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Disney In Depth: Analyzing Disney Film Franchises
Brett Nachman   |  @   |  

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Disney epitomizes branding at its best, using characters and stories across all types of platforms, from digital apps and toys to theme park attractions and virtual experiences. The company’s slate of films in the coming years reflect enhancing established properties and creating new ones in the process. Which Disney films are on their way to seeing sequels, and how can they continue the strength of the brand, as opposed to crippling the franchise?

Peter Pan would say that “faith, trust and pixie dust” would do the trick. We all know, though, that timing, effort and imagination are equally as important.

Alice in Wonderland Image

Take Alice in Wonderland, for instance. Tim Burton‘s take on the Lewis Carroll story earned more than $1 billion worldwide during its 2010 run in theaters, catapulting other studios to invest in live-action fairy tales. Disney has pushed this brand in various outlets, from music and a theme park nighttime experience (the Mad T Party at Disney California Adventure Park) to merchandising galore. It would only make sense to see a sequel, right? Of course. After much speculation, Disney announced last year that Alice In Wonderland: Into the Looking Glass, as it is tentatively titled, will debut on May 27, 2016 – some six years after the original.

Long time? Yes. Will the film match the strength and box office numbers of the first film? Likely not. Alice in Wonderland experiencing that unexpected level of success was a product of perfect timing and audience interest in 3D, following the coattails of Avatar. Johnny Depp was at the top of his game, but in the years since, fan support has sadly declined due to playing characters audiences have not resonated with as much.

A popular Disney film is one that features favorable leads, exciting story lines, inventive new approaches in telling a tale, and one that hits the mark just right. For many individuals Alice in Wonderland was just that. Others would complain that Burton’s version butchers the classic book. The amount of disagreement among viewers, and perhaps the six-year gap between the two films, may not translate in a sequel that would ultimately continue the brand.

Consider National Treasure. I would doubt many industry insiders, nor general audiences, would have anticipated the quietly marketed 2004 Nicolas Cage flick to bring in big dollars at the box office, resulting in an even more popular 2007 sequel. The third film has remained in development for more than six years now. This analyst only wonders if National Treasure 3 will ever have its day in the theaters.

While I am one who sees value in taking the time to craft a good story – much in contrast to how some studios schedule and churn out sequels out of fear for loss of brand appeal – too many years can elapse. Then a studio runs the risk of lack of audience familiarity. Luckily for Disney, some brands continue to elicit interest after one decade elapses (look at how well Toy Story 3 and Monsters University performed to see that in play). But others, especially non-animated properties, are more vulnerable. National Treasure 3 is in that boat right now, and right beside it in a shaky pontoon exists the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was once slotted for a 2015 release, but it has since been pushed back to 2016 – at the earliest. Sure, a four-year gap existed between At World’s End and On Stranger Tides, and the fourth film experienced the highest financial earnings of the franchise from a worldwide perspective. But audience fatigue with the Depp character and its story has resulted in many considering it the weakest of the four films. On the contrary, I think On Stranger Tides benefited from it taking new turns and is perhaps my second-favorite of the movies. Alas, not all agree. Pirates was once the Disney film brand to replicate. Now that honor has been shifted to another brand: Marvel.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

Have the Marvel films reached their peak in popularity? After all, another movie will eventually topple the incredible earnings and fanboy appeal of Marvel’s The Avengers and subsequent features. For now, Disney can enjoy its strides in knowing how to market the Marvel movies. The framing and structure of the actual films exist in the hands of the filmmakers, with Disney’s role being to brand them in multiple venues and through many means (theme parks, stores, digital spaces, etc.). You can laud Disney’s marketing team for contributing to the high early earnings of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The promotional efforts emphasized the continuation of the Steve Rogers character in a modern setting with a very intimidating fear: anarchy. Plus, the film is plain awesome. This is one Disney film (under the Marvel Studios umbrella) that the company can push even further. The announcement of the third film’s release date – competing with Warner Brothers’ Batman vs. Superman project for the start of the 2016 summer season – testifies the studio’s confidence in the brand.

Expect Disney to push the relatively unknown Guardians of the Galaxy to be the next new franchise, as well as 2015’s Ant-Man to garner a new base of fans, akin to what Iron Man accomplished in 2008. Each new project is seen as an opportunity to be the “next big thing,” and justly so. The financial and time investment the studio places into each of these projects is immense, and it can reap the benefits if all gears function in rhythm.

But what Disney films possess the best chances at becoming mega brands in the company’s structure?

Wreck-It Ralph: The Bad Guys

There’s no need to re-state how a Frozen sequel is inevitable. It will happen – just maybe not in the next five years. Interestingly Wreck-It Ralph, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ previous film, may no longer experience a “game over” screen, as composer Henry Jackman indicated to Collider that a story is being written for a sequel. Will that pan out? Possibly. Ralph has all of the elements of a brand: engaging characters; fascinating worlds; and endless possibilities to capture these working parts into other avenues.

Similarly, despite its poor box office revenue thus far, Muppets Most Wanted just lends itself to inspiring another film. Muppets may not be a huge brand akin to any of Marvel’s properties, but the familiarity and lovability of its characters just argue for a new movie. Many people love the Muppets. Unfortunately, some people do not love them enough to purchase tickets to catch them in the theaters when they feel watching little skits on YouTube is enough.

Then there is our good friend from the computer realm. TRON: Legacy, a modest hit in the Disney film world, was seen as reinvigorating the brand. To my dismay the television series, though visually amazing and engaging, was met by dismal ratings. Luckily Disney sees promise in this brand, as Bruce Boxleitner noted in a Collider article, based on how the next film could start filming within the year. This is all speculation for now, but let us hope that a new Tron film races into theaters before mainstream audiences completely forget about Legacy.

Netflix Review: TRON Legacy

Which Disney brands do you most support? What Disney film could most likely succeed in franchise form? Share your thoughts.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.

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