguing that the sequential continuity of Marvel Studios’ box-office king disqualifies it from even being a movie. 10 At The New Yorker, Richard Brody shared similar sentiments about Avengers: Infinity War (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2018), suggesting that it “only resembles a movie.” 11 Meanwhile, at Vanity Fair, Nick Bolton declared that “Hollywood as we know it is already over,” due partly to its “over-reliance on franchises.” 12 Johnson explains that the “implied cultural tragedy of media franchising derives here from the dominance of its patterned sameness and the imposition of an unthinking, instinctual biology over any human creativity or social agency within the media industries.” 13 Perhaps it is this imposing biology of instinctual sameness that also drives the invariably repetitive manner that film critics and cultural commentators call on to review and classify sequels and franchises. As such, colloquial terms like ‘sequelitis’ have pervaded entertainment journalism since the 1990s 14, and this trend persists with the recent diagnosis that “studios catch monstrous case of franchise fever.” 15 The unchecked irony of such clichés is that these recurring criticisms of unoriginality and repetition are in themselves unproductively repetitive, while seeming to disregard the increasing insight available from scholars and practitioners of franchise entertainment.
Understanding how Hollywood franchising works involves acknowledging the complex network of intersecting strategies and dynamics that exists across industrial, historical, creative, and cultural domains. The concept of intertextuality is the most common principle employed to understand franchising, which draws from Marsha Kinder’s work on the “ever-expanding supersystem of entertainment, one marked by transmedia intertextuality.” 16 Jenkins built on this in his seminal work on media convergence, when he conceptualised the practice of transmedia storytelling as a “more integrated approach to franchise development” whereby “story unfolds across multiple platforms, with each text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole.” 17 However, Johnson explains that transmedia storytelling does not account for all articulations of franchising because, he explains, “the question of multiplied production and reproduction of franchising is not always one of transmedia.” 18 Johnson’s work contributes a comprehensive examination of how franchise structures “enable exchanges between nodes in industrial networks.” 19 These exchanges, Johnson explains, are not always unified and organised, but involve resource sharing and collaboration. In this context, the principle of ‘creative license’ is a means to “explore franchising as a mediation of creativity and highly industrialized collaborative production.” 20 Johnson’s work sets a precedent for the study of media franchising as a complex network of industrial, creative, and social relations, and there is increasing scholarly work building on this over the last decade. Scholars continue to examine media franchising in relation to range of creative strategies and cultural principles like repetition and seriality, canonicity and adaptation, remaking and rebooting, nostalgia and fandom, branding and commercial aesthetics, as well as shared-universes and storyworld building. This demonstrates that the increasing dominance of franchise production in the entertainment industry is also met with increasing intellectual inquiry.
Hollywood franchising is a non-trivial mode of contemporary blockbuster cinema that demands a non-cynical understanding of its creative and industrial process, its narrational and stylistic conventions, and its historical significance. The franchise is a distinct mode of early 21st century blockbuster cinema that is facilitated by the technological, economic, and narrative possibilities of media convergence and industrial synergy, but it also represents the creative-industrial modulation of Hollywood cinema across its history. Franchising dominates 21st century entertainment because it synergizes many of Hollywood’s strengths – production process, corporate ownership, auteurist style, genre differentiation, narrative norms and experimentation, the star system, spectacular attraction, and techno-mechanical innovation – within the legal and industrially-managed conditions of entertainment law. While franchising reflects a hyper-industrialisation of media production in the current entertainment landscape, the principles that underpin franchise production – commercial longevity, legal protection, and creative formulation – have driven the Hollywood industry since its conception. Therefore, dismissing the significance of franchising in the contemporary cinema landscape means failing to understand the complex ways that Hollywood works in the 2010s and beyond.
- Unadjusted for economic inflation ↩
- Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), p. 113. ↩
- The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 6. ↩
- Film Sequels: Theory and Practice from Hollywood to Bollywood (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 46. ↩
- Richard Siklos, “Bob Iger Rocks Disney,” Fortune International 159.1 (2009): n.p. ↩
- “The Forever Franchise,” Wired 23. 12, December 1, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/11/building-the-star-wars-universe/ ↩
- The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2018, p. 17. ↩
- “10 Keys to Building Successful Shared Universe Movie Franchises: A Memo to Studio Executives,” Medium, 13 June 2017, https://medium.com/@Jeff_Gomez/10-keys-to-building-successful-shared-universe-movie-franchises-a9d983884ad3. ↩
- Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013), p. 1. ↩
- “Avengers: Endgame and the Apocalypse of Cinema,” Daily Review, 25 April 2019, https://dailyreview.com.au/avengers-endgame-apocalypse-cinema/82852/. ↩
- “Avengers: Infinity War Review: The Latest Marvel Movie is a Two-and-a-Half-Hour Ad For All the Previous Marvel Movies,” The New Yorker, 27 April 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/avengers-infinity-war-reviewed-the-latest-marvel-movie-is-a-two-and-a-half-hour-ad-for-all-the-previous-marvel-movies. ↩
- “Why Hollywood As We Know It is Already Over,” Vanity Fair, 29 January 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/01/why-hollywood-as-we-know-it-is-already-over. ↩
- Media Franchising, p. 1. ↩
- Linden Dalecki, “Hollywood Media Synergy as IMC,” Journal of Integrated Media Communication (2008): 48n2 ↩
- Brian Lowry, “Studios catch monstrous case of franchise fever,” CNN Entertainment, 7 June 2017, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/07/entertainment/franchise-fever-studios/index.html. ↩
- Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991), p. 1. ↩
- Convergence Culture, 293, 95–96 ↩
- Media Franchising, p. 32. ↩
- Media Franchising, p. 29. ↩
- Media Franchising, p. 25. ↩