Over at Collider, Douglas Laman posted a piece about how studios' obsession with launching a franchise or cinematic universe can sabotage a picture. The audience often gets stuck with a movie that is a two-hour hype machine for the sequels and a picture that barely has a story because it is obsessed with setting things up for the future. There are countless examples of this problem like Terminator Genisys, Venom. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and of course, the movies mentioned in the article like Without Remorse, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2017's The Mummy and the Tomb Raider remake.
I have written articles and moaned on the podcast about this issue many times over the last few years. I actually believe it has gotten a tad better with 2015 to 2017 being the peak of this obsession of a movie putting mysteries and teasers in place for multiple sequels or spinoffs. The thing many studio executives constantly fail to grasp is the MCU was launched into a box-office juggernaut not due to its teasing and setting up for other movies, but rather making really fun adventure stories that made audience want to see more. The stingers and teases in those movies are little extras for the devoted fans that can easily be removed without harming the picture rather than the focus of the movies like the above offenders.
The key to making a movie series that fans keep demanding more is to make a really great movie that draws us into the world and characters. Based off that, I chose five movies that I think mastered this strategy of franchise building.
Star Wars: I've mentioned many times that this is my eternal all-time favourite movie, so obviously, I believe they nailed the crafting a great movie to create a loyal audience strategy. The fact that it is over 40 years later and they are still making movies and spin-off series proves this movie nailed what was needed to launch a series. It works because it is one of those series that not only builds upon the nostalgia of long-time fans but also continually creates new fans.
The original Star Wars does something that every movie with franchise goals should do, and that is hold-up perfectly as a stand-alone movie. The rebellion needs to destroy the Death Star and Luke aspires to become one with the Force, and both those things happen. Darth Vader does get away, but he is also soundly defeated. The Rebels haven't crumbled the evil Empire, but they sure gave them a sound defeat and destroyed their most powerful weapon. If there was never another Star Wars, people would still be satisfied with the picture and felt like they got a full story.
George Lucas was successful at creating a fully living world. The movie mentioned things like the bounty on Han, an Emperor who dissolved the senate, Luke's father being murdered by Darth Vader, mention of the Clone Wars and various other things that just felt like fleshing out the universe and adding some texture. But they also meant there were many things that the other movies could explore and would be major payoffs for people like me that watched the movie countless times and had it memorized.
None of those things were essential for understanding the story that was being told but were rewarding for loyal fans when explored in future movies. This is the big different between proper world-building and stories that feel half-finished like Terminator Genisys because we need more movies to answer all the questions posed.
Toy Story: Pixar's first animated feature was an ambitious project and I'm sure they weren't confident that they would be able to make more. This means that the movie is probably the most standalone of all the pictures on this list. The major issue was Woody coming to terms with Buzz Lightyear becoming the new hot toy and what his relationship would now be with his owner, Andy. All of this is resolved before the end credits arrive.
Pixar created a fascinating world where toys are living things and it has many interesting rules to guide it. Even when the movie ended, it was so affective on giving full personalities to each character that it felt like they all were living on past the movie. This is an example of masterful storytelling where we can see the characters as more than just moving parts for the plot and we knew they have a life outside of the movie and story. Once the movie was over, it was clear that there were many more stories to tell and we cared enough about the characters to want to check up on them. A franchise works when you are so attached that you need to know what has happened to these characters.
The proof that Pixar created a magnificent first movie stuffed with fascinating and nuanced characters is that they've been able to make three sequels, which all arguable stand up as animated classics.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones was inspired by the weekly theatrical serials from the 1940s and the pulp adventure novels of the same time. The idea behind them is to have a rugged, charismatic hero that bounces along to various globe-sweeping adventures. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas introduced Indiana Jones fully formed and as if we are just being thrown into the middle of his latest journey. The movie treated him like an established hero, but we learned about him through how he interacted with other characters, various references made to past adventures and how he reacted to adversity or challenges.
There was no need for an origin story. We didn't need to know how many adventures he has been on or what caused him to be an archeological explorer. We saw his mission to try to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis and his rivalry with long-time foe Dr. Rene Balloq, and we could fill in the backstory with our own imagination.
Sure, he got the girl, because the hero always got the girl, but we knew that wasn't going to stop him from going on more adventures. All the issues were resolved but as a young kid, I knew he'd have many more and there were more villains to conquer and there was more about Indiana that we could learn.
The fact this felt like one episode of many constant challenges and expeditions made us yearn for more in the future. At the same time, we got fully-formed satisfying story where we never needed another movie either, but rather just hoped for more.
Many modern takes on adventure stories show us the origin story and set-up some evil organization that the hero will battle in future installments. Raiders of the Lost Ark went a different route not wasting time on backstory or having some several movie evil group to defeat, but still properly introduced us to the hero and got us salivating for more.
John Wick: This is another movie that feels stand-alone probably because it was not made with high expectations for an actual sequel. The story itself is a standard revenge tale as some thugs messed with the wrong person's dog, but it stands out with fresh action sequences that weren't common in big North American pictures, a beloved lead showing off his unique charisma in Keanu Reeves, and a very unique underground world for assassins.
The things like the Continental hotel, the currency used by assassins and the different services they could use were a fun icing on the action cake in the original, but it also meant there was this unique world brimming with potential to explore in follow-up movies. Plus, we all knew that once he was pulled back in that it would be hard for him to get back out, so there was more adventures on his way. Plus, it was so great seeing Reeves in a fun and solid action movie again that we would be more than thrilled for new chapters.
The actual story in the original is completely resolved and if this movie flopped with no chance of a sequels, we would be very happy with what we got. The exciting hidden world of assassins that Wick existed meant that there were countless different stories and new things to explore if a sequel was able to happen. The intriguing world building with various possibilities made it no surprise that both sequels were great follow-ups to a modern action classic.
Alien: The franchise only has two great movies, and they are also the first two as all the follow-ups and spin-offs or prequels have been disappointments. But the first two movies were so amazing that I still can't avoid being suckered into being excited whenever a sequel gets announced with hopes that this time they'll capture the magic of the first two.
The first one is a claustrophobic sci-fi survival horror picture that ends with a satisfying conclusion with Ellen Ripley defeating the bloodthirsty xenomorph and now safely drifting around in space with hopes of being rescued. Like every other movie on the list, it would have been a perfect movie if it just ended there. There was no need for more movies, but it created an interesting world where we still wanted to know more. That is the key, the story was not reliant on more movies for us to understand this one, but we sure would love to have more.
There was still some curiosity over Ripley being found as she was drifting off in space. Obviously there had to be more of these xenomorphs, so we feared they may be traumatizing another colony or group of workers. The corporation that hired Ripley and the crew knew about the creatures, because that was the actual hidden purpose behind the whole mission. Any movie fan knew the greedy executives would try again or try to silence Ripley. We had a standalone thriller that still had many directions that could be explored further in future movies and deep down we knew that Ripley wasn't completely safe yet.
The great thing about the sequel is that it explored this world by being a different genre. The original is horror and the follow-up is an action movie with war vibes. Both movies continue to expand on the mythology and lets us know more about the sinister intentions of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. In both cases, we get a complete story and everything else is just interesting seasoning. It was seasoning that tasted good enough that we wanted more.
Unfortunately, the rest of the series went into a disappointing direction and we didn't really get the most satisfying of answers. But the first was a great template of how to set-up an intriguing science fiction franchise.
There you go, five movies that showed how to properly launch a franchise. The key is to make a great first movie that has intriguing worlds and interesting characters. In order for people to want to return, a filmmaker must focus on crafting a great movie rather setting things up for more. Hopefully, studio executives binge these movies to figure out how do it right again.
What are other movies that you think did a masterful job of launching a franchise?