franchises

Lessons from J. K. Rowling: How to Build a Successful Film Franchise

With “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” already projected to dominate the box office with at least $70 million in ticket sales, it’s hard not to reminisce about the time when Harry Potter ruled Hollywood. Harry Potter remains one of the most successful movie franchises in history, surpassing the likes of Star Wars and Batman and falling second only to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s quite an achievement. So how did it happen, and what goes into building a successful movie franchise?

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As an aspiring moviemaker, perhaps your dream is to one day captivate millions of people across the globe with your own franchise. Bear in mind that this is an accomplishment far easier said than done, but the truth is that franchises certainly have a place in the entertainment industry — and they always will. So it’s absolutely worthwhile to study what goes into creating a franchise like the one based on J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world.

With Harry Potter and other major film franchises in mind, we’ve summarized four of the most important elements that go into a successful franchise:

Appeals to All Ages

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“The Lord of the Rings” is another movie franchise like Harry Potter that was adapted from books and found great success. But while it is considered by many to be the best fantasy series ever made, it didn’t have the same appeal for all age groups due to its more dense backstory, the darker world, etc.

The Harry Potter franchise, on the other hand, was created with the goal that children, teenagers, and parents alike would all be able to get something from it. From the first book/film all the way to the last, relatable things like friendship, hope, and love are represented through a magical world with peculiar people and creatures that appeal to a wide range of ages and personalities.

When considering your own movie franchise, remember that the more people your films appeal to, the greater your chance of success.

Has a Story With Characters That Grow

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In the original “Star Wars” trilogy, many characters grew throughout the adventure. We saw Luke Skywalker go from a nobody on a farm, to a rebel fighter, and finally a Jedi hero. Since we were there when his journey started and saw him mature when faced with adversity, we can feel like we had a part in his growth and triumph.

In “Harry Potter,” this same element of the hero’s journey and a character’s full arc is also very prevalent and powerful. The original book/film was aimed at children and featured characters around 10 years of age. But by the end, Harry and the rest were teenagers — just like all the loyal fans of the books and films who grew up alongside their favorite characters.

We’re not saying your characters have to age throughout your franchise. Rather, the takeaway is that it’s important to allow your audience to feel like they can relate and grow alongside your characters. Make sure your viewers can witness your characters evolve and mature, as this will drive the audience’s emotional involvement and make them eager to see where your story takes them next.

Have Relatable Characters & Basic Archetypes

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How is it that Disney managed to turn one of their theme park rides into a high-grossing franchise? We’re of course talking about the Pirates of the Caribbean, a runaway hit that’s bred a movie empire. Arguably, part of the success of this franchise can be attributed to its characters, who are firmly rooted in basic archetypes. One example is the hero, Will, who is on a quest to save the girl he loves from a crew of evil pirates. The archetype of the hero, the villain, the wise mentor, etc., can be found in great stories all over the world, and there is a reason that audiences respond to these archetypes. Tap into this powerful storytelling tool with your own future movie franchise.

Relatable characters and well-drawn basic archetypes are arguably one of the biggest reasons the Harry Potter franchise took the world by storm. You have so many characters that, despite living in a magical world, have relatable problems such as fear of girls, homework, etc. They feel familiar to the audience, like old friends. Eventually there are also mature issues that arrive, all while these characters become involved in a traditional tale of good vs. evil. It’s irresistible.

Want your franchise to succeed? Try fitting in archetypes that resonate with most people while creating characters that people can relate to and care about.

Take Them To Another World

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Right now, the by-the-numbers most successful (and largest) franchise of all time is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Among the many reasons all these movies are a hit, the biggest one also applies to the comics that inspired them: they transport you somewhere else. You may be on Earth while watching “The Avengers,” but while you’re caught up in the story there are heroes and villains ready to fight for the future of the world.

Children and adults alike who love Harry Potter know what we’re talking about. From the moment viewers board the Hogwarts Express and arrive at the wizard school, they immediately feel enraptured by a world of magic and mystery. The characters still face relatable situations like mean teachers, but in Harry Potter your teacher is a cold, secretive wizard. It’s another world.

When planning your franchise, we suggest spending plenty of time creating the world your story and characters will take part in. It might just be helps viewers fall in love with your film.

 

What other elements do you notice in your favorite franchise? Let us know in the comments below!

Breaking Down The Directors Of The Alien Franchise

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Nobody involved in the early stages of making a B-movie “Jaws in space” plotted Star Beast ever expected it would evolve into the billion-dollar plus Alien franchise. From the original 1979 film about a creature that lived to kill aboard a spaceship in the middle of nowhere spawned dozens of sequels, crossovers, prequels, comics, action figures, and video games.

Alien: Isolation is just the latest in the ever-expanding universe of murderous Xenomorphs and chestbursters. The next-gen video game is an ersatz sequel to the original film, boasting state of the art realistic graphics to tell the story of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, and her search to find her mother and the doomed crew of the Nostromo, or at the very least, the truth of what happened to them.

While reviews of the gameplay have been mixed, its story and tone have been heralded as a worthy addition to the Alien Franchise. That tone has varied with every incarnation of the series and is best explored through the feature films spread across five decades of Hollywood history. And what better way to explore a film than through its director.

The Alien franchise has managed to find a wide range of talented directors at various points in their careers, though usually early—filmmakers who have added their own mark and together have woven a complex tapestry nobody reckoned could be built around something as simple as The Beast With Two Mouths.

Ridley Scott

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A lot of credit for the Alien franchise must go to original Alien director Ridley Scott. His patient, quiet yet epic style set up the world the franchise inhabits, and created the momentum that has since driven the series forward. By casting a seven-foot actor to inhabit the Xenomorph costume and using shadows and other filmmaking techniques to hide the Alien for most of the movie, Scott managed to create an otherworldly beast that looked too real for the special effects of the time—crucial to suspending the audience’s disbelief and scaring them out of their seats.

Scott was keen on having complex characters with backstories and motivations—something rarely seen in run-of-the-mill horror films where actors were merely fodder for their given monster. Combining this with the lived-in feel of the mining spaceship, Scott created an atmosphere not really seen in space movies before. Rather than the clean-cut scientist astronauts of 2001 and other films, the crew of the Nostromo more resembled offshore oil riggers getting paid by the hour in the Alaskan wilderness. Simply put, he made them relatable.

He also cast an unknown Sigourney Weaver in the lead role of Ellen Ripley, originally scripted as male. He not only helped Weaver launch her A-list career but created one of science-fiction’s most enduring heroines, who even thirty-five years later remains one of the few famous female leads in Hollywood genre cinema.

Alien was only Scott’s second film, but belayed the auteur’s skill with blockbuster special effects and set the tone for the rest of his career. Of all the Alien franchise’s directors, Ridley Scott is the only one to have directed more than one film. Thirty-three years after helming the original, Scott came back with the pseudo-prequel Prometheus, another slow-paced effects epic that is more concerned with our cosmic origins than with bloody deaths. While reviews of the movie were mixed, Scott proved that despite setting the tone for the franchise he could also bring it in new directions with the best of them.

James Cameron

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James Cameron may very well have been selected to be the director of the sequel to Alien because of his previous masterpiece, The Terminator. After all, both films centered on unstoppable killing machines following a vulnerable but strong-minded woman. Cameron, however, had other ideas, and his script for Aliens switched radically in tone from its predecessor.

Aliens is a war movie first, monster movie second, written and directed with an energy that celebrated cool guns, space tanks, and badass one-liners. Beneath its surface though was a smarter movie, the macho cheerleading a commentary on the Vietnam War, and Ripley’s character was given a depth and maternal narrative the original movie didn’t have time to establish. Aliens expanded on the first while at the same time it used its universe in entirely different ways for entirely different purposes, and cemented Cameron as an artist of the blockbuster, a future King of the World.

David Fincher

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Alien 3 was David Fincher’s first film after a career of directing commercials and music videos. Fincher was reportedly plagued by constant rewrites and changes by the studio, and was so disillusioned with the experience that he almost had his name removed from the credits.

However, his stamp remains and facets of the future Oscar nominee’s style are already prevalent in the dark, gloomy sequel. Besides Fincher’s favored brown and copper tones, Alien 3 has the bleak despair and bloody gore found across his oeuvre, including his immediate follow-up, Seven. Fincher is the director who presided over the death of hero Ellen Ripley, a controversial move lambasted from fanboys and previous director James Cameron alike.

The movie has its merits though and showed the Alien franchise could do horror in various shades of gray (or bronze). It also tied Ripley’s character into a larger-than-life battle with the Xenomorphs. In the original she was a bystander, in the second she was a survivor. In the end, she would become a nemesis of an entire species, her existence and fate entwined with the Aliens. She was no longer just a genre protagonist but a bona fide science-fiction legend, her hairless visage as synonymous with the franchise as the eponymous creatures themselves.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

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French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet had already directed the post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen and dark fantasy The City of Lost Children before taking on the fourth movie in the franchise, Alien: Resurrection. His following film, Amélie, made him more of a household name, and further proved his talent with cinematography built around CGI, then coming of age.

All of these personal touches came together for an offbeat sequel that never quite felt comfortable in its own skin. Like Alien, it was set aboard a doomed spaceship, like Aliens, it had futuristic marines facing off against a multitude of Xenomorphs and their queen. Ripley’s larger-than-life status was the core of the movie, with her clone being resurrected two hundred years after Alien 3 to battle the creatures. She was surrounded by oddball characters, including Jeunet regulars Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon. Jeunet’s fun sense of quirk best came out in the interplay between Ripley and these characters, and are arguably the strongest element of the film.

Alien: Resurrection was released in 1997, right before The Matrix and Hollywood’s CGI revolution. Jeunet’s skills behind the camera and a script by Joss Whedon struggled to do something new with the franchise, but compared to similar fare of the pre-Matrix 90s, A:R looks beautiful and is dynamically shot. At it’s worst, it’s a generic space action movie with the skin of the Alien franchise, a trait that continued as Hollywood started taking less risks and digging their franchise heels in at the turn of the century. The following two films in the series would continue that trend, and without someone as skilled as Jeunet, they would sink where Resurrection managed to at least keep its head above water.

Paul W.S. Anderson

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Alien vs. Predator was a departure for the series in more ways than its additional extraterrestrial species. It’s also the first film in the franchise with a PG-13 rating, limiting the film’s violence, which in capable hands is not just a tool but part of the series’ foundation.

The PG-13 is one result of Hollywood’s twenty-first century movement to bring in as many viewers as possible. With ever-expanding budgets, it’s become paramount for films to make more money, which has led to duller, more mainstream-oriented fare and a dependency on recognizable names. Aliens had been fighting Predators for over a decade in other media—it was only in the 2000s that Hollywood felt the need to combine the two trademark properties.

While both the original Alien and Predator movies were slow-burns with its monsters picking off the cast one by one, AvP is a loud action film that is more interested in hitting its plot points fast enough to keep teenagers interested than it is in developing character or creating any sort of commentary or subtext. Far enough from the original, AvP also loses itself in nostalgia by beating the audience over the head with callbacks to the previous films rather than using them to season an original take on the mythology.

Of all the directors, Paul W.S. Anderson was the most experienced when he got behind the camera, having already made blockbusters like Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon and Resident Evil. While the previous Alien films all took chances with relatively unknown auteurs, it was a sign of the times that the franchise was placed in the hands of someone more workhorse than artist.

What could have been an exciting crossover with new things to say and new ways to say it, Alien vs. Predator continued the downward slope of the franchise by being just another dumb action flick.

The Brothers Strause

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Colin and Greg Strause were untested filmmakers with a respected expertise in special effects when they took on the follow-up crossover, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. The ho-hum response to the original AvP was strong enough for the studio to take a little more risk with the film, also allowing again for an R rating.

Unfortunately the Brothers Strause used the R rating for more gore, whether it be a maternity ward full of eviscerated wombs or a chestburster tearing itself out of a child’s body. This was shock value for shock value’s sake, as opposed to a genuine twist meant to disrupt the audience and change the game completely like the original chestbursting scene from Alien. The visceral violence wasn’t a product of an omnipresent despair like in Fincher’s Alien 3 but just another bullet point to check off on the Brothers’ how-to-make-a-horror-film checklist.

The result is a B-movie with slightly more character than the previous AvP but another forgettable entry for the franchise. Not as offensively bland, it isn’t impossible to sit through while watching, but as soon as it’s over you won’t remember much. That in itself may be the cardinal sin for the Alien franchise—the Xenomorphs have proven that they’re anything but forgettable.

Even their token appearance at the end of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was treated like an event. The franchise is currently dormant, but it will only be a matter of time before studio heads find a new way to approach the series, and like a mysterious otherworldly egg, it will slowly stir and come to life and bring us a new monster. Hopefully it will be a monster worth screaming at.

Q&A With Adam Moore & Adam Finer On Screenwriting Careers

Adam Moore Associate Chair of NYFA LA Screenwriting DepartmentAdam Finer Chair of Industry Outreach & Professional DevelopmentRecently we sat down with Adam Moore, Associate Chair of Screenwriting, and Adam Finer, Chair of Industry Outreach & Professional Development, both based at the New York Film Academy’s Burbank campus, to talk about building franchises and “story worlds”—and how writers build careers. Adam Finer is a former literary manager and film producer who spent over a decade as a marketing executive at Universal Studios. Adam Moore is a writer/producer who has co-developed film and television projects for Dark Horse Entertainment, Spyglass Entertainment, Red Wagon Entertainment, Relativity Media, and Silver Pictures, as well as video game projects for Ubisoft, Digital Embryo, and IBM / Walt Disney World EPCOT Center. As the key architects of NYFA’s groundbreaking transmedia course of study, they have a unique vantage point and area of expertise that writers in the field of entertainment can benefit from.

NYFA: So, Adam—and Adam Number Two—I’d like to start by asking what got you both started in this business?

ADAM MOORE: I’ve been a storyteller since I could hold a crayon. The entertainment industry always appealed to me because of the depth and audience reach of the various mediums that make up the industry.

ADAM FINER: I’ve been creating stories and building story worlds with my friends since I was a kid. You just don’t realize that’s what you’re doing; you’re just being a kid. I somehow got my hands on movie scripts when I was in my early teens and I loved visualizing what the movie would become when finished, and I still love that. My career officially began when I went to Universal Pictures one day with a friend who was picking up a paycheck. That day someone had quit and I talked myself into an 11-year journey at the studio.

NYFA: When you look back at your career, what are you most surprised about in terms of how this industry works?

ADAM FINER: I’m not sure if this surprises me, but I’m always impressed by the passion needed to see projects through. Without story and passionate storytellers in all areas of the business this would be a very boring industry.

ADAM MOORE: Not so much surprised as I am disappointed by the way most writers are treated. Unless you’re in that lucky top 1% of writers in the industry, you have to be willing to do a lot of work for free. It wasn’t always that way. Even 20 years ago it was much different.

NYFA: Have you discovered any out-of-the box actions that writers have taken over the years that actually work at getting them noticed?

ADAM MOORE: Writers who create their own content—I’m thinking things like web series, comic books—seem to have a bit more success getting noticed as opposed to those who write spec script after spec script and hope one pops.

ADAM FINER: I spent the second part of my career as a Literary Manager and I have seen writers try to take all kinds of shortcuts—what you might call “out-of-the box thinking”—but what always caught my eye was great writing and powerful storytelling. Now, one of the benefits of Transmedia storytelling is that great writers have other mediums to tell their stories in and engage and grow audiences.

NYFA: Creating a fresh concept for a movie franchise seems like a big task. What do you think the keys are to knowing if you have an idea that’s expandable enough to broaden into a franchise?

ADAM FINER: My first thought is: not all concepts or franchises need to start as movies. Television, video games, comic books, novels, web series, toys and even theme park rides have launched franchises. I’d ask what medium best serves your characters and the world they live in. Then build your story in that world and connect with an audience that wants to see your story worlds.

ADAM MOORE: At the New York Film Academy, we break transmedia franchises down into component pieces to see which have the most promise to leap across the media sphere. Does our franchise have a hero? A home base? An iconic vehicle? Friends and allies? Enemies? Iconic gadgets? A unique world? If you can check off most of the items on that list, then you’re in good shape.

NYFA: Adam Moore, I noticed that you have experience developing video games. With the monster success of titles like Grand Theft Auto and Halo, there seems to be a growing number of college-bound teens interested in designing video games—and many of them wrongly imagining that the job is nothing more than sitting on the couch and playing games all day. What insights would you offer someone who wants to get into that field, regardless of their age?

ADAM MOORE: Be prepared to work hard, and for very long hours at times. The most important things anyone who wants to work in games can learn are the fundamentals of game design.

ADAM FINER: I know this question is for Adam but I’d also chime in that Game Development and design takes a great deal of effort, hard work and time. Creating narratives that connect with audiences is really important. It doesn’t matter if a game is very simple or extremely complex in terms of graphics if a player is engaged in the world.

NYFA: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 18-year-old selves?

ADAM FINER: It’s the same advice I still give myself everyday: keep learning, keep taking creative leaps, keep engaging in new ideas and keep sharing those ideas with others.

ADAM MOORE: When I was 18, there was no such thing as a Game Design Degree, so I can’t give myself that advice. But I would tell myself that making games can be a career, and if you love your Xbox or Nintendo, and find yourself drawn to video game worlds and narrative strategies, then follow your heart and go find a way to learn about and work in the game industry. It’s a fast-growing field and there are jobs to be had.