Friday, February 12, 2016

UNIVERSAL tentpole franchise kings hiking ahead

ScreenDaily reports on the huge turnaround, after a poor 2014
IN THIS POST: Analysis of how Universal's shifting strategy impacts on WT; an outline of what this strategy is, with key figures; details of how the new horror universe was proposed in 2014, and how its taking shape in 2016; the Battlestar Galactica bid to take on Star Wars.

Working Title's conglomerate parent, NBC-Universal, clearly knew what it was doing in downgrading its subsidiary's relationship to 'first look' status*; NBC-U would have first refusal over any new WT production, but had no obligation to pick it up for distribution or to fund production proposals. WT have to find their own financing now, even if that still often means pre-signing distribution deals with StudioCanal or UIP, all part of the NBC-U (and Comcast) conglomerate. Gone are the days of massive block funding for WT.
*See this post for details on the new deal (and a definition of first look), signed in 2012 and due to run out in 2015; no news yet of any changes

This shift in approach, which may seem surprising given how successful WT have been, reflects a hardening of Universal's commitment to the tentpole strategy, and the franchising that largely underpins this. Anita Elberse, who uses the term 'blockbuster' in her book, would approve: she argues that this is the only viable approach for any major player in any entertainment industry (she also considers football and music among other industries - a very interesting, digestible read, I recommend it).

Recent Guardian articles on Universal; the strategic shift is clear
2015 saw a big shift in Universal's fortunes, not only crowned global box office king, but creating a new record, just short of $7bn for the year at $6.9bn. The key has clearly been focussing distribution and marketing on fewer, larger titles, most of which are franchise entries so reducing the challenge of gaining audience awareness or recognition.

They'd looked in trouble after a poor 2014, but note the role of just THREE films in the staggering figures below (from a ScreenDaily analysis):
Universal climbed 120% year-on-year to secure 22% market share in North America on $2.448bn and gained 212% on 2014 to record $4.44bn internationally.The studio ranked number one in both arenas and achieved the triple crown at the box office in 2015, overtaking the $5.53bn worldwide mark and the $3.73bn international records established by Fox in 2014 and Warner Bros’ $2.105bn North American record from 2009.Universal also became the fastest studio ever to cross $1bn and $2bn in North America, $2bn and $3bn internationally and $3bn, $4bn and $5bn worldwide.It is the only studio to cross $6bn worldwide and $4bn internationally and the only one to have three films gross more than $1bn worldwide – Jurassic World ($1.67bn),Furious 7 ($1.516bn) and Minions ($1.158bn).
Two-thirds of this record-smashing global total come from just three films: a reboot, a 7th franchise entry, and a franchise spin-off.

WT have averaged about 4/5 productions a year since MBL launched the company back in 1985; they are one of many production subsidiaries NBC-U own or part-own. The numbers are clearly in favour of pouring most of their global distribution machine's muscle into the tentpole flicks - and Universal are determined to fight back against the Marvel universe, Star Wars and its spin-offs, and other colossal franchises that had previously seen it falling down the big six ranks.

Back in the 1930s Universal horror became a saying, such was the studio's grip on the genre, with the Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong and other iconic IP in their hands. They are seeking to not only revive this status, but also to launch their own Star Wars-challenging franchise, with a reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which saw the 1979 series (a joke, but it has a dedicated following) thoroughly reimagined as one of the most critically acclaimed series ever seen, with its own short-lived prequel spin-off, Caprica. With strong female characters, an older fanbase for both the original and reboot TV series, and the scope for serious CGI/SFX, this should be a serious four quadrant contender, able to appeal across the spectrum of young, old, male and female.

More details:
From Spider-Man to Transformers, franchises have become Hollywood's most reliable cash cow, allowing them to create the epic narratives allowed on TV's canvas, and building characters that millions of people worldwide become attached to. Now Universal is gearing up a new set of franchises based around its library of classic horror characters, some last seen decades ago.
The studio's monsters include Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy, all of which have had frequent movie outings, but also the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, and that 1950s favourite, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Deadline reports that a new strategy is cooking at Universal, where they're building an "interconnected slate" of monster films. This is a strategy similar to that of Marvel, whose universe of comic book characters, including Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America, interact with each other across various film and TV franchises.
Previously, Universal's horror characters have existed in their own standalone universes: the likes of the Mummy franchise starring Brendan Fraser, the misfiring 2010 reboot of the Wolfman with Benicio del Toro, or the upcoming Dracula Untold, an origins story about the vampire starring Welsh actor Luke Evans. But now the way could be paved for Avengers-like films in which the characters' universes are blended into one, and they interact with one another.
The initiative will reportedly be headed up by Alex Kurtzman, who has had a variety of producer roles across hits like Spider-Man and Star Trek franchises (as well as the flop Ender's Game), alongside Chris Morgan, who has written much of the Fast and Furious franchise, a huge success for Universal in recent years. Deadline report that the first film will be a reboot of the Mummy, coming April 2016.
(Guardian: Universal could reanimate old-school movie monsters, from Frankenstein to the Invisible Man, 2014)

Jump 18 months on from this July 2014 report, and the strategy is beginning to take flesh...
Johnny Depp has signed on to play the Invisible Man in a reboot of the horror staple, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
The project is part of studio Universal’s ambitious plan to bring a slew of classic monster movies back to the big screen. Tom Cruise has already signed on for a new version of The Mummy, due to be released in June 2017, while producers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan are reportedly hoping to convince Angelina Jolie to star as the Bride of Frankenstein in a remake of the classic 1935 chiller. New films based on the original Frankenstein, as well as Dracula, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are also being planned as part of a big-budget-horror “cinematic universe”. ...
Universal’s new version of Invisible Man will reportedly be written by Men in Black’s Ed Solomon, though it does not have a director attached and no other cast details are available. Nevertheless, the rampaging studio’s ability to sign up two of the world’s best-known film stars as it battles to create a cinematic universe capable of challenging Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars sagas will no doubt send shockwaves through Hollywood.
(Guardian: Johnny Depp to play the Invisible Man in remake of horror classic, 2016).

Note too how the production strategy is tightly linked to the standard star strategy demanded by distributors.

Universal, the studio behind Jurassic World and the Fast & Furious movies, has launched plans to bring sci-fi saga Battlestar Galactica back to the big screen as a multiple-film franchise capable of taking on Star Wars and Star Trek, according to the Hollywood Reporter.A film based on the short-lived but hugely popular 1978 TV series moved into development in 2009 following the success of a small-screen reboot which ran for four seasons from 2004 onwards. X-Men’s Bryan Singer was at one stage on board to direct but has since moved on, and the project never saw the light of day.The new version is in the early stages of development but makes sense for Universal as the powerhouse studio battles to compete against the might of Disney’s Star Wars. The long-running space opera’s latest instalment, The Force Awakens, was the biggest box-office hit of 2015 and at least four sequels and spin-offs are due in cinemas between now and 2020. Meanwhile, rival studio Paramount will bring its third Star Trek film of the current reboot project – the Simon Pegg-penned Star Trek Beyond – into multiplexes this summer. And 20th Century Fox remains committed to a slew of new Avatar movies once creator James Cameron has worked out how to follow up the highest-grossing film of all time.

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