10 Keys to Building Successful Shared Universe Movie Franchises
A Memo to Studio Executives
Memorandum to the Executives of: Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, Universal, Sony, Paramount, and all the mini-majors
Re: Your new and established Shared Universe film franchises
From: Jeff Gomez, CEO, Starlight Runner, producers of the transmedia Mythology documents for Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Halo, Transformers, Hot Wheels, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man, and Men in Black universes
Note: Spoilers follow, for those of you who care, including for recent films such as Wonder Woman and The Mummy.
I have to level with you. Some of you are messing this up. That’s a shame, because successful cinematic universes are the gift that keeps on giving. When properly developed, they can be thrilling, artful, and tremendously lucrative.
But some of these projects are missing the mark. Forgive me for naming names. Know that my nerd heart has deep affection for all of these franchises, and my nerd cred affords me the right to volunteer my expertise in the requirements for creating highly successful story worlds.
Here we go…
1. Your Writers’ Rooms are Flawed
It takes a different creative skill set to devise a massive fictional universe than it does to write a screenplay.
Great, shared universes are not just serialized movies or mammoth-sized TV series. But most of your writers’ rooms are exclusively filled with screenwriters. By nature, this type of writer is reductive. They think of story in one- or two-hour segments.
What you need are writers who know how to create sprawling, massive story worlds from whose strengths conventional screenwriters can mine great individual (smaller) stories.
A major required skill, for example, is a working knowledge of epic storytelling. It’s a common misperception that epics are about the very long adventure-filled journeys of heroes. They’re a lot more than that.
Classic epic storytelling is about how an entire people must grapple with their morals, values, and afflictions, in order to gain a distinct and extraordinary identity. They are about the birth of entire cultures, and how they aspire for shared and common fulfillment.
Your cinematic universes must reflect the strength not of individual or national achievement, but that of our global community — the ideal we collectively yearn for, but is still just out of reach.
Shared universe writers’ rooms require experts in long-form storytelling, story world and universe design, game design, and mythology.
2. Know Your Brand Essence (and Know How to Adjust It)
Shared universes, and any reboot of an older but beloved property, run into problems when studios rush out to get writers’ and filmmakers’ “takes on the material.”
What this really means is that you are letting this talented person take a guess. Often, the result is that the property is fully reinterpreted without much consideration for what it was and why it was loved.
The brand essence of Power Rangers includes nonstop action-adventure and lots of humor. Why did Saban relaunch its multibillion dollar children’s property as a slow, somber Nolan-esque coming of age story, where the Rangers don’t show up until 45 minutes into the film?
The answer is: Someone took a guess. Result: No more Power Rangers movies.
Studio execs and producers (all of you) must understand what exactly makes your franchise timeless. What archetypes do these heroes fulfill? What is it that the audience yearns for that is realized in these heroes and villains?
Knowing the answers to these questions provides you a guide book that can support your creators. They can update content and make changes, but if they ignore the essence of the property, you’re letting them play roulette with your money.
3. Make Them Do Their Homework
Great epics are drawn from even greater mythologies. A whole lot of groundwork has to be covered before the first word of your saga is written.
Homer, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R.R. Martin each had a working knowledge of the underlying mythos of their story worlds before they began their masterworks. Why aren’t your writers doing this?
All too often, the answers I’ve heard over the last decade include, “we don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner,” “we don’t have time for that,” “you’re overthinking this,” or even, “these are popcorn munchers, not the cornerstones of literature.” And for ten years, those answers have broken my heart.
Audiences now sense when your writers are making this up as they go along, and even if they don’t, someone on YouTube will be happy to point out every single minute or glaring fault. Call it “Lost Syndrome.”
Shared universes amount to multibillion dollar investments. In any other industry that would mean a healthy R&D budget. Again, these aren’t just a stack of scripts; at least initially they are massive blueprints destined to impact the stock price of your studio’s parent company.
The bottom line is that the responsibility for getting your shared universe right is yours, not someone you hired as a freelancer. If the endeavor fails, your talent moves onto other projects — but your IP is damaged goods for at least a decade.
The studio internally must understand the mechanisms that make your property tick before the screenwriters take over.
4. Distinguish Your Characters
Too many shared universes currently in preparation feature a number of main characters that are similar to each other.
Dark Universe boasts a raft of evil monsters. Hasbro Universe features a battalion of paramilitary teams.
Again, before any script is written, the development process must work to distinguish these characters — beyond their look, beyond their powers, and even beyond their ten-word descriptors. If you don’t do this, you may stumble into a breakout character (Wolverine, Bumblebee), but the rest of your pantheon becomes a big rainbow-colored smear.
This is where disciplines such as mythology and folklore, psychology and semiotics come into play. If Hasbro wants to distinguish M.A.S.K. from ROM from Visionaries from Transformers from G.I. Joe, it has to move past the fact that all of them feature armored teams in a life and death struggle against a massive evil organization.
Only after understanding the distinguishing characteristics of your property can it be recalibrated to resonate with contemporary sensibilities. At this stage, you must also define their role in the shared universe with both complementary and oppositional character traits. Shared worlds are calculus, not addition and subtraction.
Each property needs to be broken down to its primal components, which are rooted in the most fundamental elements of storytelling itself.
Admittedly, this isn’t easy, and it is plenty nerdy, but I promise you, the result will be organized, informed progress as opposed to throwing darts in the darkness of development hell.
5. What is the Fundamental Message?
What specific messages are being delivered across your franchise that we can take with us out of the theater and into the world?
Great epics play theme and variation on singular, powerful, unique and resonant messages.
The Mummy, the launch film of Universal’s Dark Universe, seems to make an odd thesis point, to which the rest of the franchise must now respond. As conveyed by Henry Jekyll, it says, “You must use the monster inside yourself to defeat the monsters that exist.” (If we are to defeat violent, destructive enemies, we must tap into our most violent, destructive impulses.)
While it’s true that in the real world there are many who are doing this right now, is this really the message that the world wants or needs to hear? In the movie, there’s nothing to indicate that Jekyll is wrong. In fact, the film’s denouement proves his point. Tom Cruise can’t destroy the Mummy without drawing on the power of the evil god, Set.
Rather than being uplifting, this message is negative. That works for horror, but not for epics that require sustained, impassioned fandoms. As with pre-Wonder Woman DC films, we walk away feeling sad about the human condition rather than uplifted.
If these messages are scattered or contradictory — or if they are downers — your audience may be less excited about seeing the movie a second time and far less motivated to see what happens next.
Blockbuster shared universes succeed because they boast unique aspirational themes. We must sense these themes (or variations on them) with each extension of the franchise.
6. Give Us a Unique Worldview
Great fictional worlds don’t just convey powerful messages, they provide you with a way of being that allows for you to realize the meaning of those messages in your life.
Contrary to any superficial reading, Star Wars is not about good conquering evil. It’s about finding balance within ourselves before we can bring balance to the world. Over time, the franchise has provided us with a philosophical approach to finding that balance, and continues to do so today.
One of the anchors dragging Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe behind that of Marvel Studios has been the worldview exhibited by Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. These films drew inspiration from the deconstructive age of comics (back in the 1980s), where writers like Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) and Alan Moore (Watchmen) questioned the integrity of superheroes and their worlds.
Those comics were incredibly violent and deeply cynical but were perfectly valid explorations of a theme. What damaged those classics to some regard was subsequent generations of creators who sought to turn that dark, self-contained, exploration into the status quo.
As a result, the films that display this Randian indifference to altruism have hindered their licensing and merchandising, their repeat viewability, and positive critical or fan ardor.
But well-supported shared universes can right themselves after rocky starts. At the heart of Wonder Woman is a worldview that rights the skewed perspective of the film’s predecessors. Diana was a literal ray of sunshine, and her perspective in the film helps to enrich and deepen the franchise. We can only hope it will be adapted and expanded upon in future DCEU movies.
Instead of suggesting that there may be hope in its final moments (as happened in Man of Steel, BvS and Suicide Squad), Wonder Woman embodies hope.
7. Resonate with Today’s World
Stay keen to the progressive concerns of Millennials and their Plural children. That means stop polarizing your characters and get woke.
As audiences have become more sophisticated, so have our narratives. Young audiences are no longer interested in simplistic conflicts between good and evil, and they are certainly welcoming diversity in their heroes. But your shared universe can’t stop at being inclusive.
Social media has given a powerful voice to those diverse people, and they’re growing accustomed to being heard. Big brands are listening. Politicians are listening. Movie studios had better listen.
Shared universes aren’t just about movies that share characters and plot threads, they are also about sharing a sweeping, immersive and joyful experience with millions of fans.
There is also the issue of making sure your franchise stays resonant with a global audience. When Kathleen Kennedy took control of Star Wars for Disney, she did two important things that insured the maintenance and proliferation of the franchise.
First, Kennedy understood how the media universe had splintered into dozens of platforms that young people surfed across, and mixed and matched to taste. If her brand was going to persist, it had to offer a legitimate and continuous experience across those platforms.
So, she told fans that every dollar they spent on Star Wars stories from then on was meaningful, because all of those stories now “counted” as a new canonical piece of a single giant puzzle. Every piece of Star Wars content from every Disney division and every licensee adds to the story.
That makes every novel, comic book, and animated episode newsworthy. This, in turn, hyper-energizes the franchise, because it generates tons of YouTube speculation and media buzz. That’s called transmedia storytelling, and when done properly, it is storytelling genius.
Second, Kennedy needed to make a subtle tweak to the core messaging of Star Wars in order to both keep the 35 year-old franchise resonating with modern audiences, and vastly expand the scope of the story world to accommodate hundreds of hours of additional content.
In 1977, Star Wars was a simple story of good against evil, but it’s core message (my interpretation) was fairly progressive for the time:
We must find balance in ourselves before we can bring balance to the Universe.
But in 2012, Kennedy intuited that the world was tiring of black and white stories. In fact, the vilification of those we disagree with was getting the world in deeper and deeper trouble. If Star Wars was to stay relevant, it would need to be about more than balancing our best and darkest impulses:
We must embrace the spectrum of possibilities within ourselves and others before we can end the eternal conflict of polarization.
A message for our times, indeed. There are signs that the Force is a spectrum, rather than a pole, in the animated Rebels, Rogue One, and in the trailer of the upcoming The Last Jedi.
As a result, Disney is getting a richer variety of characters, deeper characterizations, a wider scope of stories, and a worldwide fan base that will be kept on the edge of their seats, because they’re no longer certain of the outcome.
8. Set Up Your Cosmology Now
If you don’t understand how things work in your universe, stupid things will happen in your movies. That’s a major turn-off.
When you hear filmgoers and critics blurt that familiar complaint, “It felt too much like the movie was an excuse to set up a bunch of future movies!” there’s a reason they feel that way. It’s because your writers and filmmakers are taking shortcuts:
In Amazing Spider-Man 2, a secret vault at Oscorp is shown to hold the equipment that could be used to create the Vulture, Doc Octopus, the Rhino and others.
In The Mummy, when Nick Morton enters the Prodigium we encounter a vampire skull, the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s severed claw, and Dr. Jekyll himself, in rapid succession.
Batman v Superman opens up a single computer file that conveniently introduces us to Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman, for no real story reason whatsoever.
The recent Wonder Woman release more elegantly handled its place in the greater DC Extended Universe. The story’s bumpers (and Diana’s central motivations) are informed by Batman v Superman, but that film never intrudes on this one. You can watch Wonder Woman and the experience feels entirely complete. The Easter eggs are tucked in the corners, not squashed in your face. No one has accused Wonder Woman of setting anything up.
Though it fits within the context of a greater universe, your movie needs to have its own internal logic. At the same time, each movie is a machine that works in tandem with those of the other movies in the franchise. These machines, operating in concert, amount to a cosmology.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are a number of machines. We have gods (Thor), magic (Dr. Strange), super-science (Iron Man), the cosmos (Guardians of the Galaxy), and the Quantum Realm (Ant-Man). This presents the danger of “kitchen sink fantasy,” where filmmakers can do whatever they want, because anything goes, but producer Kevin Feige understands that this can lead to chaos.
Instead, each of these machines must somehow exist in a continuum. So Feige’s team has worked out how each machine relates to and can interact with all of the other machines:
“The language of the Mystic Arts is as old as civilization,” says the Ancient One to Dr. Strange. “The sorcerers of antiquity called the usage of this language ‘spells’, but if that word offends your modern sensibility, you can call it ‘programs’, the source code that shapes reality.”
The elegance of this explanation is that it quickly and easily conveys an aspect of the Marvel cosmology to the audience. It makes the universe feel real. Compare this with Jekyll’s explanation of the Dark Universe’s cosmology in The Mummy:
Evil incarnate is attempting to penetrate Earth’s reality, taking the form of gods and monsters. Jekyll’s organization Prodigium was formed “to recognize, examine, contain, and destroy” it.
The concept is vague, muddled, and feels nowhere near as real. Without a cosmology that accounts for the far corners of your shared universe, your audience will feel you’re making it all up as you go along.
Cosmologies convince us of the reality of fantasy. They are the Force and they are Warp Drive. They are foundational to the cultures and belief systems of the characters we encounter.
9. Overall Conflict is Systemic, Not Causal
The next great shared universe franchises will pattern themselves after the Collective Journey storytelling model rather than Hero’s Journey.
As Kathleen Kennedy will tell you, you can’t keep smashing your Hasbro toys against the same villains forever. If you look at some of the great epic story worlds of today, you’ll find something different from the standard Hero’s Journey model.
In Game of Thrones, over a dozen factions clash, each more or less comprised of good and bad people. Their conflict has been perpetual, because they are all trapped in a system that perpetuates it.
But a twist has been introduced, because there is now a ticking clock. If all the people of Westeros don’t get over their issues, they might has well fold up the Game of Thrones and put it away. Winter will arrive and wipe everyone out.
Very similar situations are being faced by the entire casts of The Walking Dead franchise, and Orange is the New Black. In each, the true villain is a giant flaw in their cosmology (hint: they are not zombies or prison guards), and if they don’t somehow transcend their differences, that flaw will ultimately destroy them all.
If Activision Blizzard Studios does not understand this about their upcoming Call of Duty cinematic universe, then what we’ll wind up with is…perpetual war. That might work as a video game franchise, but a parade of these on the big screen? Major bummer.
Instead of swapping out military enemies against which to fire millions of bullets, the studio would do well to take the time to understand — and figure out how to show us why — the global system is rigged in favor of war, and what humanity can do to change that. We need to be given hope. Signs (and guidance!) that humanity can be better than this.
Causal conflict, for which Hero’s Journey stories are best known, goes like this:
Something happens to me and I react. Challenges get in my way and I surmount them. My rightness ultimately trumps the antagonist’s wrongness. The audience gets off on my rightness, reinforcing their sense of rightness.
Systemic conflict, on the other hand, best illustrated by the Collective Journey model of storytelling, goes like this:
There are patterns of conflict in our world. As individuals, we try to surmount them, but often get in one another’s way. But somehow we learn to transcend our issues and communally synthesize a method to disrupt the patterns (with the audience somehow made to feel a part of that synthesis).
It works (or doesn’t). The audience comes away with an unforgettable experience, because in some way, they have contributed to a spectacular epic narrative.
Yes, engaging the audience in a new modality of storytelling is a lofty goal, but finding this kind of great wisdom in order to tell an epic story in the format of a shared universe is what can give this form artistic merit. It’s why we will remember these films, and return to them.
It’s how we will see them as a whole greater than the sum of their parts.
10. The Story Engine of Your Franchise is Built on Mystery
The core of your shared universe must comprise a set of great questions that your audience will drive themselves crazy trying to answer — but the real answer is a curative to the world’s ills.
Unlike one-off movies, shared universes are ongoing conversations with your audience. At the heart of the best conversations are curiosity and a sense of inquiry. You want your audience to wonder about as much as possible. The best way to do this is to have characters who have damn good reasons to do just the same.
Again, let’s put Wonder Woman and The Mummy head-to-head: Both heroes cross a threshold into a new world; Diana in London and Nick in Prodigium. Because Nick is — at the midpoint of the movie, still — a selfish boor, what could have been a moment of awe and discovery for the audience becomes a museum exhibit to be rushed past.
So, the control center at the heart of the Dark Universe becomes window dressing. Jekyll, Prodigium’s master, then literally describes the mystery at the heart of this new shared universe, but Nick is uninterested and impatiently waiting to get through it. The audience is left drumming its fingers, also waiting…for the next action sequence.
Diana’s reaction to London is entirely the opposite, and through her eyes we are appreciating this world in ways that are both insightful and set us up for the very human darkness Wonder Woman has yet to encounter. Her curiosity delights us, and brings us to tears as her faith in humanity is crushed and she is forced to decide what to do about it. Wonder Woman kicks Mummy’s ass.
Imagine this: Nick, an amoral, godless man, enters the Prodigium. Through charm, intellect, and a shit-ton of evidence, Jekyll convinces Nick of the existence of gods. Shaken to his core, Nick asks, does this mean that there is without any doubt a one true God?
What would that mean for Nick? What is God’s place in the Dark Universe? The role of God was vital to many of the original Universal monster films, because what was at stake for both the heroes and monsters were their immortal souls. With this core element missing from The Mummy, and nothing to replace it, Dark Universe is born without a central mystery to be solved.
A greater, almost metaphysical purpose for the world’s giant beasts is hinted at for Godzilla, and developed somewhat in Kong Skull Island. The Marvel heroes are constantly wondering about the balance between freedom and security in a post-9/11 world.
Star Wars endlessly teases us around character identities, past traumas, and family bonds, doling out the answers slowly but steadily along the way.
Shared universe films don’t have to give us all the answers early on, or ever, for that matter, but they do have to convey the mysteries of their worlds with passion and grandeur. They do have to tap the audience into their heroes’ desires, and make us wonder.
Ten Rules might seem like a lot, until you stop thinking of them as rules and rather as the nuts and bolts that hold up the house of your shared universe. And as with most houses, it’s always best to consider the details in advance and incorporate them into your architecture blueprints.
But it’s also never too late to fix any structural damage you might have by introducing those nuts and bolts to creaky joints. You just have to do that as soon as possible.
I’ll wrap this up with one final piece of advice:
The reason that the great epics have transcended centuries and are still enjoyed today is because they portray our mundane lives writ large and shot through with myth. The adventures of their heroes fulfill our deepest inner wishes. They’re fun.
Make your shared universes fun.
Special thanks to Fabian Nicieza, who has thirty years of experience with shared universe storytelling, and who’s input, advice, and heavy editorial hand significantly improved this piece.