The Making of a Franchise: Why Some Succeed Where Others Fail

by Janie Walenda

It feels like everything is a franchise nowadays.  Every movie sets up a sequel, and more often than not, it gets one.  Few franchises, however, are truly successful.  Most fizzle out thanks to underwhelming sequels that drag on far beyond where they should. 

What about those few franchises that are both long-lasting and successful overall? What makes them succeed where so many fail? 

First and foremost, the movies are usually connected.  Though seemingly obvious, creating a unified story across multiple films is easier said than done.  There has to be a vision and a concentrated effort to keep storylines cohesive.  

This could be accomplished by having a particular producer, director, and writer be involved across multiple movies or simply by using an accepted formula.  The Bond films, for example, don’t have a single person at the helm but instead use a tried-and-true formula to achieve cohesion and success.

Yet a successful franchise is also constantly evolving.  Even in more formula-following franchises, each addition progresses the stories and characters further and gives audiences something they’ve never seen before.  Franchises that get stuck in a rut will either die out or drag on needlessly.  

The opposite can also be true, with a franchise having so many new ideas that it speeds through them and ends up being an unsatisfying mess.  The sequel trilogy of “Star Wars” fell into this trap, squandering potential storylines with the addition of weaker new ones.

A franchise’s greatest strength, however, is its characters.  Beloved characters can carry even weaker entries and keep audiences invested.  One of the advantages of a franchise is getting to watch characters grow and learn over multiple installments, and audiences will sometimes follow these journies for years.  

What are some examples of franchises that work? 

The most obvious answer is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The MCU started with smaller, character-focused films and built towards team-up stories.  This Marvel formula led to “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” two movies with massive ensemble casts that still packed hefty emotional punches.  Having made the most of this formula, Marvel has decided to lean into more creative, ambitious, and risky projects in its Phase Four lineup.

The success of the MCU stems from the creators’ understanding of the characters and the source material. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios and chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment, got his first job as associate producer on “X-Men” because of his knowledge of Marvel Comics.  The shared universe of the MCU was his idea, and he has been a producer on every MCU film to date.  

The MCU is almost the largest interconnected movie franchise at 25 films, matched only by Bond films.  There is no other franchise like it, though many have tried to replicate it.  

Speaking of Bond — James Bond — the first film premiered in 1962, while the most recent installment debuted on October 8 of this year. This franchise has introduced too many tropes to mention, but that’s part of the charm.  Even as Bond has been modernized, there is still always going to be the monologuing villain and the witty one-liners.  

In a similar market, “Mission: Impossible” is another long-running franchise that relies on its formula.  As of late, the main appeal of the “Mission: Impossible” movies have been its innovative action pieces and Tom Cruise’s unyielding commitment to doing his own stunts. 

If there’s a single thing that these long-lasting franchises have in common, it’s having a good formula and sticking with it. Knowing what fans liked about previous films and what they want to see in future films keeps audiences happy and ticket sales high. 

Each of the franchises mentioned so far has a great understanding of what audiences expect.  Formulas can be experimented with and altered but are nevertheless essential to a successful franchise.  “Shang Chi” and “What If…?” are perfect examples of this.  

“Shang Chi” uses the classic MCU origin film formula as a backdrop to a compelling family drama unlike any that has come before in this universe.  Meanwhile, most of “What If…” acted as a mini Phase One, with each episode setting up a new character for the epic team-up in the grand finale.

So, what about the franchises that haven’t worked?  Firstly, this category is not absolute.  Many lackluster franchises today were successful up to a point but had major missteps that they have yet to recover from. Others have struggled to get off the ground in the first place.  

Universal’s “Dark Universe,” a planned series of monster films using classic properties such as “The Mummy,” “Frankenstein” and even “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has been a victim of these struggles.  After the absolute failure of “The Mummy” reboot starring Tom Cruise, most of these films have been shelved or remain with an official release date. 

The DCEU is a more complicated story.  After the success of the “Dark Knight” trilogy, Warner Brothers decided to create a shared universe to compete with the MCU.  The original plan was to build a universe around director Zack Snyder’s creative vision.  

However, Snyder’s first two DCEU projects, “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” proved incredibly divisive among fans.  On top of that, “Suicide Squad” was panned, leaving “Wonder Woman” as the only positively accepted film of their initial lineup. 

After Snyder stepped down from “Justice League” due to a family tragedy, “Avengers” director Joss Whedon stepped in to oversee reshoots and post-production.  “Justice League” was not well received and led to cries to release the Snyder Cut, which tells an entirely different story.  Ever since then, the DCEU has favored directors’ autonomy over a shared universe.  

While this has resulted in many unique projects, it has kept the DCEU from building upon previous stories and having one consistent storyline. Abandoning a shared storyline makes it harder for audiences to follow along, meaning the mainstream appeal is slim. 

However, the experimentation of the DCEU has resulted in darker, more stylistic films, something that the MCU is now trying to recreate.  By no means is the DCEU a failed franchise, but as long as it lacks interconnected characters and stories, its ultimate fate will be uncertain.

What about “Star Wars?”  What about all the “Harry Potter” and “X-Men” movies? Well, these franchises can all be classified as “good until they weren’t.”

“Star Wars” has struggled for decades to expand beyond the original trilogy, only recently finding consistent success in properties like “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and “The Mandalorian.”  While the original “Harry Potter” films were a massive success, the recent attempt to revitalize the franchise through the “Fantastic Beasts” movies has fallen flat. 

Meanwhile, the “X-Men” movies never quite understood the iconic characters and plots, with few notable exceptions, such as “Logan” and “Deadpool.”  While the early films were essential to the development of the comic book movie, the franchise eventually fizzled out with disappointments like “Dark Phoenix.” 

There are numerous other film series worth discussing, and there are many factors that can make or break a franchise.  Making one good movie is hard enough, and making a sequel or a trilogy is even harder.  In this age of interconnected universes, many films are rushed into becoming franchises, with each mildly successful property getting sequels and spinoffs.  The best franchises are the result of patience, planning, and knowing how to tell an entertaining story.

Janie Walenda is a freshman Global Business major and an A&E writer for Cedars.  She enjoys musicals, movies and rereading the same books ten times.

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