Disney, Marvel And ‘Fast & Furious’ Have Proven That Franchises Need To Do Better
It’s crazy how many films have broken box office records this year. Let’s just skip past the fact that Avengers: Endgame passed Avatar to become the highest-grossing film of all time, and instead focus on the much more insane reality that four other movies have earned over $1 billion worldwide this year: The Lion King, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel and Aladdin. And soon, Toy Story 4 will join the list. And now Hobbs & Shaw is hot on their all their tails, earning $338.7 million worldwide after just two weeks.
Notice…anything familiar about those movies? They’re either remakes of or sequels to storied Disney franchises or they’re part of a multi-billion dollar franchise. And there’s a big lesson in there for all other film studios.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well yeah, duh. Of course the biggest films of the year belong to Disney, Marvel and Fast and Furious.”
But here’s the thing: people didn’t just flock to those movies because they starred huge celebrities and studios were pumping millions of dollars into them—those movies were successful because Disney, Marvel and Fast and Furious know how to build franchises. A successful franchise has nothing to do with money or star power—it’s all about story. Characters. Intercontextuality.
And when you do those things right? People will pay to see it.
And when you…well, don’t do it right? When you just bank on big budgets and worldwide celebrities? When you think an agin franchise will carry a film? Then you’ll suffer the fate that fell upon dozens of movies in 2019.
Let’s start with the team that did it the most right: Marvel, which opened up the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) back in 2008 with Iron Man. After Robert Downey Jr.’s superhero film struck gold at the box office, earning $585.2 million worldwide, Marvel began laying seeds for an Avengers film by introducing different Avenger characters in their own solo movies.
That’s not a crazy idea—comic books have been doing that for decades. Yet, it felt new, daring, exciting.
Eleven years later, and the MCU is a household name. My mom even knows about the MCU, and gets excited whenever Thor has a new movie. And it works because MCU didn’t just throw an Avengers film at us—the studio took the time to carefully introduce each character and get us invested in their stories first.
By the time Avengers: Endgame rolled out? You had five movies where you got to know Captain America and Thor. Two with the Guardians. Two with Ant-Man. One with Black Panther and Doctor Strange and Spider-Man. You had seven with Iron Man. When you step into the theater, you’re not just there to see a film—this is a cinematic event. You’ve stepped into an alternate universe that took time and care to build.
And Avengers: Endgame is your proof that that time and care works—all $2.795 billion of it.
Marvel and Disney’s strategy has been the polar opposite of most studios’ approach in 2019. And unless that changes soon, there won’t be any new franchises to get excited about.
There have been a few exceptions, such original films like Us or franchise films like John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, but even those films’ revenue is nearly doubled by the lowest-grossing Disney movie. Otherwise, movies like Godzilla: King of the Monsters flopped; franchise prequels like Dark Phoenix came and went; Hellboy didn’t leave even a hint of an impression. Even seemingly successful films like Shazam! and Glass don’t come anywhere near the MCU.
As is the case with all those films, studios merely banked on people showing up to theaters because of the name. We know what Godzilla is; we loved the X-Men movies five years ago; we adored Ron Perlman when he was Hellboy. So why didn’t we show up to any of these movies?
The Fast and Furious series has a clear answer. The Fast and the Furious—the first edition of a soon-to-be franchise—opened to a respectable $40.1 million back in 2001. There we were introduced to Dom, Letty, Mia and Brian. Then 2 Fast 2 Furious continued the success, keeping Brian in the franchise and introducing Roman and Tej.
Then everything went awry with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift—a movie that abandoned all the characters we’d grown to love. Relying merely on the franchise name, Universal paid the price: Tokyo Drift pulled in $24 million on opening weekend and $60 million over the course of its theater run. Universal didn’t understand that people don’t pay the price of admission for fast cars and scantily-dressed women—we want to be with the characters we care about.
Fast and Furious, the following franchise film, is living proof of that. After bringing the old team back together, Fast and Furious pulled in $155.1 million domestically and $363.2 million worldwide. Then Fast Five brought in Roman and Tej and made $209.8 million domestically and $626.1 million globally. It was all a slow build to Furious 7, which had built a universe we all cared about so much that we paid $1.516 billion to see it—making Furious 7 the eighth-highest-grossing film of all time.
This franchise doesn’t release movies as often as Marvel—but it might soon. Hobbs & Shaw became the first-spin off of the franchise to star characters we’ve grown to know and care about. Going the opposite route of Tokyo Drift, Hobbs and Shaw are two characters that have infused themselves with the FFCU (Fast and Furious Cinematic Universe) and stretched its boundaries. It’s not far-fetched at all to believe there’s a team of living, breathing, mortal human beings out there acting like superheroes-and audiences will be there for each new adventure.
I think most wannabe franchises go the Tokyo Drift route these days. Studios are seemingly confused when when we don’t excited for sequels of forgotten films; they scratch their heads when reboots of failed blockbusters don’t land; they throw their hands up when we don’t show up for a prequel of a no-longer-relevant franchise.
What they don’t realize is that people don’t care about the fluff—they just want the story, the characters. We want to become part of a universe and care about everyone within it. You can’t just achieve the success of Marvel and Fast and Furious with one film—a franchise is something that needs to start at the ground level. It takes work, vigor and care.
And if you’re not willing to do that? Then have fun permanently being in second place.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.