The MCU has been able to excel with #1, #2 and #3. This contrasts with other franchises that attempted all three, but only managed to manage the bookends. For example, DC talked about the importance of exit polling and critical reviews after Batman V. Superman (27% Rotten Tomatoes and B CinemaScore), and Suicide Squad (a lesser-known franchise in DC’s universe that also earned a 27% & B) which opened to huge $166MM and $134MM gross. The DC’s iconic film, Justice League (40%,B+) opened to a staggering $93MM despite featuring the three most beloved DC characters (Batman and Superman).
The subsequent Avengers film by Marvel made more money in its first weekend than Justice League did in its entire lifetime. Black Panther was also a relatively unknown actor before his film debut. The MCU has only had one B-level CinemaScore across 23 films. The DCEU received two box office hits by its third film. This is despite the fact that the average box-office haul for these films was higher due to the relative strength of their characters. Monetization follows love. Monetization is damaged if you fail to perform.
Notably, Disney Star Wars’ franchise declined because fans bristled at Disney’s creative decisions and poor management. Episode VIII was less successful than Episode VII and Episode IX fell even more (grossing only half of VII). The second spinoff, solo, made 37% more than the first. It is impossible to avoid the pain of hurting someone you love.
It is also fascinating to consider the Wizarding World franchise, also known as Harry Potter, which has probably more potential than any other Western IP (save perhaps for Pokemon). This is due in part to the poor reception of Fantastic Beasts feature movies, and J.K. Rowling-related controversy. The franchise has been inactive for nearly a decade without any significant “love building” and ancillary monetization. Only two films and no major games were produced since the last entry in the Harry Potter movie series in 2011. The last major Wizarding World book was published in 2007, almost a decade and half ago. Although there was a stage play and three themed lands at the Universal Studios Parks, these only reached a small fraction of Wizarding World fans. J.K. Rowlings’ Pottermore, a sort of digital publisher-ecommerce-portal-fansite, failed to take off and was largely shut down in 2019. Since 2016, the film rights have been bouncing around between NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia , and will be until 2025 . Even though Harry Potter fans are still in their millions, there is a lack of content and services for them. A TV series is currently in development at HBO Max.
Love is the Greatest Unlock
This should make it clear that entertainment is based on the ability to create love. Anybody can tell a tale. A few people are better at telling stories than others, but they can still be very effective. Stories are often a source of revenue. Profits, especially large profits, can come from love.
The MCU is so popular not because it is more compelling than its peers but because they are better at converting to love. It is easy to see this love through a ticket sale or costume purchase for Captain America. It’s especially valuable when it’s given to Captain America’s co-stars, like Falcon and Wanda Maximoff. Love is also the greatest cure-all. No matter how terrible Batman & Robin was, or whether Star Wars Sequel trilogy betrayed your faith in the characters, chances are you will root for a great adaptation. These franchises are able to rebound quickly from creative mistakes, even if they do not make it profitable (as The Mandalorian has proven).
Non-linear returns are also possible for stories that are most beloved, not just popular ones. Star Wars versus The Terminator or Power Rangers. Similar lessons can be learned from the evolution of Disney’s IP strategy during Bob Iger’s tenure. Iger’s first half was not only focused on the tentpoles Toy Story, Cars, and Marvel. It also included producing blockbuster franchises and renewing IP that had been neglected for decades or more. Tron Legacy and Tomorrowland were just a few examples. These films were box office disasters at worst and barely profitable at the best. This led Disney to refocus its efforts on developing and expanding franchises that had already received a significant level of love rather than awareness. (Note, too that Disney has now de-canonized the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The beloved IP valuations were a market failure if you think that IP has been undervalued in the media industry.
“John Carter” is Disney’s most important movie in the last 15 years.
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This is also where Disney+ comes in. To tell great stories and build affection for their characters, Disney didn’t require direct-to-consumer streaming video on demand. It has been disintermediated all along and still thrives. To collect billions of SVOD profits, Disney didn’t require a direct-to SVOD. It could have simply continued making films and TV shows, or it could have collected $6-10B per year in SVOD “profits” from licensing to Amazon and Apple. No risk, no investment, no payback period.
Disney+ has important comparative advantages over this “easy money”. Disney+ brings together all its franchises and films on one platform. This allows them to better tell their stories and create love. Imagine how difficult it would be for Disney to expand the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes if they were separated across multiple streaming platforms, each with its own release schedule. Even if all Star Wars content was sold to Amazon Prime Video doesn’t have the right platform for it. Neither is Disney. Disney+ also allows Disney to know each customer, what titles and heroes they enjoy most and helps them understand what other products they purchase across the ecosystem (totes and vacations, toys). Disney+ will eventually offer all these products, including comics and resort passes. This helps Disney increase love monetization.
Love is Always Changing
It can feel like an essay on Disney and not Theodore Levitt or storytelling. If you understand that entertainment companies are about love building, then every entertainment company must be constantly changing — from how they tell stories to how they build love and how they monetize.
Oral culture was dominant for a while, but that was soon overthrown by the stage play. This was the middle of the second century. The most popular stories around the globe were later text-based. These included Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. Then came radio with Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger and then film such as Star Wars and Titanic. TV eventually became the most effective medium for incubation and love building. It is unlikely that Game of Thrones would have been able to find an economic audience through theatrical films. The Walking Dead was also unlikely (collectively, these shows were the most watched scripted series in America for nearly a decade). Similar to the Star Wars franchises, TV is being used to enrich lesser-known characters such as WandaVision and Ms. Marvel. These video-centric franchises were not only created in other media, but their greatest popularity was achieved through TV/film.
Another fascinating example is music. The whole industry used to tell their stories through the album format. It was a way for them to build love and make money. The concert experience and art form have improved tremendously over the years, while the barriers to music production fell dramatically. Live music has become a key part of any album’s story, one of the most valuable channels for love building and also the most lucrative. Music is not the core of many artists’ monetization strategies. It is just where their brand’s story is told, and where love is fostered. Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rihanna and Jay-Z have all made more outside of music than they did in it. Similar to famous athletes like Ronaldo and David Beckham. Chris Dixon , an investor, recently stated that music-related NFTs have the power to allow musicians to sell a new thing instead of just the old thing (a song).
There’s also the sheer magnitude of Travis Scott’s Fortnite show. Nearly 30,000,000 people spent nearly nine minutes immersed in Scott’s music. These included casual and die-hard fans as well as non-fans. This experience is unlike any other on Earth, including the Super Bowl halftime show. A week later, the track Scott (The Scotts), which was premiered at the concert and was a collaboration between Kid Cudi and Scott, debuted at #1 on Billboard. Cudi’s debut at #1 on Billboard was his first and largest. Many of the songs Scott performed from his Astroworld album, which he had released two years ago, also returned to Billboard’s top 10. Virtual Scott products were also sold for millions of dollars.
The constant changes in 1-2-3 are a sign of how the entertainment industry is evolving beyond “D2CSVOD”. The two clearest trends are video gaming/interactivity and multi-media/trans-media/cross-media storytelling. This will profoundly change the competitive dynamics and impact how we choose to tell our stories, and how often.
Love Changing #1 – Gaming as the New Frontier for Love
Many new franchises have emerged or been elevated over the past 20 years, from Twilight to Game of Thrones. Even some of the most popular franchises like Star Wars and Marvel have grown stronger. Video games are the medium that has generated most love overall.
Hollywood has spent two decades trying to create new IP or modernize existing European IP via film/TV. This is why Hollywood is now racing to adapt titles such as Halo, Super Mario and Sonic. These titles have been loved by multiple generations (love building), and have benefited from numerous reboots and technical advances that have significantly increased its storytelling sophistication.
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