What makes an entertainment franchise great?
Written by Robert Niles
Once in a while, the Harry Potter vs. Star Wars debate flares up on Theme Park Insider, as it did this week in our Fix This Park feature on Universal Studios Hollywood. To me, the most interesting thing about this argument is the essential question it raises: What makes one entertainment franchise better than another?Tweet
Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, opens the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in June 2010, with Rupert Grint, left, and Warwick Davis.
Allow me to suggest a simple answer: The better franchise is the one that entertains and engages the larger number of people over the longer period of time. The best franchises don't just hit with people for a year or two - they endure across generations, as new readers and viewers each year discover the characters and stories in that franchise.
In short, check with me in 30 years, and I'll tell you which turned out to be the better franchise.
That said, let's take a look at the top five all-time entertainment franchises, in U.S. box office receipts and books sold, to see who our "best franchise" candidates might be:
And for books:
Harry Potter tops both lists, with 450 million books sold and more than $2.4 billion in domestic gross. Figure a conservative $8 a ticket, and that's 300 million tickets sold.
That's three quarters of a billion paid customers. Pretty impressive. But I know an entertainment franchise that's drawn even more paid eyeballs over the past decade and a half that Harry Potter's been filling his Gringotts vault:
The Walt Disney theme parks.
With 121 million visitors last year, according to TEA/AECOM, the Disney theme parks drew nearly three times its nearest competitor (Merlin) and more than its next four competitors combined (Merlin, Universal, Parques Reunidos, and Six Flags). And with an average of more than 100 million visitors a year over the past decade, it's conceivable that more people have visited a Disney theme park than own a Harry Potter book or have seen a Harry Potter movie. (You'd need to know repeat customers for both to know for sure.) Throw in all the visitors to Disney Parks before Potter burst onto the scene, and the score isn't even close.
Which brings me to my point: The popularity of an entertainment franchise isn't nearly as important to a theme park as what the park does with that franchise. Fat lot of good the Batman franchise has done for Six Flags, which failed to place any of its parks among the top 15 North American theme parks for annual attendance last year. Does anyone remember Goosebumps at the SeaWorld family of parks? Or James Bond in Paramount Parks?
If you click through to the complete list of top movie franchises, you'll find occupying the eighth spot Pirates of the Caribbean, a franchise launched by a Disney theme park attraction. So when it comes to theme parks and entertainment franchises, Disney's parks drive franchises - not the other way around.
So does Harry Potter matter? Of course it does. Harry Potter went to Universal, not to Disney. That influx of Potter fans has allowed Universal to introduce itself to millions of new customers, and the income Universal's earned from them is allowing the company to expand its parks around the world. But if Universal Creative hadn't hit one over the fences with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, that franchise would have done as much for Universal as the Dark Knight Coaster did for the Six Flags park - zilch.
Ultimately, as we're trying to guess the long-term impact on theme parks, it doesn't matter how successful a franchise has been in other media. It matters only how well that franchise is developed within the parks, and how much people want to keep coming back to experience those attractions, again and again, over the years.
Harry Potter's a great franchise for Universal not because it's sold a ton of books and movie tickets. It's a great franchise because it has inspired and enabled Universal Creative to do some awesome work. If some other franchise does the same for Disney, or SeaWorld, or Six Flags, or Universal again, well, then that's a great entertainment franchise, too.
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