Everything is connected. That’s the message that’s coming out of Hollywood these days, if the constant stream of headlines from industry trade publications is to be believed. The end of the last week saw the revelation that Paramount is stepping up their “Transformers”-movie related plans, with “Batman & Robin” and “Lost In Space” writer Akiva Goldsman being tapped to head up a brain trust around the franchise, to develop “a potential multi-part ‘Transformers’ sequel” as well as “potential spinoff films.” In other words, the first step towards turning the “Transformers” films into a so-called "shared universe."
Perhaps the only surprising thing about this is that it hasn’t happened earlier. The past three years have seen the major studios become increasingly interested (and obsessed) with the idea of connected, interlinked franchises, with spin-offs and team-up movies embellishing their additional properties, inspired by the monumental success of Disney and Marvel’s “The Avengers,” the third-biggest grossing movie in history.
The Marvel model, which saw individual heroes star in their own stand-alone (but loosely interlinked) movies before teaming up for “The Avengers” movies, the second of which, “Age Of Ultron,” hits theaters in a month, has been almost unfathomably successful, taking over $7 billion in total across the ten movies to date, and even turning something as weird as “Guardians Of The Galaxy” into a global smash. So, few wonder if other studios are planning on getting in on the act. But will any of them actually work?
Warner Bros. are the most notable contenders. Next year’s “Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice” will introduce other DC characters into the universe established in “Man Of Steel,” with at least two movies landing every year, including "Suicide Squad," “Aquaman,” “Wonder Woman” and “The Flash,” along with “Justice League” team-ups, from 2016 onwards.
Sony tried, and failed, to get in on the act with a world of planned “Spider-Man” spin-offs and team-ups, including the villain-centric “Sinister Six” and even a mooted “Aunt May” prequel, before they decided to give up align with Disney and bring Peter Parker into the Marvel-verse. Meanwhile, Fox are expanding their own offerings, with four of their own Marvel pictures (existing separately from the MCU) hitting in the next two years with “Fantastic Four,” “Deadpool,” “X-Men: Apocalypse” and a (reportedly) final “Wolverine” pic.
But it’s not just in the superhero world that universes are expanding, as “Transformers” is proving. This year’s “Star Wars” episode will be followed by at least two spin-offs, beginning with 2017’s “Rogue One,” reportedly set during, or just prior to, the original trilogy and involving a heist to steal the plans for the Death Star. And 20th Century Fox are moving ahead with both a “Prometheus” sequel, and a new “Alien” picture, directed by Neill Blomkamp.
Universal is planning an interlinked mega-franchise built around their classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, while Warners have a trilogy of “Harry Potter” spin-offs with “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them,” and a brace of Lego-themed pictures in the works including “Ninjago,” “Lego Batman” and Jason Segel and Drew Pearce’s “Billion Brick Race.” Sony haven’t even started filming on Paul Feig’s female-driven “Ghostbusters,” but the studio reportedly have as many as three others in the works, including one potentially starring Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt, and another that’s supposedly a prequel.
There are even prospects from more unlikely sources: horror specialists Blumhouse have mentioned talk of a shared universe between their films like “Insidious” and “Sinister,” comic-book company Valiant has at least a hundred million dollars of Chinese investment to bring characters like Shadowman and Archer & Armstrong to the screen, and indie distributors Cinedigm are planning a cinematic universe based on ’50s B-movies.
Spin-offs are, and continue to be, something more familiar in television (the “Law & Order” and “CSI” series, “Star Trek,” “Cheers” & “Frasier,” etc etc etc). They are usually utilized as a way of capitalizing on the success of a secondary character on a show, or continuing a series without the increasingly expensive principle actors. As with most aspects of the modern blockbuster, franchise expansion got its big-screen start with “Star Wars,” which used novels, comic books and TV movies to create a so-called ‘Extended Universe,’ before gaining speed in the 2000s, thanks principally to superhero pictures, or borderline superhero pictures, like “Catwoman,” “Elektra,” and “The Scorpion King” (though “Supergirl” and “U.S. Marshals” are two unsuccessful examples of early universe-expansion before that).
The of idea continuing a successful movie goes beyond just striking gold with the same idea. Studio executives see their jobs as minimizing risk, and movies based on established, proven properties are seen as less risky than original material, and thus less likely to get them fired if they don’t work. The extended universe is seen to be a way of not just building on a franchise through sequels, but by linking seemingly stand-alone pictures and allowing them to crossover. Why take a gamble on an original script when you can squeeze in a spin-off or prequel instead?
If you have a proven franchise asset, as most of these studios do, it’s seen as responsible business to maximize it by getting as much product out of it as you can. Whereas the old studio system would put their biggest stars in as many films as possible, now the properties themselves are the stars.
You could certainly make the argument that these shared universes are something that audiences actively want. In part, that’s because the only real attempt (beyond Easter Eggs in the films of Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith, for instance) is Marvel, which audiences have clearly taken to in a big way.
Beyond that, shared universes certainly fit into certain pop-culture trends, particularly among the millennial audience that studios are increasingly struggling to capture (movie audiences have grown markedly older in recent years: even a movie like “Guardians Of The Galaxy” plays predominately to the over-25s). This is something of a generalization, but it seems mostly fair to say that, in contrast to the allegedly short attention spans of the MTV-raised Generation X, millennials are actively keen on long-form narrative. Their cultural appetite was shaped by binge-watching multiple seasons of “Game Of Thrones” and “The Wire,” or playing 50-hour video games like “Mass Effect,” more than it was by one-off blockbusters. Television is becoming more cinematic, but it’s also becoming more visual in its use of multi-part storytelling and character continuity.
We’re also living in something of a mash-up culture, which is something else reflected in these shared universe ideas. A world where social media is full of pictures of Disney princesses reinvented as “Game Of Thrones” characters, or fan-fiction where Sherlock makes out with Doctor Who. Whether it’s a sign that the creative well has run dry, or just of executive laziness, isn’t clear, but crossing over Batman and Superman, or combining “21 Jump Street” and “Men In Black,” or “Star Wars” characters appearing in “The Lego Movie,” or Steven Spielberg directing the 80s-nostalgia-driven “Ready Player One” are all reflections of the way that a new generation consumes media.
This is all to say that it’s understandable, even logical, that studio execs would look for a salve in falling theater attendances by turning their existing properties into shared universes. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Hollywood has a tradition of learning the wrong lessons from successes. “Jaws” didn’t lead to smart, character-driven mainstream blockbusters, it led to “Orca.” “Lord Of The Rings” led to “Eragon.” “Toy Story” led to “Shark Tale.” “The Hunger Games” led to “Divergent,” and “Pirates Of The Caribbean” led to “The Lone Ranger.”
The smart thing to take away from the billion-and-a-half dollar success of “The Avengers,” and the other Marvel pictures, wasn’t that people like to see their favorite characters team up on screen, and therefore needed to have a King Arthur mega-franchise or something. It comes down to the execution: four movies that people liked, on the whole, with actors perfectly cast for their roles (none of whom had been particularly famous before they took on the super-heroics), matched with a writer/director who knew how to write for the characters, and bring out both humor and life-and-death stakes in them. “The Avengers” doesn’t work if people don’t like The Avengers.
Though it was also the endgame for Marvel, “The Avengers” team-up felt mostly like something organic. Most of these other ideas are reverse-engineering — DC will spin its characters off from “Batman V. Superman.” Others are trying to combine characters, like the Universal monsters, who don’t necessarily work all that well together. Separately, you had 1930s horror classics. Together, you get “Van Helsing” or “The Monster Mash.”
This model is also reliant on the films succeeding. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has already shown the perils of trying to spin-off or redo something that wasn’t working in the first place. Eating the development costs on the planned spin-offs and followups probably wasn’t pretty for Sony execs. That’s got to be a little concerning for Warner Bros., given that the much-derided ASM2 actually out-grossed “Man Of Steel,” from which they have nearly a dozen tie-in movies on their slate already. Films which, if rumors are to be believed, will be dour and serious, deliberately avoiding one of the things that have made the Marvel movies so popular — their sense of humor.
Even the seemingly bulletproof options are making some questionable choices. There’s little doubt that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will be a monster hit, and will help to return George Lucas’ universe to the top of the franchise tree. But is it the smartest move to introduce a new set of characters to a new generation, only for the next movie, “Star Wars: Rogue One” (if rumors are to be believed) to return to the timeline of the original film, which is nearly forty years old? Sure, for those who grew up with the originals, it’ll be a thrill. But for the film’s target audience of kids, rather than overgrown man-children, it risks being confusing and breaking any momentum, particularly if Gareth Edwards’ film doesn’t work.
This is partly a symptom of studio green-lighters falling into one of the traps that’s plagued blockbuster filmmaking in the last couple of decades: paying too much attention to the vocal, but relatively minor, internet fan community. The audience that obsesses over Easter Eggs and crossovers are not, broadly speaking, the audience that actually makes these films a success. And though putting fans-turned-creatives in charge of “The Avengers,” “Guardians Of The Galaxy” or “Star Trek” has paid off, that doesn’t mean that every suggestion the geek crowd has is a good one. It also doesn’t mean that ticket followers will pursue their "wouldn’t it be cool if Aquaman fought The Flash" suggestions.
As Marvel has proven, the rewards of your shared cinematic universe can be enormous, and they’re the unquestionable kings of the tent pole right now. But with every studio throwing their hat into the crossover ring, it’ll inevitably become something of a zero-sum game. Some of these plans will work, some of them won’t, but the idea that it’s going to be the savior of the movie industry is entirely ill-conceived, to be filed with Smell-O-Vision and Sensurround.