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You want to build a franchise? Then start by telling us a story

October 17, 2017, 3:13 PM · What makes a film or book or TV show into a franchise? That's the literal billion-dollar question that studio executives ask themselves every day. Of course, the answer lies in popularity. If people want to keep buying new books and movie tickets and merchandise themed to something, then it's a franchise. But drilling down to find why people want to do that for some entertainment properties and not others proves tricky.

Ultimately, as with everything in entertainment, the answer comes down to story. Yet that's still too simplistic a response to provide the best answer. Every non-experimental film that gets wide release — even the ones that bomb — has a story. The ones that spawn franchises are the ones that resonate with viewers so much that they inspire them to start creating stories of their own.

I write in my Orange County Register column today about the power of story to help businesses connect with consumers. I wrote: "When I read a Harry Potter book, or watch a Star Wars or Marvel movie, I can’t help but think about living in those universes. They’re like that really cool neighborhood bar, park or, yes, shopping mall, where you just want to hang out and see what happens next."

I used that shopping mall example because earlier in the column I wrote about Disney's propensity to create backstories for its shopping malls. But Disney's hardly the only company doing that anymore. Themed entertainment designers are getting work for retail developers, museums, and real estate developers around the world — as well as with theme parks — because smart business people have learned the power of people-centric design.

Storytelling helps a designer to stay focused on people and their motivation. If you can't come up with a plausible story for why someone would naturally have placed something somewhere, that's a sign that your design isn't going to click with the people it's supposed to serve. Designs driven instead by the need to cram a certain amount of stuff into a defined space make people feel like cogs in someone else's machine.

...Just like viewers feel when they watch Hollywood productions clearly designed to launch franchises, but that lack the engaging storytelling to inspire people to want to imagine being part of those universes. No one wants to be a studio's sucker.

The director of the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, linked a great commentary on the success of Marvel and other franchise-building studios earlier this week.

You can't skip steps. You can't build a home without laying the foundation first. And you shouldn't draw up a blueprint without an explanation for why people would want things placed where you want to put them. You want to build a franchise, with movie sequels, streaming services, theme parks, hotels, and shopping malls? Great. Then start by telling me a really good story.

Read Robert's column:

Replies (2)

October 17, 2017 at 9:47 PM · And this is why, I believe, the DC universe is struggling. They’ve been aiming for a universe to replicate Marvel and, other than Wonder Woman, haven’t had a lot of success. Same thing with Universal’s Dark Universe. Great stories can build worlds worth visiting, but worlds cannot tell stories.
October 18, 2017 at 11:23 AM · As much as I can appreciate the focus on 'story', and what it's done for Disney over the decades, I wonder what your thoughts are on attractions that - in my opinion - either are successful without needing much of a story (Space Mountain), or in a few rare instances suffer(ed) a bit from too much story (Kilimanjaro Safari, Rock 'n Roller Coaster).

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