Multi-film universe. Connected movie universe. Shared universe. Whatever you want to call it, it's the biggest thing in Hollywood. Every studio in town wants one, and they're all climbing all over each other to find it.
Since Iron Man, Thor and Captain America debuted modern cinema's first interconnected, shared, multi-film... thing... and gained unprecedented success, everybody needs one now. DC Comics jumped onboard and has been playing a game of catch-up for the last few years, Sony has been desperate to create a connected series of Spider-Man movies. Others have recently joined the fray. Anywhere you find a big fictional universe filled with fascinating characters and interesting settings, somebody's considering turning it into a film franchise.
By our count, there are at least nine of these universes in various stages of development, maybe more. Each one has multiple movies in the pipeline. That's dozens upon dozens of big-budget, blockbuster movies, in addition to the ordinary, non-connected movies still being made.
The problem is, there are only so many movies Joe Q. Public will go see in a year. Is it feasible for the box office to ably support all of these movies? The money just isn't there.
Let's show you what we mean.
You have to hand it to Marvel for being smart. First and foremost, they stayed true to their flagship characters and hired cast and crew who wouldn't simply phone it in. People who actually cared about and understood the material as much as Marvel itself did.
Hollywood thought it was crazy. A connected universe of ongoing stories, all starring different characters that could occasionally team up? No way was that a feasible business model. But not only did it work, each movie was a huge hit because of Marvel's savvy decisions at hiring directors who understood the genre that each of those four characters belonged to.
Whatever you think of Marvel Studios now, and whether or not it can sustain its box office momentum, you have to appreciate the brilliance of its birth. Right now, there's no hotter studio in Hollywood.
After The Avengers became a monster hit (third highest-grossing movie of all time), all eyes turned to Marvel Comics' publishing competitor, DC Comics. It has just as many big-name characters and interesting stories to tell, and like Marvel, it has superheroes that can sustain their own solo films but also be fun to watch in team-ups.
Man of Steel doesn't play as if it was intended to be the beginning of an entire universe of superheroes, but that's what Zack Snyder and his crew are carefully molding it into now, with Batman v. Superman on the way along with movies for Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and more - leading up to Justice League. It remains to be seen if DC can catch up to or surpass Marvel, but they're certainly going to try.
Sony's every move has reeked of desperation since Marvel's model became a hit. Everyone knows all about the leaked corporate emails and executive turnover that's happened lately, and an early plan to build a connected universe around Spider-Man and his cast of villains and other heroes was scuttled when audiences balked at Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Still determined to make it work, Sony made its first smart decision in years by teaming up with Marvel to bring a new Spider-Man to the screen in exchange for Marvel using the same Spidey in its team-up flicks. Reportedly, Sony is still planning its own connected universe, but the plan has changed to something more plausible. So Sinister Six, Venom and others are still in the works.
Yep, even Star Wars is getting in on the new game in town. The Star Wars saga has always followed an episodic format, but it's the new "anthology" standalone films that we're referring to. With untold stories from various time periods and locations, we're getting at least one Star Wars a year from now on, starting with next year's Rogue One.
When Disney purchased Lucasfilm, it must've looked at its other crown jewel (Marvel) and saw an opportunity to make more Star Wars movies, more often. It's such a good idea from a business standpoint, we can't believe George Lucas never thought of it. But Star Wars is Star Wars. It's a pop culture behemoth that we have an insatiable hunger for. As long as it can maintain a high level of quality, don't expect anybody to complain about an annual release schedule.
Remember that Dracula Untold movie from last year? The one that starred Luke Evans as a reluctant Dracula who takes on vampiric superpowers to save his family? Bet you didn't realize that that was the start of a new shared universe.
Universal found Dracula to be a modest hit, so it's turning the movie into the launchpad for a whole new slew of monster movies. Universal has wanted to create a shared universe of pop culture monsters it owns the film rights to for ages; there was talk of it happening way back when Hugh Jackman starred in that godawful Van Helsing flick. So you can't pin this one on Marvel. It's just because of Marvel that Universal is striking while the iron's hot.
Monsters/movies on Universal's schedule include reboots of Van Helsing, The Mummy and The Wolf Man. Universal also owns the rights to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man, so those are waiting in the wings should the first batch succeed.
This is where things start to get sketchy. With everybody jumping on the bandwagon, Sony (remember, desperate), Dan Aykroyd and Ivan Reitman have created a new production company called Ghostcorps. Through it, an entire universe of ghostbusting action is being born, including movies, TV shows, books, video games and toys.
The idea is that in the new continuity established first by Paul Feig's all-female Ghostbusters reboot, there's more than one team of 'busters. The Ghostbusters brand is a franchise now, with teams all over the country (maybe even the world), and Sony believes there's room for multiple kinds of movies in this universe. The Feig movie, for example, is seen primarily as a comedy, but a second movie — directed by the Russo brothers and possibly starring Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt — would lean more heavily toward the action end of the spectrum.
Only the first two movies have been officially greenlit so far, but Ghostbusters is one of the most-recognized brand names in the world. So you can bet plenty more is coming.
Now Hollywood is just outright abusing the formula. Hasbro's biggest cash cow is the Transformers movie series, which despite worsening plots still makes boatloads of money. So of course, the toy company has decided to expand into a shared universe.
Hasbro has hired Akiva Goldsman to head up a think-tank of screenwriters to pore over Transformers' 30-year history and develop multiple stories around numerous characters. Direct sequel Transformers 5 is expected in 2017.
Comic book publisher Valiant Entertainment has just tossed its hat into the ring with partner Sony (that's three universes if you're counting), with plans for movies based on its characters that lead into an Avengers-style team-up. It'll start in 2017 with Bloodshot, about a resurrected-and-enhanced super soldier, then follow with Harbinger, a group of fugitive supers running from a mysterious, all-powerful corporation. After each film gets a sequel, the two will pair up in The Harbinger Wars. Other Valiant characters are planned for the big screen as well.
The problem with this one is obvious: Valiant has no name recognition for itself or its characters. Marvel, DC, Star Wars and the rest all have a built-in audience because they've existed for such a long time. Valiant has none of that in its favor.
Can Sony and Valiant build an enticing cinematic universe out of properties no one's ever heard of?
After Legendary's Godzilla reboot became a hit, a sequel was quickly ordered. But then Legendary did something no one saw coming: it ordered a Skull Island movie, which is expected to lead into a King Kong reboot. Is Legendary building a "giant monster" universe? The studio has yet to officially confirm it, but it sure looks that way.
A few years ago, Warner Bros. figured out a way to continue the Harry Potter universe without Harry Potter: introduce a new character, a new setting and a new time period to the same world of wizards. J.K. Rowling herself is writing the first of a planned trilogy of feature films based on her fictional curriculum title, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, starring a "magizoologist" named Newt Scamander. As long as Rowling's magic keeps raking in big bucks, Warners will keep finding new corners of her universe to explore.
Back in February, Lionsgate's CEO let slip that he's exploring ways of extending the Hunger Games franchise after the last film in the series. "Prequels and sequels" are on the drawing board. While the history of the Hunger Games itself, as well as the formation of Panem, might make for interesting stories, it remains to be seen if Suzanne Collins would have any interest in such things. If not, Lionsgate's Hunger Games universe might never get off the ground.
Like Sony with its Spider-Man movies, Fox sorta has the same thing going on with its X-Men universe. Aside from the First Class series, there's also the Gambit movie in the works for Channing Tatum, a third Wolverine movie, a Deadpool film and who knows what else.
Warner Bros' burgeoning LEGO franchise is not confirmed to be a connected universe — yet. But we know there's a sequel in the works along with a LEGO Batman, Ninjago and more.
Whew. Did we miss any big-screen universes?
Our conclusion is that while almost all of these have built-in audiences, many of them carry the distinct odor of corporate greed. In the end, it will come down to quality, as it always does.
Audiences never seem to mind if Hollywood cashes in on a trend, as long as what they create is entertaining.