In November, actor Vin Diesel revealed some big plans for his beloved Fast & Furious movies. The franchise, which is now heading into its eighth installment, would be revamped into a series of interconnected spinoff films built around characters from the F&F ensemble. The popular car-oriented property, which had already blown up from a mid-budget, genre-film rip-off of Point Break into a mega-budget international heist series, was branching out into an expanded universe.
"We’re certainly in conversations about how we can expand the franchise now," Donna Langley, the chair of Universal Pictures, which makes the F&F movies, confirmed to Variety.
Conversations about "expanding the franchise" increasingly seem to be the only ones happening in Hollywood. And in recent years, they've moved beyond the sequels and trilogies we’ve grown used to and into sprawling, multi-movie universes featuring interlinked characters and storylines, often planned by committee and scheduled years in advance.
Enough already! The mania for expanded universes and spinoff franchises has engulfed Hollywood’s big studios in recent years, and it threatens to ruin their ability to tell clear and definitive stories. It’s a recipe for rapid creative rot and long-term financial instability. The film industry is heading into an expanded universe bubble, and it’s best popped early.
One good film isn’t enough anymore
The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which Marvel has built into one of the most successful brands in Hollywood, largely on the backs of its secondary comic book heroes — has inspired a slew of imitators. These range from the obvious (the Star Wars films, which, like Marvel, are owned by Disney, as well as Marvel’s major competitor in the superhero comic business, DC Comics) to the not so obvious (a planned series of Ghostbusters films, under the Ghost Corps moniker, featuring multiple crews divided by gender, as well as a full-length animated feature).
Detailing the potential for an expanded universe is now the imperative for virtually every studio as it develops films: The question is not whether an idea might make for a successful movie, but whether it can support the weight of a half-dozen or more films. "Creating a universe is as important as creating a franchise and actually has a greater overall, long-term power to draw audiences," media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told Bloomberg Business last year.
And as Shawn Levy, director of the three-film Night at the Museum series, recently put it to the New Yorker, studios spend the vast majority of their efforts now on franchise development. "Every single first meeting I have on a movie in the past two years," he said, "is not about the movie itself but about the franchise it would be starting." One good film is simply not enough.
By my count, there are as many as a dozen separate cinematic universes currently in some stage of production or development. The economic logic seems reasonable enough, at least in the short term: Movies, especially those with big budgets and international appeal, are incredibly expensive to advertise, with some costing $200 million or more just to market. Franchises help mitigate studios' financial risk because they come "presold" — with a built-in audience that already knows the story and will show up no matter what. The idea, essentially, is for films to become brands rather than stories.
The Transformers films, for example, are no longer being treated as a single series but as a larger world to explore: Last summer, Paramount hired a gaggle of writers to spend a few weeks brainstorming ideas to broaden the series, an effort that apparently produced at least nine different movie ideas — and producers have said that five of those ideas look viable.
The expanded universe gold rush
The Transformers and Fast & Furious franchises are both good bets; they have huge international followings, and recent entries in both series have each brought in more than $1 billion in global box office revenue. But not every one of the coming wave of expanded universes looks so strong.
Indeed, the quest for presold mega-franchises means studios are increasingly reaching deep into forgotten and obscure remnants of pop culture to build their cinematic worlds: In an effort to compete with the Marvel and DC superhero universes, Sony last year announced that it would spin up development on a series of movies based on the Valiant comic book line from the early 1990s. The Valiant comics have their fans but are little-known outside comic circles — yet Sony is reportedly preparing for a five-movie run.
Meanwhile, a month after Universal talked up plans for the Fast & Furious expansion, Paramount announced that it would begin developing a universe based on a bundle of Hasbro toy lines from the '70s and '80s, including Micronauts, Visionaries, Mobile Armored Strike Kommand (M.A.S.K.), and ROM the SpaceKnight, which it would then crash into the G.I. Joe movie franchise. It’s safe to say that these are not exactly cherished cultural treasures; I’m a pop culture–obsessed child of the '80s, and even I have only dim memories of any of them. What's more, it’s unclear how attaching them to the already struggling Joe franchise will boost either of their fortunes.
Call it a gold rush. Call it a bubble. Studios are reaching far beyond the obvious contenders to create their cinematic universes. Eventually some of them are bound to fail. Even something as obvious as the DC Comics movie universe, starting with Batman v Superman in March, is less of a sure thing than you might think. Yes, both characters are widely known and loved, but the only film set in their shared world so far, 2013’s Man of Steel, was a minor disappointment at the box office.
Still, Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics, is launching an entire super universe out of it anyway, with 10 films planned over the next five years — and quickly expanding into films built around lesser-known characters, as in this summer’s Suicide Squad.
Marvel, by contrast, had four solid, individual character-based hits under its belt (Ironman, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) before releasing The Avengers, its first film to make real use of the wider universe. While Batman v Superman will probably be a hit of some sort, it’s easy to imagine how some of these all-in, long-term bets might not pay off. For studios, there’s a looming business risk in putting so much effort into so few properties: What happens when audiences tire of these franchises and their sprawling cinematic worlds?
Expanded universes are a recipe for creative stagnation
Even if a franchise is successful at the box office, the reliance on well-known properties is a recipe for creative stagnation. Look at last summer’s Minions, a so-so spinoff of the animated Despicable Me series built around the tiny yellow henchmen of the title. In the Despicable Me movies, the bumbling, delightfully cute and childlike Minions are a highlight. But there’s just not enough to them to support their own film, and they quickly wear out their welcome. They amount to little more than an effective running gag.
Or take 2013’s Dracula Untold: It’s a dismal, dreary affair — with just a 22 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — that tried to turn Dracula into a kind of grim-and-gritty gothic superhero. Yet reports suggest that it’s likely intended as (what else?) the first film of Universal’s classic movie monsters universe.
Successful franchises, meanwhile, risk overstaying their welcome and running out of fresh ideas. Over time, it becomes harder and harder to mine the same property and delight audiences in the same way.
Marvel’s Avengers strategy worked so well in part because audiences had never seen anything quite like it before. Team-ups and crossovers were common in comic books but had never really happened on the big screen. By the time the first official Justice League film — essentially DC’s answer to The Avengers — comes out in 2017, viewers will have seen big-team superhero crossovers many, many times already.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens suggests the danger here — the movie has many strengths but is also determinedly derivative, as if its creators were terrified of doing anything fans hadn’t seen before.
And then there are the storytelling compromises that inevitably arise with this style of heavily serialized, committee-driven filmmaking, where sequels and tie-ins are scheduled years in advance. That’s already happening in the Marvel universe.
During the editing of last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, studio execs fought bitterly with director Joss Whedon over whether to include an odd sequence in which Thor briefly hallucinates in a cave. The scene had almost nothing to do with the movie, but Marvel wanted to add it in order to set up events scheduled to happen in films that are still years away. In the end, a confusingly edited, cut-down version of the scene was included. (A longer version has since been released.) Ultimately, the movie had to serve the needs of the franchise rather than the needs of the story. As Hollywood rolls out more expanded universes and complicates the existing ones, you can expect to see a lot more of this.
Expanded universes narrow viewers’ choices
This is one of the reasons moviegoers ought to be worried about the rise of the expanded universe model of filmmaking: It essentially turns movies into television — indeed, into a kind of big-budget, big-screen soap opera, where the goal is always to hype the next twist, the next reveal, the next death or rebirth, which is to say the next film. (Indeed, in some cases, the writing process for these properties is explicitly modeled off television writers' rooms.)
I won’t deny that it can be fun to follow along — I loved The Avengers. And it’s true that superhero comics have always had an element of soap opera to them (which is one of the reasons the Marvel universe lends itself so well to this approach). But the increasing emphasis on narrative sprawl and pre-planned serialization comes with a price: the ability and willingness to tell discrete, standalone stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end — the sort of memorable stories that in many cases launched these franchises to begin with.
At the same time, this approach also limits our choices at the multiplex, narrowing the options to an ever-smaller number of properties and characters and stories. There are only so many franchises that the studios can support and develop at any given time, and the more resources they pour into these films, the less room there is for anything else. Which means that in the end, expanded universes only serve to make the big-screen experience smaller.