Mutant Freaks and Movie Geeks: How Franchises Harness the Power of Niche “Nerd” Communities

Film franchises are not all action figures and video games; there is a complex web of financial agreements underpinning the lucrative Hollywood industry. According to author Derek Johnson in his book Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries, film franchises have not always been the moneyhouses they are today. The practice claims humble beginnings in the retail industry, which adopted the franchising concept in the 1950s to accommodate the entrepreneurial drive fueled by the expanded credit market and America’s growing demand for retail stores in suburban areas. As film and television markets grew, so too did the opportunities for “multiplied production,” where one product gains a foothold in numerous different industries.

CBS was the first television company to dip its feet into the franchising business with their release of Romper Room in 1953. Though the network considered distributing the program after its early runs proved successful, “creators Bert and Nancy Claster looked to the booming fast food and service industries for alternative inspiration” (52). Rather than syndicate the program, the company decided to sell the rights to the show’s format to other stations, attracting a collection of local and international broadcasters. This experimentation with licensing as an alternative source of revenue and the newfound interest in cross-industrial collaboration signaled a new chapter for franchising and its relationship with Hollywood.

Hoping to capitalize on the success of Romper Room, Hasbro partnered with the series and used it as a tool to promote its toy lines. No stranger to franchising practices (the Strawberry Shortcake doll established the credibility and economic tenability of “recognizable” brands), the toy industry became increasingly invested in multiplied and collaborative productions. As synergistic practices gave way to licensing once more, toy companies and film organizations began to notice their shared interests and needs; toy companies needed recognizable products and films needed ancillary markets to extend their cultural reach. Born from this mutual need was a new business model that encouraged the exchange of creative ideas. The cross-pollination of ideas between film execs and toymakers resulted in one of the most successful film franchises of all time, Transformers.

What Hasbro and Dreamworks did was what Marvel would attempt to do in the following years: extract the popularity of the niche market and apply it to a wider audience. In discussing the marketability of X-Men during the 1990s and early 2000s, Johnson notes: “X-Men performed far better in the niche market, offering a partial explanation for the lack of interest in X-Men on behalf of Hollywood and the networks” (85). X-Men’ s success among “nerd communities,” in other words, worked against it by restricting its cultural accessibility.

New Hollywood eventually cracked this problem, churning out million dollar blockbusters and franchises based around once “restricted” subjects like mutants and superheros. But how? How did Hollywood manage to revive the dying comic book industry and crack open its niche market popularity?

HemsWhile the rapidly growing cynical interests of America likely contributed to the rise in such themes (i.e. mutants who use their unique powers to fight imposing government agencies and villains, humans who have found themselves in an apocalyptic world where real world problems have been replaced by ruthless zombies, etc.), there are other factors at play. Significantly, the use of celebrity star power to bolster the relevance and appeal of typically “niche” interests has helped propel the subjects into the mass market. Star-studded event films like The Avengers and Star Trek have widened the scope of these films’ target audience, turning what was once a “nerd film” into a worldwide phenomena by uniting viewers’ interest under Chris Hemsworth’s recognizability.

The use of special effects, too, has been instrumental in the niche-to-mass market evolution. With its explosive battle scenes and overproduced representations of new “worlds,” Hollywood has reeled in viewers that may not have otherwise been interested. Its “go big or go home” attitude has roped in thousands of non-nerds with promises of visual magnificence; actual interest in the content is no longer required.

Could this manipulation of the niche market be a temporary development, designed to tide the film community over until original screenplays start rolling? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. As technologies continue to develop and audiences begin to expect bigger and better SFX, the popularity of fantasy or sci-fi-driven franchises is bound to intensify. No one knows this better than Marvel, who has already added 9 more superhero films to their lineup, which stretches into early 2019. Add that to the 20 other superhero films being produced by other studios, and George R. Martin’s ballooning influence, and the future of niche-gone-mass-market franchises seems clear as day.

Featured “Lego Wolverine” image via Flickr, Rob Young. Avengers image via Flickr, Marvelous Roland.

Sources:

Johnson, Derek. Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. NYU Press, 2013. Print. Postmillennial Pop.

Wheeler, Andrew. “Your Supermovie Timeline [Infographic].” Comics Alliance. N.p., 28 Oct. 2014. Web.14 Feb. 2015. <http://comicsalliance.com/your-supermovie-timeline-updated-with-marvel-studios-phase-three-releases-infographic/&gt;.

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