Follow the data to see what the theme park industry's leaders will do next
Written by Robert Niles
What's the best entertainment franchise to bring into a theme park? Let's start by defining what "best" is - and I'm going to go with an entertainment franchise that's already proven itself with the public through movie box-office success, guaranteeing a big launch for a well-executed theme park attraction that recreates the franchise's creative universe.Tweet
Star Wars needs to be Disney's next big play in theme parks. Keep reading to see why.
So here's the data on the top US movie franchises, from Box Office Mojo. I'm including franchises that have grossed more than $1 billion, with an average of at least $200 million per film. That eliminates franchises such as James Bond and Star Trek, which have earned huge grosses over their life-spans thanks to having so many titles, but that don't move the needle much with each release.
This list is incomplete in that it doesn't include other entertainment income that supports a franchise, such as toys and books. Toy revenue is what helped drive Disney to develop Cars Land, which did well at the box office, but absolutely killed in the toy store. But the list gives us a good place to start a discussion.
The list shows why the Marvel deal is such a BFD for Universal Orlando. It effectively keeps two of the country's top 10 entertainment franchises out of the hands of its archrival, the Walt Disney Company - which owns Marvel, the creator of Avengers and Spider-Man. Given that Avengers and Spider-Man are both active franchises, with new films in development, these figures convince me that Disney's going to have to make a billion-dollar offer to Universal to have any hope of getting those Orlando-area theme park rights.
The franchise data also explain many recent moves in the theme park industry. We all know at this point what a game-changer Harry Potter has been, and can see why Universal's is hot to bring Potter to its Universal Studios parks in Japan, Florida and Hollywood, too. But Universal also made a great call in bringing Transformers into its Singapore and Hollywood parks. (The data explain why some of us believe that Transformers will be coming to Orlando soon, too.) The list also explains why Universal just dropped that money to upgrade The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal Orlando, and why Shrek isn't going anywhere in its parks anytime soon (and why Universal gave Shrek an entire land in its newest park, in Singapore).
So should Disney and Universal make a play for Twilight or Lord of the Rings? Perhaps, but I see a couple bigger targets higher up on the list. First, Six Flags has in no way maximized the theme park income potential of the Batman franchise. It simply lacks the capital to build the immersive Gotham environment, with high-tech attractions, that could rival Harry Potter and Cars Land in popularity. I can't believe that Six Flags' rights deal for the DC Comics franchises, including Batman - a remnant of the days when Six Flags was also owned by DC's parent, Warner Bros. - is so costly and iron-clad that neither Disney or Universal could make a play to wrest it away. (Heck, if I ran Disney, I would buy the DC rights out from under Six Flags and give them away to Universal as part of a deal to get the Florida theme park rights to Marvel. But if I ran Universal, I'd still demand a billion-dollar check in addition to the DC rights. This is why I can't negotiate with myself.)
The big target here is the franchise sitting at number two - Star Wars. One ride and a few fan-fest weekends don't come close to realizing the theme park potential of this franchise. Yesterday, we wrote about Disneyland's two options for expansion. One of them was in Tomorrowland. Given the commercial potential of the Star Wars franchise, I'm going to make a seemingly radical proposal - that Disneyland rebuild all of Tomorrowland as Star Wars Land.
Star Tours remains. Space Mountain gets a Star Wars overlay. But everything else goes - even Buzz Lightyear (there's a Toy Story-themed shooter over at California Adventure now. That'll do.) Make Tomorrowland an immersive physical visit to the Star Wars universe, using all the space from the Hub back to It's a Small World. Then use that as a template to remake the southern end of Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando.
Who here would pay up to visit that? I know I would.
At this point, from all I've heard in the industry, Disney's not yet decided for certain what it will do next in Disneyland. But I'm a big fan of the late Buzz Price, the consultant for Disney who helped select the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He devoted his life to the study of data and wrote, "Guessing is dysfunctional. Ignoring prior experience is denial. Using valid numbers to project performance is rational."
The box office data provide clear, rational data to guide the theme park industry. They've worked for Universal, and they can work for Disney, too. Whatever else Disney might consider for its theme park properties, it'd be most rational for Disney to do something new - and big - with Star Wars.
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