For me, one of the key take-outs from last’s month’s CineEurope in Barcelona was just how important the “cinematic universe” has become, as a way of investing in both storytelling and box-office potential. Of the UK’s box office for 2017 so far, nine of the top twenty releases (at least by my count) are part of some sort of cinematic universe – so there’s undeniable evidence that the audience appetite is there.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) is probably the first thing we all think of when it comes to this subject; not only because it was populated back in 2010(ish), but it’s been realised to such a degree of critical and commercial success. Starting with Jon Favreau’s big-screen debut of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel launched a cross-media platform franchise that mirrors one of the most popular aspects of the comic-books: that storylines, locations and characters (well, rights-permitting) could flow, seamlessly, across its films, TV shows, comics and merchandising.
It’s not a new phenomenon, mind. Television has been doing it for years. Cheers spurned two spin-off series – the immensely popular Frasier, and the far more forgotten The Tortellis. Nonetheless, both were very much in the “Cheers Universe”, with cameos and lingering storylines. Joss Whedon has the “Whedonverse”, with characters crossing over between the Buffy and Angel series (and, since those series finished, the comics). There’s also a fun fan theory that unifies these shows with Cabin in the Woods, Firefly and Serenity too. The Star Wars “Expanded Universe” paved the way for cross-platform storytelling – which has been re-established in recent years, to identify which stories are “canon”.
Prior to the release of The Mummy, Universal Pictures announced the launch of the Dark Universe. In fact, the original Universal Monsters formed one of the earliest examples of a shared universe back in the thirties, with recurring characters and cast members cropping up in one another – so there’s a rich history of projects to tap into.
DC, like Marvel, have the opportunity to leverage their countless comic-book story arcs, heroes and villains – but is in retrospect, rather than with foresight. Following on from Man of Steel, the “DC Extended Universe” built upon the themes, tones and actions established in Zack Snyder’s 2013 release. Similarly, with a somewhat varied timeline since its first instalment in 2000, the X-Men films have recently spawned Deadpool and the upcoming New Mutants. A writer’s room has been curated, to develop a multitude of stories that will expand the Transformers franchise. Last year’s Ghostbusters had been mooted as the first in a series of adventures for new generations. The world established in James Wan’s The Conjuring has already grown with two prequels on the terrifying doll Annabelle, and the upcoming story behind its sequel’s nemesis, The Nun. Last week, rumours suggested that an expanded world for the characters of the James Bond franchise may be in the works.
It’s worth remembering that for every High School Musical there’s a Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure (I hadn’t heard of it either), and for every Friends there’s a Joey. I can see the potential for a Fast & Furious universe, or broadening the Game of Thrones world once the series has ended – but couldn’t imagine a Garfield universe is on anyone’s agenda. As with all these things, it’s about ensuring that there’s enough story to go round. And that’s the key thing for distributors: not only looking at the audience size, but identifying whether a franchise has the depth to support the amount of releases they may envision.
James Field – Associate Director