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Sunday 26 May 2019

Franchise fever

Avengers: Endgame is set to become the biggest movie of all time, except it’s not really a single movie. It’s the latest entry in an ongoing series of films, television series, computer games and more, all building on each other. This is the new entertainment landscape

By Chris Newell and Peter Hoskin

By now, it’s abundantly clear that Avengers: Endgame is a titanic success – or, rather, more than a titanic success. It recently surpassed James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) to become the second-highest grossing movie ever. At time of writing, its global box-office takings of $2.62bn put it within punching distance of another Cameron movie, Avatar (2009), which currently tops the rankings with $2.79bn. But, unlike Avatar, Endgame is still in cinemas, so it is likely to set a new record.

It’s noticeable that so many of these top-grossing films belong to what we’d call movie franchises: big series that follow their own sets of characters across their own universes. In fact, of the top 25 shown above, a full 22 belong to franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Star Wars, Harry Potter and James Bond.

At which point, a caveat: if you adjust the box offices numbers to account for ticket-price inflation, then the franchise movies are a bit less dominant – but they still make up almost half of this different top 25.

The business thinking behind franchise movies is simple and undeniable. If audiences like a particular character or world, then why make one film when you can make dozens? Why make $millions when you can make $billions? But this thinking is hardly new. Between 1926 and 1949, Hollywood mass-produced Charlie Chan flicks. There have been 33 Godzilla movies – and more to come – since 1954.

What’s new is the intensity and influence of franchise moviemaking. Look again at the graphic above: the MCU has yielded 23 films across the past decade. And these are not small, quickly produced films, as the old Charlie Chan ones were – they are behemothic productions, involving thousands of people and having global ambitions.

The rewards from movie franchises are so great that it pays entertainment companies to accumulate them. Although one company is certainly better at accumulating them than any other – Disney. Starting properly with its $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar in 2006, and continuing through to its $71.3 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox this year, the House of Mouse has expanded so that it is now also the House of Buzz Lightyear, Darth Vader, Captain America and Bart Simpson.

Disney is making the most of these franchises. Across its various brands, it has over 30 films planned for the next year and a half.

And there will be more. Franchises also lend themselves to spin-off television series, video games, toys, T-shirts – and even theme parks, such as the forthcoming Star Wars Land in Hollywood. It turns out that Endgame was just the beginning.

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