Thursday, March 26, 2015

Franchising: the curious case of WT's Cornetto Trilogy

- A look at what we mean by franchising, with examples from Working Title
- The concept of hybridity, and why producers and distributors combine genres
- The example of the Corentto Trilogy (for both hybridity and franchising): the budgets, box office, trailers + links for each
- Analysis of how these might reflect WT's production strategies:
-  strong long-term creative relationships
- emphasis on popular genres; hybridity
- 15-ratings
- franchising
- intertextual references (postmodernism) 
- star strategy
- narrow representation of Britain?
- enviable international distribution ... lost?
- closing WT2: whither the WT low-budget films? 

Franchising, alongside the tentpole strategy (itself rendering four quadrant audience targeting virtually mandatory for would-be blockbusters), has become a predominant model for film producers, one encouraged by distributors looking for easy-to-market titles with built-in recognition and existing audiences, and exhibitors looking to reduce the element of gambling involved in selecting titles for their busy multiplexes.
This post will consider the Cornetto Trilogy...
The big story for the past decade, building on the Michael Bay template of CGI spectaculars, with narrative of secondary concern, has been the seemingly endless line of Marvel and DC Comics superhero comic book adaptations, with 2013 no exception and no sign of any let up in this flow. There are some who loudly decry this trend (eg), notably Alan Moore. If not these then other sci-fi/fantasy epics, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and now The Hunger Games and The Hobbit, alongside animated titles such as Shrek, Toy Story and Monsters Inc, have formed the cinema diet for the bulk of the movie audience, with some horror, comedy and rom-com hits breaking through and an occasional straight or period/costume drama. Split sequels with single book adaptations running to two films is another growing trend.
Indie report on the 2013 UK top ten
Of the 2013 UK box office top ten, only 3 weren't part of a franchise - and the past tense is significant as The Croods will definitely and Frozen ('original' but based on Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen) will most likely have sequels:
Iger [Disney CEO] also revealed to Fortune that a stage version of the film, which features voice overs from Broadway stars Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, is currently under discussion at the House of Mouse ....
In addition, movie audiences may soon be treated to a sequel of the Nordic-themed saga, following strong sales of licensed toys based on the film.[]
The Croods received generally positive reviews, and proved to be a box office success, earning more than $587 million on a budget of $135 million,[4] and launching a new franchise, with a sequel and TV series already put in development.[9] [Wiki]

Indeed, you can see a picture gallery of just 10 major sequels coming up in 2014 in the Indie report.
Note the release date as part of the marketing strategy

You can see there the difference from a recent past in which franchises were key but mainstream blockbusters more often came with higher age ratings: the Terminator and Alien franchises for example. Today, with $200m+ becoming a default tentpole budget, with Avatar's official $250m (reckoned by many to be nearer $350m) budget setting the tone, the four quadrant strategy means movies are built to appeal to young and old, and age ratings must reflect this.
18-rated tentpoles used to be fairly common
Franchising happens at the low and micro-budget level too, not least within the horror genre: Sleepaway Camp is a good example of essentially cheap knock-offs of existing studio franchises, but the likes of Paranormal Activity and Saw have offered up major box office returns on low budgets for some years, building on the success of other low and medium-budget fare such as Leprechaun, Scream, Scary Movie, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th. The latter three have all had remakes, or 'reimaginings'.
Spot the subtle intertextuality!

Working Title are no stranger to the franchise strategy: Elizabeth, Johnny English, Bean, Bridget Jones' Diary, Nanny McPhee ... just some of their successes (in commercial if not critical terms).

This subsidiary of conglomerate NBC-Universal, itself one of the 'big six' (seven if you count Lionsgate) vertically integrated studios that dominate the film business worldwide, has positioned itself at the head of the UK film industry through ruthless ambition, launching an LA office in 1991 just six years after their debut feature (Stephen Frear's comic social realist My Beautiful Laundrette), and a consistent feel for what plays in US and worldwide cinemas, not just here in the UK. The budget level they can access through NBC-Universal's funding (and the near-guaranteed distribution, though in 2012 their productions were demoted to a 'first look' status) often affords major, even A-List, US stars, globally recognised and thus marketable. They work within well-established (thus easily marketable...) genres, and mostly stick to a narrow depiction of 'Britain'/UK that revolves around white, middle/upper-class, London/Southern English characters and settings (though as the likes of Paul and the $100m Green Zone show, they're not averse to US settings or entirely US characters).
A surprise flop, the $100m Green Zone shows that WT look well beyond their UK base for audiences. This is another example of WT's history of long-term relationship with key creatives, in this case (British) director Paul Greengrass, who cut his teeth on docudramas such as Bloody Sunday.
They do take commercial risks which reflect a creative edge too: Elizabeth's Indian director was famously selected after he declared he knew little about the historic figure, and lead Cate Blanchett was a then-unknown (one of many big names to get an early break through a WT production).
Blanchett made her name from Elizabeth
The Wiki on the trilogy includes this very useful table; Hot Fuzz was the biggest hit; all three ware well received critically; World's End was relatively disappointing in terms of box office.

So, lets (briefly) consider what the 'Cornetto Trilogy' tells us about this company and their production strategy. First up, the three trailers:

BUDGET: £4m [IMDB]    WORLD BOX OFFICE: $30m     Released in 16 countries. [boxofficemojo]
[BBFC: 15]

BUDGET: $8m [IMDB]    WORLD BOX OFFICE: $81m     Released in 42 countries. [boxofficemojo]
[BBFC: 15]

BUDGET: $20m     WORLD BOX OFFICE: $46m     Released in 18 countries. [boxofficemojo]
[BBFC: 15]
NB: This is the 'official trilogy trailer'

It isn't part of the trilogy, but lets also consider another WT production here, the 2011 Greg Motolla-directed Paul, with Pegg and Frost co-starring with A-lister Seth Rogen (voicing the titular alien Paul):
BUDGET: $40m     WORLD BOX OFFICE: $98m     Released in 45 countries. [boxofficemojo
[BBFC: 15]
This is the 2nd international trailer.

So, what can a quick look at these films tell us about WT's production strategies?

Edgar Wright, who got an early breakthrough with a screening through the Co-Op's Young Filmmakers Festival (which he's a patron of), like several other directors (Paul Greengrass, Stephen Frears, Richard Curtis etc) has returned several times to the WT umbrella. WT's links with several actors is just as important (the Richard Curtis/Hugh Grant combo has grossed well over $1bn with their WT rom-coms). This pairing of Pegg and Frost join the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth and Grant who have repeatedly worked with WT.
All of these names also suggest a British core not always so obvious when looking at WT's strategy.

They're hardly unique in doing this, but WT tend to work within popular, well-established genres, though their use of hybridity could be seen as fairly innovative. The Curtis/Grant rom-coms are a good example of the hybrid approach, with the comedy helping to reinforce secondary male appeal to a 'chick flick'. Here we get a zom-rom-com with SotD. Cop buddy comedy/satire HF isn't quite so innovative, Eddy Murphy's turns in Beverley Hills Cop and 48 Hours having clear comic elements, aped by other studios until you reach the nadir that 1989's Turner and Hooch represents ... Tom Hank's buddy is a ... dog! 21 Jump Street could be seen as a returned compliment, arguably made more likely and viable as a consequence of HF, with female cop buddy flick The Heat showing that this action/drama/comedy hybrid is once more seen as a hot genre.

SotD and WE feature romantic sub-plots (as does Paul), a reverse of the rom-com hybrid, with the added element this time looking to strengthen appeal to a female audience, with action, horror and sci-fi all seen as primarily male genres.
Hollywood studios invariably look to milk hit genres

This is a small sample, but it is notable that few WT releases are 18-rated. The lower rating ensures that a wider, potentially larger, mass audience is accessible (although the impact of digitisation undercuts the impact of these ratings). SotD in particular had the potential to be much gorier, though WE could also have been more Terminator-style gory.

I've tackled this above so I won't labour the point here except to say this is an unusual example, with the franchise based on different characters each time, in different genres ... explicitly linked by the key cast/director and shots of eating a Cornetto ice-cream!

The trilogy and Paul all employ prominent marketing (posters, trailers) references to previous films, the director and WT itself, now a well-recognised, marketable brand in its own right. All are liberally sprinkled with in-jokes and intertextual references to existing movies and other pop culture, with such postmodern stylings (together with the genre 'mashing' or hybridity) both reinforcing appeal for a youth audience who increasingly expect this and an older audience at times better equipped to 'get' some of the references made.

Looking at the roots of Pegg, Frost and Wright, specifically the surreal sit-com Spaced, this is no surprise: they each made their name with this intensively intertextual, pop culture referencing cult show. The table below, from the Cornetto trilogy Wiki, indicates how strong an influence this TV production has remained on these films:

This is a core element of the WT strategy generally: casting 1 or more recognisable (often A-list) US star that effectively enables global distribution and a good chance at the lucrative US box office in particular. Remember Gant's Rule: a typical hit movie will take in roughly 10 times from the US box office what it will make from the UK box office (the same is frequently true for the screen count too). With Seth Rogen (and others such as Sigourney Weaver also featuring), Paul is the more typical WT production.

What is notable here though is that the trilogy lacks these global stars yet managed wide distribution, and all three managed decent-to-spectacular box office returns. SotD featured a cast with a good prospect of appealing to the British youth market, from Bill Bailey to Joe Cornish, and older, established figures such as Nighy (star of Love Actually and The Boat That Rocked both Curtis-directed WT productions, the latter a £30m flop) helping add wider, secondary appeal above this.

Given that Simon Pegg's Star Trek reboot role as Scottie makes him arguably a breakthrough star in the US, the relatively modest success of WE (and Paul), coming after this high-profile role unlike SotD and HF, are a little surprising.
Pegg's enhanced profile surprisingly didn't help Paul or World's End

WT, not least for their Richard Curtis penned/directed rom-coms, have been accused of an over-emphasis on a very, very narrow slice of multicultural UK, with lead characters and settings very often being white, middle/upper-class and Southern English. The Celtic characters in Wild Child (not a RC effort) and Notting Hill (notorious for presenting a traditional Afro-Carribean area of London as posh and white) are very basic, crude stereotypes: their accents are used for simplistic, arguably xenophobic, comedy and they are not the most intelligent characters!

The point on racial diversity, or multiculturalism, in terms of the trilogy and Paul is somewhat arguable, and the characters are mostly not quite of the Hugh Grant toff type. Nonetheless, the narrow Southern England/English focus remains, with HF centred on a tweaking of the Celts-as-idiots theme. The Gloucester locals are backwards in the eyes of the transferred cop from the London Met (Pegg), the accent itself being used for cheap laughs. Perhaps then we should qualify the 'Southern England' to London and the upmarket rural South?

Producers know that using UK accents other than those of middle-class London (the working class 'Cockney' is usually a gangster in film land) or Southern English risks alienating non-UK audiences who may struggle with accents, and the attendant slang or dialects, that they are unfamiliar with, creating a vicious cycle that reinforces the 'need' for this choice. Likewise, locations tend to be the globally familiar - London landmarks or pleasant rural England with charming villages.

Paul represents another strand to the WT approach with its US setting (in films such as Ali G Indahouse we get both - starting in LA then back to London), and mocking of the Southern states 'hicks' (though the oddness of the two Brits abroad is just as important, not least the relatively stiff upper lipped Pegg character).
Shirley Henderson's Scottish 'matron' in Wild Child: typical of WT's treatment of non-Southern characters?

This is a simple point: WT's link to parent company NBC-Universal has given it a seemingly inconquerable advantage over all other UK film production companies. Funding has mostly come through the block $700m, 6-year payments* from NBC-U, with WT able to greenlight any film up to the $25m level without any further negotiation. Another NBC-U subsidiary, distributor StudioCanal, often also subsidises/invests in WT productions. Above all, its the access to the mighty global Universal (UIP) distribution network and muscle that has leveraged WT to the top of the British tree.
*TIP: remember this as 7m6y!

In some markets, WT will benefit from 'package' negotiation - access to tentpole NBC-U productions in return for screen time for films such as these.

Have they lost much of their advantage since NBC-U announced a changed relationship in December 2012, downgrading this to 'first-look' status? While the formal link-up has been extended to 2015, WT have lost any guarantee of release through NBC-U:
Working Title’s existing deal with Universal, which had been an exclusive arrangement, was to have expired in 2013, and in renewing the pact, the studio insisted on more favorable terms with the result that the deal is now a first-look agreement. The announcement noted that the extension is “structured to bring it in line with Universal’s other production agreements” – such as its recently announced renewal of its pact with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard‘s Imagine Entertainment, Universal’s other big supplier.
London-based Working Title first entered into a production deal with Universal in 1999. Since then the two companies have produced films that have grossed more than $4.25 billion worldwide. []

This final point is one of the key reasons I wanted to look at the trilogy (and Paul), and one I find a little hard to comprehend - the seeming quiet disposal of WT2. If you're unfamiliar with WT2 (the 2 as squared), its a WT subsidiary, set up in 1999 to produce low-budget (by WT's terms at least: all below £5m) genre films linking to the 3 Hs of humour, horror, heart (as neatly typified by the zom-rom-com hybrid of SotD).

It kicked off with the phenomenally lucrative global hit Billy Elliot - which seemed a real countertype, with its Northern England and working-class setting/characters, and nod back to the social realism that WT originally broke through with (1985's My Beautiful Laundrette and 1987's Wish You Were Here, though both had comic overtones too). A paltry $5m budget saw a worldwide return of $109m, helped by the US market recognising the American Dream with its underdog narrative.

Although HF seemed to fit the WT2 profile, only SotD of these 4 films was actually a WT2 production. Two very substantive hits from ten low-budget punts seems a better than decent return, yet WT2 seems to have been put down after Gone managed just $89k in 2007.

Perhaps there was some degree of the logic behind Anita Elsberg's contention in her fascinating (well worth reading - I'll blog on this at some point) 2013 book Blockbusters at play (Guardian review)? Elsberg argues that entertainment companies need to focus on the tentpole strategy and are right to reduce their overall number of releases to focus marketing and distribution efforts on these tentpoles.

Without WT2, though, there would have been no SotD, probably no long-term link-up with Wright, Pegg and Frost, and certainly no HF, the biggest hit of the trilogy/Paul. A British company that has produced films grossing over $4bn is not easy to criticise on commercial grounds, but has this been a short-sighted move or just ensuring that limited human resources aren't over-stretched? After all, the key WT partnership, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, like to be able to oversee each WT production.
WT2's limited back catalogue included notable hits!

I've not included much specific, textual detail in the above - if you've got any additional thoughts, or useful examples, please pass on as a comment.


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