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How Marvel Mitigated Risk and Changed the Future of Franchise Filmmaking

By Corey Atad | Think Pieces | August 8, 2014 | Comments ()


Marvel studios logo head.jpg

Back in June 2007, Ain’t it Cool News published a rumour. Talk had already begun to circulate about the plans at Marvel Studios, where the rights to several superhero properties had been re-gained, and self-financed production was going ahead. Iron Man was set for release in May of the following year with The Incredible Hulk following a few months later, and now there were strong indications that Marvel was eyeing a much bigger prize. Nick Fury appearing in Iron Man could only mean one thing: The Avengers was on the way. That film quickly ushered in a new era of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking and corporate risk-mitigation.

A piece at Screen Rant from 2011, the year before The Avengers came out, raised common concerns over both the possibility for success of such a bold experiment in franchise cinema, as well as the problem of having the market flooded with new Marvel movies every few months. The concerns, of course, turned out to be unwarranted. It’s only been two years since The Avengers came out and destroyed box office records, and the seismic shifts in Hollywood’s blockbuster approach are well under way.

The most obvious example of this is Warner Bros. reaction to that success in relation to their DC Comics properties. With Christopher Nolan’s singular vision of the Batman universe complete, the studio is now in a position to follow Marvel’s lead, creating an interconnecting universe of comic book characters on screen. This week, Warner Bros. claimed tentative release dates for nine so-called “Untitled DC Films” to be released after Batman v Superman, stretching all the way to 2020. They didn’t stop there, though. Dates were also claimed for two “Untitled WB Event Films” and two “Untitled WB Animated Films,” largely speculated to be further LEGO movies, which are on top of The Lego Movie 2 and the Ninjago movies already announced.

In the meantime, Sony has been hard at work trying to turn its so-far underwhelming The Amazing Spider-Man franchise into a similarly expansive universe of films, with Sinister Six on the way, and reports of a female-led film to follow. And back at Disney, the LucasFilm team is hard at work on a plan to make a new Star Wars or spin-off film every year.

Not to be outdone, Marvel’s Kevin Feige has said that his studio has movies tentatively planned all the way to 2028. They’ve already claimed release dates from now until 2019, with several “Untitled Marvel Studios Films” to look forward to. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around all these release date claims and massive plans for interconnected cinematic worlds. What had looked like a gamble on Marvel’s part is now Hollywood’s accepted business model, and it’s overwhelming.

Franchises have been a part of the business for a long time now, with successful films receiving the sequel treatment to milk more money from audiences. With very few exceptions, the franchise model has tended towards short-term success, with audiences eventually growing tired of the property. Movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 prove the point. Both films have been very successful in basic terms, but considering the previous Trasnformers and Spider-Man films, they are performing less robustly than desired. For Spider-Man, at least, Sony has looked to Marvel for a new kind of risk mitigation and long-term success.

Hollywood has always been interested in mitigating risk. It’s their prerogative, of course, given they’re a business and not a patronage. Sequels have largely served the function of lowering risk quite well, but even sequels have their limits. Making a new sequel in a tentpole franchise every year is not easy, and doing so would tire the audience out way too fast to make the investment worthwhile. What Marvel has figured out is that by alternating stand-alone features between team-ups, the audience won’t grow so tired of each individual “franchise.” Not only that, but by making the universe interconnected, the audience is given incentive, or even obligation, to keep up with every film. It’s not the movies, but the encompassing brand that matters, and even lesser sequels like Thor: The Dark World get a boost from the new model.

A $94 million opening for Guardians of the Galaxy, a film based on characters few ordinary moviegoers had heard of, signals the long-term viability of the approach. The movie on its own might’ve done well given the positive reviews and audience response, but making it part of the on-going Marvel Cinematic Universe adds a willful obligation to the mix. Audiences needed to see Guardians of the Galaxy, just like they needed to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World. Both of those movies opened between $20 and $30 million bigger than first films in their series, clearly a result of audiences buying into what The Avengers was selling.

Quality is the biggest potential variable for the studios. Marvel has managed to produce one film after another, all at least pretty decent. Warner Bros. is attempting to build a DC universe off of Man of Steel, a film that wasn’t very well received, and they’re even keeping the same creative team, with Zack Snyder directing Batman v Superman. There’s logic in doing that, though. The studio must figure the sight of a single movie featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman will be too much for audiences to pass up, and from there it’s just a matter of creating a consistency between films, tweaking the quality and formula to perfection along the way. Even Marvel had stumbles at the outset, with The Incredible Hulk leaving zero impression, and then Iron Man 2 haphazardly setting up The Avengers. They pulled it together, though, and Warner Bros. can do the same.

Eventually, one of these studios will fail in the approach. They’ll manage it badly, or the films won’t connect at all with audiences, or maybe audiences will reach their last straw. When that happens, there will be serious questions as to the viability of the Marvel model in an over-saturated marketplace, but it’s doubtful anyone will question the model itself. As Hollywood becomes more and more obsessed with branded enterprise over creative gambles, Marvel has proven those corporate inclinations result in massive returns. Now the studios know they’ve got a captive audience, and they’re already planning out our cinematic lives for the next decade. Resistance is futile. I guess I’ll be seeing you on July 19th, 2020, at the opening night screening of “Untitled DC Film.” I’ll save you a seat.

Corey Atad is a Staff Writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Prepagan

    "but considering the previous Trasnformers and Spider-Man films, they are performing less robustly than desired."

    I can't speak to the level of desire, but with the latest Transformers film taking in over a billion at the box office, I don't see anyone at Paramount being too disappointed.

    And with the difference in box office between Cap2 and TASM2 only being around $5m I'd have to question why the former is being lauded as a triumph while the latter appears to be considered a commercial failure?

  • There is the small matter of Cap 2 making $83 million more than the first and Amazing Spidey 2 made $60 million less than its predecessor.

  • ASFan

    No one's calling TASM2 a commercial failure. TASM2 just makes a case for diminishing returns for future installments.

  • ASFan

    I think you're thinking too much in present terms. When thinking about the future, TASM is more likely to experience diminishing returns.

  • ASFan

    It's more about the effects of what TASM2 has on future films in its universe vs. Cap 2's effects on the MCU. TASM2 makes a stronger case for diminishing returns on future films.

  • JustOP

    I wonder if it will ever reach the point of a DC/Marvel cross over. Doubtful in the short term, but in the long?

  • narfna

    You're right that this sounds overwhelming. I am solving the problem by choosing not to see any DC or Sony movies or whatever else until multiple people I trust tell me they are worth seeing. I was not a fan of Snyder's Superman, and the WB/DC approach seems like imitation to me rather than creation.

    I am, however, completely invested in Marvel. If they keep up this pace and level of quality, they've got my money for sure until 2020 or whatever.

  • ASFan

    Sony is the studio already failing in this approach. They're more concerned about creating a universe than creating appealing characters.

  • DeaconG

    So, OK Marvel and DC...where's my JLA/Avengers crossover?

  • TranscendMatter

    This will happen once the whole thing starts falling apart. Or if Disney buys Time Warner

  • foolsage

    We can't even get a Spider-Man/Avengers crossover, and Spidey's literally been on the team. Temper your expectations.

  • DeaconG

    What expectations? I'll probably be in my dotage by the time it does get done!

  • foolsage

    Heh, fair enough. Temper your dreams then, I suppose. I don't think Marvel's fragmented universe is coming together any decade soon. I expect crossovers with DC are even farther out.

  • ed newman

    Plus why would Marvel want to help out a struggling DC? Maybe if they were closer to equals...

  • DeaconG

    In the meantime I have my trade edition copy to keep me warm at night. Busiek and Perez did a magnificent job.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    i never in my wildest dreams thought i would see the kind of shared universe in the comics (warts and all) reflected in live-action adaptations. i always wanted to see X crossover played out in live action, but totally understood the problems with having to introduce the 100 characters that take part etc.

    even when Marvel started building towards the Avengers, as enjoyable as i found the movies, i never thought it would work.

    clearly I was wrong, and I am super, super thrilled about it, especially seeing as how superheroes (and hopefully by extension, other genres of comics) have become such a huge part of pop culture again.

    what it means for Hollywood, meh, but this is also totally a selfish pleasure of mine. and Marvel pretty much has a guaranteed ticket buy from me (and Netflix one when those 4 series come out) for the duration of these 3 phases

  • The Grand Leaf

    Why do people continue to persist with this perception that Man of Steel underperformed or "was not well received." Its box office total was higher than Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Thor, Thor 2, and Captain America. It wasn't a perfect movie but it made some serious money and opened up the rest of the DC universe and gave them a fighting chance now at competing seriously with Marvel. I fully expect Dawn of Justice will crack a billion.

  • A billion will be a tall order especially with the March release date. First its going to be compared to the two Avengers films. It would have to make $600 million worldwide in the six weeks before Cap 3 is released in May and do it without the kind of weekday ticket sales you get in the summer time.

  • Andrew J

    I actually liked it. Did it have problems? Sure but it was at least trying with different themes and style for an origin film

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    yeah i think the only backlash or negative reaction came from "the internet" for lack of a better term to collect movie/pop culture/blogs.

    im pretty sure it was successful with the actual meat in the seats (of which "the internet" is only a subset, not the barometer)

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    i think the Cinemascore for the movie was an A even.
    that's not to defend the individual merits of Man of Steel as a well constructed film in technical terms of script, acting, etc (i personally liked it), but yeah I think to say it had a poor reception in general is incorrect

  • I'd venture to guess Sony will be the studio that will drop the ball first. They've already had to reboot Spider-Man once and a Sinister Six movie smacks of a "we've got the rights to all these characters, we need to do something
    with them" desperation.

  • ASFan

    One could argue they already did drop the ball. As was stated many times, they rebooted it way too soon. Another element that's going wrong, the creative team is spending too much time developing this new Spider-Man universe and future installments and forgetting about properly developing the characters in this universe. It's a shame Emma Stone had to be involved in something so underwhelming. She deserves better, but at least she's out now.

  • meadowdancer

    Yeah I think everyone is realizing that rebooting Spiderman did not work out the way they thought. I actually found the movie ok but there was too much going on. Quit throwing multiple villains in a movie. And the dumb relationship angst worked my ever loving nerves.

  • Andrew J

    I like both marvel and dc and am excited for their movies but am I the only one that doesn't care about their schedule?

  • The release schedule is analogous to recruiting in college football. It's important to the overall success of the project -- and some people get waaay into it -- but in end you can still enjoy the final product without an intimate understanding of its inner-workings.

  • asherlev1

    I mean, to be honest, I'm not particularly interested in the upcoming DC film.

  • AshBookworm

    Well, Henry Cavill's in it, so I won't be skipping it. But, even if he wasn't, I am curious to see what they do with Woman Woman so I will see it.

    I'm not paying for it though. I'll wait until I can borrow it from the library.

  • asherlev1

    Do you mean that in the sense that it would cost less to borrow the movie from your library or DOES YOUR LIBRARY ACTUALLY LET YOU BORROW MOVIES FOR FREE?!

  • Berry

    There are libraries where you have to pay to borrow things? (Other than late fees, which I pay often.)

  • Alicia

    At most libraries I know, books are free, but DVDs and software come with a charge. The one place I know that rents DVDs for free is a university library, but their collection is limited and leans heavily towards indie selections, so they probably won't be stocking any Marvel titles.

  • Maydays

    DVDs at our library are $2, but kids' nonfiction DVDs are free.

  • Berry

    Interesting. I shouldn't say that everything in libraries here is free, because obviously we pay taxes. And if you want to put anything on hold, or get an inter-library loan, there's a fee of 50 cents or a euro. Plus the aforementioned late fees, that I'm always racking up, because I'm the person who needs to get seven new books when I have eleven unfinished ones at home. But the borrowing itself never costs anything, whether it's books, DVD's, whatever. There's been some talk that if and when libraries start having more e-books, then there needs to be some kind of extra compensation for the writers, but so far it's just been talk.

  • Ziver

    The library where I live lets you borrow movies for free. Sometimes new release movies.

  • Same here. Although sometimes for new releases there is a waiting list.

  • AshBookworm

    I wish. Sorry, I meant that it'll cost less.

  • BWeaves

    Good thing I'm not watching any of these movies. I'll just sit at home and rewatch A Room With A View. Particularly that bathing scene. Over and Over and Over.

    Actually, I have seen a couple of these movies, but I have no desire to be a completist, although I get the concept. There's part of me that wonders if I should rent some of the ones I haven't seen, but I just don't care.

  • AshBookworm

    If you want to give them a shot, start with the first, Iron Man. If you don't like it, then they're not for you.
    It does depend on what your likes are, but it really is a great movie. It doesn't really fall under the sci-fi or fantasy genres that most of the rest of them do; it's just the story of a weapons manufacturer who creates an ultimate weapon.
    Now I think I'll go watch that bathing scene a few times.

  • BWeaves

    Oh, I liked the first Iron Man, and I went to see the Avengers because of Joss Whedon more than anything else. But I have no desire to see anything related.

    I am going to Guardians of the Galaxy, though, because it looks like fun.

  • AshBookworm

    You won't be disappointed by Guardians. It is hilarious.

  • Berry

    Is there any point in seeing Guardians, if I haven't seen any of the previous ones, not even the two BWeaves has seen? (Don't yell at me, I didn't consciously avoid them. It just happened. Or rather didn't.)

  • Danny

    Guardians is completely and totally disconnected from any of the other Marvel movies. There is less than 1% overlap.

    And you really should consider seeing it - it's hilarious in a bunch of unexpected ways, and it's just plain fun.

  • Berry

    Thank you. All the buzz has really made me want to see it, but I was just worried I wouldn't be able to get it.

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