This started as a conversation with a fellow comic book nerd friend about an obscure Marvel character. We were surprised when we couldn’t recall off the top of our heads whether there was a movie in development about this character or not. This is in stark contrast to our childhoods when a new superhero on any screen was a rare, special event. Marvel alone, under Kevin Feige, has over 8 movies in development, not counting TV shows, animated series and so on.
How did Hollywood get taken over by franchises? And what does this mean for movies? And what does Seth Rogen have to do with any of this? I started talking to some industry insiders and collecting data on box office earnings.
Digging into the data, I categorized the top 10 grossing movies starting from 2007 ( full data here, snippet at the top) and tagged them into franchises (e.g. Bond, Marvel Cinematic Universe), sequels, based on books, based on a comic character and so on. The data is pretty amazing: 53 of the 80 top grossing movies from 2007 are part of a franchise and 46 of the 80 are sequels.
It wasn’t always this way — take a look at the the top charts for 1993. No comic book characters, no sequels — just Steven Spielberg towering (roaring?) over everyone else. The “tentpole/franchise-ification” of Hollywood is a relatively modern phenomenon.
Tentpoles are fraught with risk — just ask the makers of John Carter or Lone Ranger or After Earth — and some studios did try a couple of years ago to shift away. With increasing marketing and production costs (even when offset by co-financing deals, tax incentives to shoot in certain locations, product placement deals) tentpoles can be a big risk but from the insiders I spoke to, the focus on them is unavoidable. Some massively oversimplified reasons why:
Asia + international:Over the last decade, the importance of Asia -especially China — in earnings has gone up dramatically which in turn has lead to studios trying to make movies that play well abroad. Action/VFX-heavy movies, universally known characters/franchises do better than dramas/thrillers/sports movies. Transformers:AoE made 245m in the US but then went on to make 845m (!) internationally. You start to see this change how movies get made too. See a weird cameo or an odd sequence set in an Asian location (say, Hong Kong for a climatic sequence in a movie with giant robot dinosaurs)? Now you know why.
Better opening dates: Tentpoles are themselves easier to market and distribute. First, they get you lucrative release dates in the summer because theaters know they can sell out the new Avengers movie and show it on almost every screen they have — and having these prized franchises can also get you more favorable deals on your other slate movies. This always used to be true but in a world where young people go to theaters less, having an “event” to pull them with a reliable experience is more and more important every year.
Easier to market: Tentpoles can build up interest way before launch to get people into theaters for the all-important opening weekend. One fascinating trend is how movie marketing now starts way earlier — almost from the moment the deal is signed. We now have teasers for teaser trailers or in the case of Batman vs Superman:DoJ, ComicCon footage two years before the movie comes out. Studying how Hunger Games was marketed is required for anyone interested in this space — it was a masterpiece of building up interest for opening weekend. And all of this can be massively accelerated if your franchise already has a built-in fan base of comic book fans or young adults (or both).
Secondary revenue streams: Tentpoles also help you once you’re out of the theaters. They command better home video market/TV distribution deals. They also tie in to merchandizing, spin-off TV shows, games (think everything from the Star Wars or Marvel universes). Think Frozen. On the other hand, you’re probably not seeing a action figure off a romantic comedy anytime soon.
Predictable earnings: Studying the earnings report of these studios is fascinating — you really see the variance of being in the hits driven business and what happens when your big bets fail. When you’re a public company, you can ease up a lot of pressure on yourself when you have some way of predicting how your next few quarters and years are going to look like.
Cushion your experiments & passion projects: One of the common criticisms about tentpoles is that they shut down interesting cinema — however, the reverse could be true. Having a predictable set of sequels to franchises gives you that earnings cushion which in turn lets you fund the other experiments on your slate and play portfolio theory on them. To put it differently, if you want to see more experimental cinema, you almost need more of these tentpoles to work.
Disney’s franchise land grab: Every movie executive I’ve spoken to mentions how Disney has done an amazing job of locking up most major franchises with their M&A spree. Between Star Wars, Marvel, Indiana Jones and various animated franchises, Disney is in an incredibly strong situation when it comes to having predictable hits (think: next Avengers movie, any upcoming Star Wars movie) where certain movies might be getting pushed out because they just don’t have enough summer dates over the next few years (like the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie). All this in turn puts more pressure on rival studios who are not as IP-rich as Disney is.
(More) Tentpole hunting: The moves from Disney and the overall shift to tentpoles/franchises has in turn lead to all other studios scrambling to find new franchises. This happens in parallel with having an army of development executives scouring any new young adult/sci fi/video game hit out there and checking it’s potential to turn into a franchise. If you’re an young adult author with a book on a dystopian future where a teenager saves the world, you probably have already been contacted.
Another way to do it is to manufacture bigger universes of their own even with little cards to play with (case in point: Sony’s attempts with the Spiderman universe) or to reboot/recast older franchises (e.g. Jurassic World, Ghostbusters).
Side note: Amazon could be amazing at this— they have all the right data on who actually reads these books and can spot emerging trends before anyone else.
More animation: A sub-genre that works consistently is animation. One word — Frozen. Animation can also be more “four-quadrant” (young/old + male/female) than a typical comic book flick. A typical Pixar movie draws in young and old. It also doesn’t hurt when movies feature international settings/characters — a case in point being Big Hero 6 where the protagonist was Asian and the setting was a fun mix of San Francisco and Tokyo.
Competition & costs for top talent: It turns out that there is a limited set of top talent that you can depend on when you have a budget of $200m — and competition can be fierce. We saw this in the latest Sony leaks where people fight over David Fincher’s services. Be they writers, directors or acting talent, there are only a handful “at the top” and these folks are increasingly demanding more lucrative deals, from more backend revenue shares to various forms of guarantees built in.
One interesting trend you see here is the actors being cast in comic book based movies — it started with Robert Downey Jr making a comeback and up-and-comers (at the time) like Chris Hemsworth. But now you see rumors of Ryan Gosling starring in one and Will Smith in Suicide Squad. My money on it not being long before you see Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, George Clooney (making a return to wearing a cape!). There’s just not a lot of top tier talent left who haven’t signed on to a franchise of some sort. But when you have a movie that costs $200m to make and roughly the same number to market, you want to leave nothing to chance, especially the faces on the poster.
Corollary — this in turn drives up production costs which in turn makes you want to have the best talent for your even-more-expensive-to-make movie and so on and on.
Seth Rogen Wins: So why Seth Rogen? The fun, interesting outlier data point in all of this is how well certain comedies are doing. For example, the Channing Tatum-Jonah Hill Jump Street movies both did really well at the box office and there’s always the Hangover movies. But if you want a true movie star/writer on a hot streak, there’s no better candidate than Seth Rogen. Forgetting the crazy situation around the Interview, his previous few movies have all done really, really well. This is the End made $126m on a budget of $32m while Neighbors (watch it, Rose Byrne is hilarious) made $268m on a production budget of $18m — crushing Amazing Spiderman 2 on the weekend it opened. It’s hard to tell how sustainable such a streak is but the economics of this is undeniable.
If you’re a studio and you’re done figuring out the comic-book powered tentpoles and the animated movies to bring in the families, you should probably be calling Mr.Rogen.
[Disclaimer #1: I don’t work in movies — this post is an attempt to learn more — so it’s highly probable I don’t know what I’m talking about. If you do work in movies, please provide feedback here or via firstname.lastname@example.org! Disclaimer #2: I’m not saying any of this is a good thing — just making observations — so if you’re unhappy about the current state of movie making, you should point your fury elsewhere. Probably at the kids buying Avengers 2 tickets.]