Streaming providers haven’t cracked the feature franchise code just yet.
News broke last week that Amazon was reportedly considering a “Game of Thrones” type series based on The Lord of the Rings. That’s exactly what Amazon Studios has been looking for as it seeks bigger series with more potential for international success as opposed to low-scale prestige relationship dramas.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s dense, mythology-packed fantasy novel trilogy has, of course, already been adapted on a number of occasions, most recently with three films directed by Peter Jackson at the outset of the 2000s. Amazon apparently sees value in telling the stories again, though, presumably anticipating expanding the narrative to include elements that weren’t included in the 12 cinematic hours. It’s not hard to see The Fellowship of the Ring alone being stretched out to two 10-hour seasons.
The news comes just a few days after I was thinking about the upcoming release schedules from both Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which intends to release 80 original films in 2018. As I was looking at the calendars a glaring omission became evident.
Streaming Doesn’t Have a Cinematic Franchise
While Hollywood, in general, seems intent on making everything a franchise, streaming hasn’t cracked that code yet. There’s no native IP that has spawned sequels and spinoffs, at least not when it comes to feature-length films.
Instead, both Amazon and Netflix have focused on the kinds of independent films that come with an air of prestige. Movies from new, up-and-coming filmmakers, original voices and filmmakers who have mostly defined their own path have been produced or acquired. Sometimes that comes after the projects have been rejected by other studios, sometimes after buzz-inducing festival premieres. Genre doesn’t seem to matter.
Licensed Franchises Disappearing or Inconsistent
It’s not just that there’s a lack of completely original franchise material, it’s that these subscription services are losing whatever access they might have had to the intellectual property of other studios. In fact if you look at the list of the Top 10 film franchises of all time you’ll see how inconsistent the approach to streaming licensing is.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe: Being pulled from Netflix by Disney next year when a licensing agreement expires.
- Harry Potter: Wholly unavailable on streaming services.
- James Bond: Pops up on either Netflix or Amazon Prime Video for a month at a time, then disappears, then reappears on the other one for a couple months. Repeat a couple times a year.
- The Lord of the Rings: Wholly unavailable on streaming services.
- Star Wars: Being pulled from Netflix by Disney next year when a licensing agreement expires.
- Spider-Man: Wholly unavailable on streaming services.
- The Fast and the Furious: Wholly unavailable on streaming services.
- Transformers: Wholly unavailable on streaming services.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: One movie, the first one, available on Netflix.
- Batman: Wholly unavailable on streaming services.
So those services can’t count on getting content from other studios, which is why they’re creating their own feature catalog.
Signs of Change Coming
There are indicators that this may be changing and there may be more attention paid to building a library of IP that keeps people subscribing year after year as they’re lured by a return to familiar characters and situations. Amazon was named along with Apple, making its own moves into original content production as one of the potential bidders for the Bond franchise. If it winds up being a hit Bright, coming to Netflix later this year from director David Ayer and starring Will Smith, may have the potential to spawn sequels.
Eventually, if other industry trends are any indicator, streaming services will have to at least shift some of their development/acquisition mindset to one that’s evaluating franchise potential. That may mean passing or delaying some of the prestige series currently being favored, but as they lose access to other popular characters and IP and new licensed material fails to materialize, it’s part of what the audience will be looking for.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.