The Franchise Era: Blockbuster Hollywood in the 2010s…and Beyond

Published in the special dossier “This is what defined cinema in the 2010” in Senses of Cinema 92 (2019)

This article was published in issue 92 of Senses of Cinema, as part of the special dossier called “This is what defined cinema in the 2010s” (October 2019). Click here to be directed to the entire dossier.

Translated into French by David Buxton: “L’ère de la franchise : le Hollywood des blockbusters dans les années 2010″ (2020).

Article introduction:

It is July 2019 and Avengers: Endgame (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019) – a flagship release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise – has just surpassed Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) as the highest-grossing movie in history. This box-office milestone reflects the formalisation of franchising as the defining modality of Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking in the early 21st century. As a mode of production practice, franchising is an intensified industrialisation of authorship, narration, and spectacle mediated and managed by the legal procedures of intellectual property (IP) and licensing. This constitutes a synergistic model of exchange between the tenets of law and economics and developments in creative expression and innovation: this dynamic is reciprocal because IP ownership and licensing relations secure and support creativity and, conversely, the economic viability and longevity of franchise production is enabled and enriched by the strategies of creative development (encompassing sequential form, transmedia storytelling, adaptation, and storyworld design).

Henry Jenkins explains that “everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry was designed with this single idea in mind – the construction and enhancement of entertainment franchises” (2006, 113). This is exemplified by The Walt Disney Company’s business practises over the last decade: in 2009, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion; in 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm Ltd for $4.05 billion; and in 2019, Disney acquired 20th Century Fox for $71.3 billion (including each company’s IP). As an entertainment conglomerate with a franchise-focused creative strategy, Disney’s continuing box-office success demonstrates the viability of franchising as a mode of practice in early 21st century Hollywood.

The dominance of franchising as a strategy of blockbuster Hollywood in the 2010s signals an emerging creative, technological, and economic equilibrium centred around the management and development of IP. This prevalence is reinforced by the broader slate of high-grossing theatrical releases: nine of the ten highest-grossing movies in history are franchises instalments – with eight of these released in the 2010s alone – and of the ten highest-grossing movies of this last decade all are franchises. Among the 50 highest-grossing releases are multiple instalments of franchise properties such as ‘Star Wars,’ ‘MCU,’ ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Fast and the Furious,’ ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter,’ ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘Bond,’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ – these are globally iconic brands that engage multiple media, genres, and generations. When Kristen Thompson asserted that “today the franchise is often the star” (2007, 6), she signalled an operational shift in the centrality of established branding strategies and production systems in Hollywood: the franchise system thus appropriates and reconfigures traditional applications of stardom, genre, high-concept, and even auteurism, in the service of extending the value of intellectual properties (IP) across multiple texts and media platforms. As Carolyn Jess-Cooke says, “the blockbuster era – which has arguably morphed now into what could be called the franchise era – made the sequel’s inherent excesses, or its latent suggestion of ‘more’, a box-office star” (2009, 46). The inherent excesses and the dormant potential for ‘more’ not only establishes a foundation for the franchise era in the present, but also enables industrial futurity.

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