How to create a billion-dollar movie franchise.

The numbers behind the industry.
May 31 2005 6:18 AM

The Midas Formula

How to create a billion-dollar movie franchise.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click on image to enlarge.

The huge success of yet another Star Wars re-tread shows that George Lucas has not lost his touch. Aside from his six Star Wars episodes, Lucas has shaped the new Hollywood through Industrial Light & Magic, the state-of-the-art illusion factory that he founded in 1975. By Lucas' reckoning, eight out of the 10 most profitable movies in history have been outsourced to ILM. He also created THX, his own brand of digital surround sound for both multiplexes and home theaters. Along with Steven Spielberg, Lucas deserves much of the credit for turning the cinematic experience into a visual and sonic amusement park for youth, but he did not invent what has now become the big studios' Midas formula. That innovator was Walt Disney.

Disney put all the elements together back in 1937, when he made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The picture was labeled a folly by the moguls who ruled old Hollywood because it was aimed at only a small part of the American audience, children. As history shows, Snow White became the first film in history to gross $100 million, demonstrating, among other things, the propensity of children to see the same cartoon over and over again. The movie was also the first to have an official soundtrack, including such songs as "Some Day My Prince Will Come," that became a hit record. More important, Snow White had multiple licensable characters (the dwarves, the wicked witch) who took on long lives of their own, first as toys and later as theme-park exhibits. So, here was Hollywood's future: Its profits would come not from squeezing down the costs of producing films but from creating films with licensable properties that could generate profits in other media over long periods of time.

Advertisement

The advent of computer-based technology has simply provided new ways of mining this El Dorado. The franchises that have raked in over a billion dollars from all markets (including world DVD, television, and toy licensing)—The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Finding Nemo, Star Wars, Shrek, The Lion King, Toy Story, and Pirates of the Caribbean—share most, if not all, of the nine common elements of the Midas formula:

1) They are based on children's fare—stories, comic books, serials, cartoons, or, as in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme-park ride.

2) They feature a child or adolescent protagonist (at least in the establishing episode of the franchise).

3) They have a fairy-talelike plot in which a weak or ineffectual youth is transformed into a powerful and purposeful hero.

4) They contain only chaste, if not strictly platonic, relationships between the sexes, with no suggestive nudity, sexual foreplay, provocative language, or even hints of consummated passion. (This ensures the movie gets the PG-13 or better rating necessary for merchandising tie-ins and for placing ads on children's TV programming.)

5) They include characters for toy and game licensing.

6) They depict only stylized conflict—though it may be dazzling, large-scale, and noisy in ways that are sufficiently nonrealistic and bloodless (again allowing for a rating no more restrictive than PG-13).

7) They end happily, with the hero prevailing over powerful villains and supernatural forces (and thus lend themselves to sequels).

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

What Hillary Clinton’s Iowa Remarks Reveal About Her 2016 Fears

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

John Oliver Pleads for Scotland to Stay With the U.K.

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Jurisprudence

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police

The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 15 2014 4:38 PM What Is Straight Ice Cream?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.