The Download: Marvel's Ever Expanding Cinematic Universe, Indies & VOD, and 'Fantastic Beasts' as Three Megamovies


Not many studio can claim that they've planned out their release slate 15 years out, but Marvel can. Obviously, anything that far out is very fluid, but at least there's such a plan in place. We talk about that and more in this week's Download.

Binh: Businessweek has a feature out on Marvel which I think is a must read. It gives some background on Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and how the studio ended up producing its own movies. There's some forward-looking stuff in there such as movies have already been planned for up to 2028 and that Guardians of the Galaxy characters may get their own spinoffs. Am I missing anything?

There's also this blurb about Disney's business strategy in case anyone's not aware of it:

"Iger had a clear strategy for Disney. He believed the company needed more enduring characters like Mickey Mouse and Sleeping Beauty that could be turned into movies, TV shows, theme park rides, and cruise ship attractions. A movie might make money on its own, but it was in a way an advertisement for everything else."

Sara: I can't put any faith in a business plan that goes that far into the future. Too much changes, and I don't just mean public approval. Regarding Iger, I have a hard time seeing this strategy as "new."

Binh: So far it's working, so unless there are indications to the contrary, why fix what's not broken. I believe what you're questioning is that will their movies still be in vogue by then, which is a legitimate concern. I don't know the answer to that, but I don't see why not because these movies go beyond the explosions, you know? The stories are already written for these characters; they just need to figure out the order in which to tell them.

Sara: If by "these movies" we're talking about Guardians of the Galaxy alone, it makes sense for the producing studio to count on the brand for a while because it's part of a larger media package--it'd be like banking on the Wired APP when you know Wired is comfortably online and somewhat comfortably in print--why not bank on an arm of an already strong brand? My issue is time frame. Then again, maybe these schedules work like guest lists at a film festival: they're "tentative." What happens when Guardians 4: The Ooze is a box office flop or when something horrible happens in the world and they blame the bitchy raccoon for it? Life is odd.

Plus, guys, really, if we're still on Guardians of the Galaxy in 2028, we'll be in a sorry freaking state. This superhero thing is so tired. If someone could make me believe super heroes could be remotely relevant to our social landscape I might feel differently but so far no good. Adding more years to its longevity is not encouraging.

Am I being a bummer?

Jeff: Well, kind of, but I absolutely see where you're coming from. I think what could save this whole superhero bonanza is -- as I said when I wrote up the news of this scheduling for MwB -- the notion that, by planning all these movies so far ahead, Marvel is obviously willing to branch out and use some of its lesser-known characters rather than just hitting the same old characters over and over again. And as Binh has repeatedly pointed out, "superhero" is no longer really a genre -- with respect to Marvel movies, anyway. They've been good about identifying what sort of storytelling universe each character ought to inhabit, and smart about hiring the right people to bring those stories to life.

The bigger problem, for me anyway, is the over-reliance on crushing spectacle to simulate dramatic stakes. It's numbing. If Marvel can figure out a way to dial back all that noise and give us movies that are just fun rather than BIGGER LOUDER MORE, I can see this going on well beyond 2028. I mean, if it weren't for the fact that they had to wait for the special effects to catch up, the studios would have been making these movies decades ago -- it isn't like demand for this kind of story is anything new. (Ask Stan Lee.)

As for that gross Disney quote, yeah, it makes me want to wash my hands. But it's the bottom line for every TV station, record company, and book publisher that's ever existed. My problem with the major studios these days, and Disney in particular, is their transparent, rapacious hunger for fatter margins. Disney's been as guilty as anyone of nickel-and-diming things into oblivion, and creating this bleak ecosystem where movies either need to gross a billion bucks or be made for Captain America: The Winter Soldier's catering budget. It's untenable.

Sara: Ohh, the untenable tentpole. Woe is I.

There's more in the world, but if you judged the industry by our Download talks, you'd think the industry was comprised of Marvel stories and Oscarbait. It's like we're on hunger strike for cultural relevance.

Though, I just got an email indicating World Film Critics are calling Captain American Winter Soldier "relevant" so maybe I'm wrong.

Jeff: Well, it isn't just the tentpole, it's an overall race to the bottom line that's had a number of loathsome side effects, including the major TV networks' dwindling commitment to scripted entertainment. Cheap bets or safe bets rule the roost, and they don't subsidize the daring bets as often as they used to.

Binh: Call me crazy, but this is the second golden age of television. The shows have never been better. Even companies like Netflix and Hulu are even getting to the racket by financing their own exclusive content. And for movies, the tools are finally catching up to the story telling, like Jeff has said, so we're going to see filmmakers go crazy with the effects.

Also, I picked these Marvel stories because this particular studio is causing a paradigm shift in the way movies are planned out and produced, and the other majors are trying to follow suit with limited success so far. We're going to be looking back years from now and say this is the point where the industry became the way it is.

Jeff: Oh, I'm not saying there aren't any good shows on the...whatever the "dial" is now. But a lot of them are niche hits, produced by smaller companies who've stepped into the breach left by ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, all of whom have, to one extent or another, spent the last decade abandoning scripted programming hours in favor of cheaper reality series.

Binh: I'm no expert on the TV industry, but maybe viewing habits have changed over the years? People can catch ANY show online now and at any time they want, so they're not inclined to sit on their couch at some appointed time. If those smaller companies end up eating the larger networks' lunches, I'm sure the bigs will return to scripted shows with a vengeance, if that's what it takes. Competition is a good thing.

Jeff: Viewing habits have absolutely changed. Everything is a niche now. What's the closest thing to a scripted consensus hit we have these days? The Big Bang Theory?

Binh: According to the network ratings, How I Met Your Mother, Scandal, and Greg's Anatomy are some of the top shows.

Sara: It's a big industry. I think it's worth letting the Weinsteins or Cohen Media or my beloved Music Box Films inform the argument. Music Box is to the industry what Scholastic is to book publishing...true to Iger's strategy, they're both buoyed by characters. Harry Potter for Scholastic and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for Music Box. Though, I realize, publishers and distributors are different birds, but the point I'm trying to get at (if in a round about way) is that you can play this cheap bet/safe bet game and still make worthy content. Not that I highly revere that goth/Swedish I Spit On Your Grave story but I value it's quality to fascinate.

Binh: I agree with you here. There's always room for players that fill a particular niche, so the Weinsteins and the Music Boxes of the world are not going away anytime soon because they don't cater to the same audience as those of the majors.

Jeff: I agree too, although I think those movies are more and more often being shunted off to VOD rather than being given an arthouse run.

Sara: It's not easy being a movie theater.

Binh: I would argue those movies will reach an even larger audience on VOD because not every town has an arthouse. Remember the times when we couldn't get some of these movies on VHS/DVD even if we wanted to? Now, it's just a touch of a button.

Jeff: And you're correct. Hell, I live in a town with an arthouse theater, and I still don't get to see a ton of movies on the big screen.

Whether the VOD thing is good for cinema, however, is another discussion. One for which I suspect Sara might have more intelligent contributions.

Binh: Some movies are better on the small screen because they're usually not worth the effort involved (i.e. travel). Once a movie is made, there are two problems that must be solved: 1) distribution 2) marketing. With VOD, the problem is down to one.

Sara: Wait wait wait--you just identified the problem without calling it such: the movies "aren't worth the effort."

Firstly, effort used to be a bigger part of this equation. If you can get something cheaper/faster/easier, of course you will, but if you don't think the effort involved is worth it even before or (in this case) independent of a real movie inspiration, what's the point of any of this?

I don't want to take your comment out of context or into another universe of thought but if we don't care, what the heck is the point of getting movies easier? Is the goal to care even less?

Jeff and I once had a great talk about how the internet has made it impossible for us to camp out in front of record stores the night before album releases or concert tickets go on sale. That cultural event existed because of a shared enthusiasm. People went out of their ways to revel in something they were excited about. "They're not worth the effort" is something you say before you leave your house. No one comes home from a night out and says it wasn't worth the effort.

I know we're just talking about movies but...we're also talking about a lot more.

Binh: Not every indie that made its way into the arthouse is good, just like with its more well-known cousins playing multiplexes nearby. There will be clunkers is what I meant. If you're talking about the social experience, that's another topic all together, and I'm not sure we have the space for it this time.

Moving on, do you know what $6.3M, $9.9M, and $5.3M are?

Jeff: Our next paychecks?

Binh: Oh, how I wish! Those are the opening numbers for Arnold Schwarzenegger's last three movies. While most of indies would be very happy to even sniff anywhere near those numbers, they are not acceptable for an Arnold movie. We talked about Schwarzenegger's decline as a box office draw before, now we have the numbers to prove it.

Jeff: I wish his gubernatorial campaigns had been met with the same level of indifference.

Is Arnold still demanding a big paycheck these days? I imagine he's stopped getting $20 million, but I wonder how cheap he is now. Dismal as those grosses are, are his movies still breaking even in the home market?

Binh: It's either him or Gray Davis, Jeff. He didn't perform any better or worst any other politician and, frankly, I don't know why he wanted to be governor other than to satisfy his ego. He lost more than he'd gained after his term is over.

I imagine his pay is in the $5-$10 million range right now? Not too sure about the home market...

Also, Jeff, you did a writeup about the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them becoming three “megamovies.” What is exactly is a megamovie, and why does that term sound so ominous?

Jeff: I can't even begin to speculate. But it makes me uncomfortable, too.

Binh: I get the feeling they're trying to expand the universe with those three movies so that they can do even more sequels. Is that fair to say?

Sara: Avengers was a megamovie. Expand and dominate.

Binh: I would describe The Avengers as the gift shop waiting for people coming out of the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies. Megamovie sounds like something that wants to keep people from leaving once they're inside.

Sara: Ha! The sausage factory in The Jungle! You guys read that Upton Sinclair book in high school? We're working for them now!

Binh: There are a lot of things from high school I tried to forget, and that's all the time we have for this week. Until next time.

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