How high can you build a franchise without breaking its fan base?

December 15, 2017, 3:04 PM · I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi this morning. Don't worry, if you have not seen it yet. I won't write anything about its plot and, after making a brief comment about fan reactions to the eighth episode in the Star Wars series, I will drop the subject entirely. Because my topic here isn't Star Wars — it's the balancing act that creators must perform in maintaining franchises with large and invested fan bases.

Right now, The Last Jedi is sitting at a 96% favorable score on Rotten Tomatoes, among top critics. But it has earned just a 57% favorable score among audience members surveyed by the website, which presumably includes many "super fans" who weeks ago bought tickets to see the movie before noon on its first official day of release.

Personally, I think The Last Jedi is the best of all the Star Wars films, and over time, the audience rating for the film will grow to match the critics' rating. But this current disconnect got me wondering — what would critics and the general public think of this movie if it had been made to garner a 95%-plus approval rating from the franchise's most dedicated fans?

Would that movie also have gotten a 96% approval from critics? Would it stand the test of time?

This is the challenge that faces the caretakers of a franchise. And, despite the popularity of Star Wars, I don't know that there is in this world a more popular and lucrative "franchise," if you will, than the Disney theme parks. What other entertainment franchise drew 140 million paid attendees last year? Disney theme parks did.

As large as that number is, Disney wants it to go up. To do that, it must continue to expand what it offers at its theme parks. That's not just new rides and shows. Disney must offer new types of experiences, aimed at different audiences than it has attracted before — different products, at different price points, for different fans. You can't keep dishing up the same meal and attract new diners.

But the trouble with expanding the menu is that some (or a lot) of the old diners can feel left out. People who liked the franchise just the way it was might not like to see it expand or, heaven forbid, change direction. And let's just put it out there — some fans might not like having to share the bandwagon with all those different people now climbing aboard. Tribalism runs strong in the human race, whatever the form or function of the tribe.

So whether you are running a theme park, filming a Star Wars movie, writing a new Harry Potter story, or doing anything else to maintain and extend a popular, established franchise, you face this challenge. How can you attract new fans without losing the old ones?

The answer might seem simplistic — just keep doing what attracted the old fans in the first place. The basic principles of great entertainment endure: create engaging characters and interesting locations and use them to tell powerful stories. But in any franchises, at some point, fan loyalty to those specific characters, locations, and story beats will make introducing new ones difficult, if not impossible. The fan base's loyalty ceases being a financial asset and threatens to become a creative curse.

At that point, the best creators... take a risk. They change things anyway. They not only bring in fresh characters and story arcs, they might dispatch old ones. More than that, though, they will play with audiences' expectations for the franchise. They feint.

Heck, they might even take a second-rate Tower of Terror and turn it into a Guardians of the Galaxy ride.

(*Update, 12/16: Adding a couple of graphs here to extend the argument.)

This raises the additional challenge for theme park designers in that they often must balance the needs of multiple franchises when developing attractions. In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout!, Disney's Imagineers had to service five potentially distinct "franchises": Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel, the park's Hollywood Land, Disney California Adventure as a park, and the Disney theme parks in general. Disney served the Disney Parks franchise by choosing to remove an underdeveloped IP (The Twilight Zone) in favor of a more currently popular one (Guardians). Now, that decision weakened the theme of Hollywood Land — perhaps suggesting that Disney intends to scrap that theme, as well. It also muddled the theme of California Adventure, but strengthened the park by giving it a much stronger, higher rated, and more popular attraction.

As for Guardians, Disney protected and extended that franchise with an experience that amplifies its spirit without undercutting its narrative or its timeline. That's a tough assignment. Remember when Star Tours put you face to face with Darth Vader, then sent you to the aftermath of the battle of Jakku? I know that a lot of fans got sick of Universal's Shrek 4D over the years, but that show provided one of the better examples of a theme park attraction extending a franchise's narrative in a supportive, not contradictory, fashion.

No one is batting 1.000 here. That creates a powerful financial incentive for companies to play to safe and not take creative risks. Just slap the franchise logo on a roller coaster, keep making the same films — hitting the same beats, and never let your characters develop. Milk a franchises as long as you can, and when it collapses from creative neglect, move on to the next. No one will blame you for that failure.

Taking creative risks with an established franchise ultimately demonstrates an act of faith — a faith that you, as a creative leader, are, indeed, doing what attracted the old fans in the first place. That you are, still, creating engaging characters and interesting locations and using them to tell powerful stories. And that, by doing this, those old fans... eventually... will forgive you and maintain their loyalty — even as a new generation of fans climbs aboard the bandwagon.

Yes, sometimes the creative risks ultimately fail. (No, the Tiki Room did not need New Management.) Fans are under no obligation to return to a franchise that they feel has left them behind. It's your loyalty, your time, and your money. Do what you want. But the next time a franchise you love tries something you think foolish or stupid... don't use that as an excuse to jump into modern social media's perpetual outrage machine. Take a day, a week, or a season before you jump off the bandwagon, then see how you feel then.

Maybe it didn't work, and it is time to bail. But maybe it did, and it worked in ways that you never would have anticipated. (Hello, Mission Breakout!) Either way, I am glad for creators who are willing to take these chances.

Because nothing is worse than a story without a twist, or a world that never even tries to change for the better.

Replies (18)

December 15, 2017 at 4:48 PM · Yes, sir and yes, please!
December 15, 2017 at 5:57 PM · Don't believe the hype. The only good Star Wars movies were the original three. GOTG Mission Breakout is not as good as a second rate Tower of Terror. And Disney execs aren't taking chances; they are peddling recycled garbage.
December 15, 2017 at 7:17 PM · Trolls, trolls, trolls...and it's probably just a couple reviewing negatively over and over and over again.
December 15, 2017 at 8:17 PM · I’m baffled by the hate and audience rating. Our theater was completely engaged in the film and it received a rousing applause. Did it have plot holes? Yes. Just like the originals. Did it have subplots that seemed underwhelming? Yes, just like the originals. I don’t think people would really enjoy the originals if they had been released today. They live in our minds under the protective veil of nostalgia, which helps us overlook things like Ewoks defeating the empire because of how magical it was in the 80s. The new film was full of surprises, twists, and unexpected moments that made it feel fresh and exciting. These new films are ushering in new heroes, and we can’t expect the appeal of Mark Hamill to be the only reason these new films are successful. Great job, Disney, for making me feel the same wonder I felt when I was 10. The movie was everything I wanted and more.
December 15, 2017 at 8:32 PM · Only if its bad, but Ghostbusters is still popular despite the all girl sequel. Anyone who’s willing to sit through all 8 in sequence is a special kind of fan.
December 16, 2017 at 2:04 AM · The first 3 Star Wars movies will always have a special place in my heart. Not because they were well written or had an amazing depth to them. I was a kid and saw a fun and exciting fairytale in space on an epic scale. That feeling can never be recreated because I was a kid with his dad.
The new movies are a bit more serious, loaded with special effects, it a sign of the time. They never will have the same impact on me but it's some kids first and amazing movie and no one has the right to complain about that.
What I am worried about is the rate Disney pushes anything that is successful. With that tactic they killed a television show like Weekend Millionair and the Disney Stores. They are very much on their way with creating fatigue for anything Marvel and Frozen has met it's saturation point so much that they had to take the "short" out of cinema's.
December 16, 2017 at 2:37 AM · I'm reminded of Bar Rescue... It seems in every second epsiode Tapper takes the owner to task going "Why don't you do This, this and this?", the owner invariably responds "Because I'm afraid of losing customers".

For those who haven't seen the show, Bars only go on Bar Rescue because they're losing money hand over fist. For those of you who have seen the show, you've probably screamed along side me "WHAT CUSTOMERS?"

Ultimately when making any decision to change, you need to balance your old customers against your new ones. A lot of Trekkies hate Discovery... I'm not a Trekkie but have seen the series (Babylon 5 Forever!) but I thought it was clearly the best Trek there is.

With a property like Star Wars, its hard to lose a Long time fan. They suffered through the Second Lucas Trillogy and are still there. Its a matter of appealing to lapsed fans and non-fans-who-liked the movie, and I haven't heard a bad word against the movie.

I don't put stock in reader click-vote figures... They're too easy to manipulate.

December 16, 2017 at 4:30 AM · Theme Park franchises are in a contsant state of evolution balancing the expectations of the core fan base with those of the new and each new generations' expectations are more extreme and/or higher than the previous. Universal is particularly good at this and is not afriad of changing out dearly held attractions for the new......and having a positive impact. Look at Universal Studios Hollywood and Orlando over the past few years. Big decisions which did't back-fire.

Theme parks are also technology driven as well as having instantly recognisable and popular IPs so the marrying of both to produce WOW factor attractions is an absolute must for continued attendance growth, retaining the core and growing the new.

With both Disney and Universal pledging $multi-billion investments over the coming years, their theme park franchises will only go from strength to strength with brand loyaly increasing.

December 16, 2017 at 5:43 AM · Great comments Shaun. Our theater was as well enthralled and my entire group loved it. I go to the movies to be entertained and this movie was extremely entertaining. I don't understand people who act like "it's the worst movie ever" just because every character or situation didn't go just like they thought it should. Almost all negative comments are based on that person's expectation of what they remembered from many years ago like nothing can change or it's "wrong". I mean come on even the biggest of Star Wars fans couldn't honestly and fairly watch the Last Jedi and say it's 1/2 star out of 5 with angry comments unless it's totally based on what they think the movie should have been. I can only imagine if the movies were flipped and Episode 4, 5 and 6 came out after these new ones how horrible some of these same "fans" would be saying Episode 4 A New Hope was.
Same with theme park attractions, I have very fond memories of the ride in Norway but does that mean I should hate the new Frozen ride? Good grief - life is too short to always be angry or mad about things not being just like I think they should be or how I remember them from 30-40 years ago.
Nostalgia is great but would the senior citizens of this country REALLY want to go back to how it was in the 50's-60"s or has time just made them forget the bad parts of that era and remember only the good things??? Seems a lot like like some movie and theme park fans based on some of these same reactions.
December 16, 2017 at 6:26 AM · I really wonder how Rottentomatoes gets those metrics. If you actually click over to the reader reviews, most of them seem positive (although I didn't read them to prevent spoilage. I think the larger issue is that the Force Awakens played it so safe (which I get in the sense that Disney needed to rope in a new child fandom). So safe, probably, that many of the longtime fans expected that same feel-good, by the numbers nostalgia that it provided. All I've heard so far from the "angry fans" online is that the movie subverts your expectations and provides unsatisfactory answers to whatever lingering questions were raised in Force Awakens. Which kind of sounds like the ultimate trolling to a large segment of the fan base.

Personally, I wish they had taken a more daring approach to the new trilogy from square one, as TFA practically squashed my desire to know what happens next. I genuinely don't like any of the new characters, despite the fact that I think the actors are fantastic. And while Rogue One seemed to be a well made film, it's the only movie I've ever shut off 30 minutes into it's run time. Nobody had to tell me what was going to happen. I knew they were all going to die and I've never had the lingering question "How did they steal the plans to the Death Star?". I get that Disney needs to recoup that $4 billion investment, but I think it would be wise to maintain the main story without all the spinoffs. Boba Fett was much better with an air of mystery before the prequels demystified so much of what made him cool. I guess what I'm saying is that Star Wars could use some of that "Economy of story telling" that makes so many Disney films endlessly rewatchable classics.

December 16, 2017 at 8:29 PM · Maybe some of us that grew up with the original trilogy are getting sick of what Star Wars has been twisted into.

Storm Troopers marching defanged through Walt Disney World? Meh.

December 17, 2017 at 8:28 AM · This article brings up a good point in theme parks having to balance appealing to a new generation of theme park visitors and the older generation. Screen rides are ground zero for this divide. A lot of us in the old guard hate how screen rides have become the go to for new attractions for both Disney and Universal. We miss the grand, immersive, fully built worlds that rides like Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, ET, the original Kong, etc. But the new generation, Millenials, have grown up in the digital age with video games and now even VR, so screen rides are an extension of that. The proof is in the pudding. A lot of hardcore theme park fans may complain, but just look how popular Soarin, Flight of Passage, the two Harry Potter rides, Spider-Man and Transformers, are with general audiences. Theme parks realize they have more casual fans/general audiences in their parks each day than the hardcore, TPI-reading fan, and they have to appeal to them. So I don't think screen rides are a cheap way out. Disney dropped $52 billion to buy Fox. It's market research. We just have to hope we can continue to get simulators as amazing and immersive asFlgjt of Passage, or that combine screens and physical elements like Spider-Man, Pirates at Shanghai, of the upcoming First Order Battle Ride at Galaxy's Edge.
December 17, 2017 at 11:42 PM · With the new technology that theme parks have at their disposal, of course they have to offer some new kinds of experiences. The key is to maintain a rich variety, so that they don't start offering too much of the same thing. Universal has gone in that direction with too many simulators. I still enjoy their parks, but I hope that upcoming attractions won't all be screen based.
December 18, 2017 at 1:05 AM · I hate to say it but I was incredibly disappointed in the movie . And I hate that I feel like that .
December 18, 2017 at 10:22 AM · The movie... wasn't great. My theatre did not errupt in applause, and the collective response from what I heard was "meh". I walked away thinking about all the lousy dialogue and plot holes that I could've fixed if I had a pass at the script... and I'm not a professional writer, so I should never feel that way about a film, especially one that cost this much to make.
December 18, 2017 at 12:25 PM · Thank you for the article and the analogy/comparison to Disney Parks. I'm one of those new fans captured by the new films and enjoyed The Last Jedi immensely. I understand the criticisms and plot-holes, and perhaps more will be shared in the extra features and deleted scenes. I'm alarmed by the negative reactions on social media, but I was also shocked by people who don't like Avatar/Pandora in Animal Kingdom, Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland, and the upcoming Pixar Pier replacing Paradise Pier. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I'm very concerned about the loss in coherency and theme as well. But life's too short to dwell on the negatives for too long; it's better to ignore the parts we don't like, and have fun with the films, rides, and lands we do. =o)
December 19, 2017 at 11:45 AM · Lots of plot holes and ridiculous corny jokes. It wasn't the worst Star Wars film I've seen, and it did have some nice moments... but I wouldn't call it a good movie. A couple more films like this one and the Star Wars franchise will lose it's base and need to be reset again.
December 21, 2017 at 5:50 AM · Without giving away any spoilers, I was quite disappointed by TLJ. Many mistakes were made in my opinion and a lot of time wasted on irrelevant story lines. I'm also not sure how episode 9 can follow TLJ...but that's just my opinion.

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