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Editorial: Building a franchise

People in the motion-picture mainstream no longer speak of only making a movie or a television show. Those simpler days are gone, probably forever. In today's frighteningly competitive world, where a US$50-million budget merely buys you the middle ground, a feature...
May 1, 1997

People in the motion-picture mainstream no longer speak of only making a movie or a television show. Those simpler days are gone, probably forever. In today’s frighteningly competitive world, where a US$50-million budget merely buys you the middle ground, a feature film or a TV program is often but one part of the picture. Today, people talk of building franchises.

As the words imply, franchise building is a far more complicated process than filmmaking alone. In addition to the obvious, but no less difficult task of creating a show that people will want to see, it also involves a delicate juggling of disparate partnerships, shrewd strategic marketing and the clever staging of events and promotions that may get played out over several years leading up to a release or air date. The job is complex, equally demanding of creative and business performance, and if a book were being written about it today, New York-based New Line Cinema’s handling of the property Lost in Space would provide an excellent chapter.

The Lost In Space franchise is derived from a television show of the same name that premiered in September 1965 on CBS Television. The show had a three-year run with 83 episodes, and later became a camp classic when it hit the U.S. syndication market in the 1970s. The story of the Robinson family, wandering through the planetary system in search of home, and the enduring characterizations, led by June Lockhart as the long-suffering Mrs. Robinson, Jonathan Harris as the scheming Dr. Smith and a bubble-headed robot, all strike an immediate chord among those of us who spent any time curled up in front a black and white television set in the ’60s.

Tapping into that nostalgia there are Lost in Space Web sites, fan clubs around the world, conventions and a healthy collectibles market, in which an original 1966 Lost in Space lunch box fetches about US$1,000 is but one of the many threads that tie the franchise together. The new Lost in Space feature, currently shooting at Shepperton Studios just outside of London, England, with a revitalized script, a US$70-million budget, a star-filled cast and plans to use some 650 computer-generated effects, should have a contemporary appeal of its own.

In addition, New Line intends to extend the show into television in 1998 with an animated series, motion-picture sequels are being considered, and an extensive licensing and merchandising program begins later this year months ahead of the film’s April 1998 release date when classic merchandise based on the original series hits retail shelves.

But while series spin-offs and ancillary market sales have become part and parcel of any studio’s franchise-building strategy, there’s pressure now to do even more. And New Line showed how.

The studio recently organized a tour of Shepperton Studios for press, and domestic and international partners. With many of the sets in place and with several weeks of production complete, the trip served as an opportunity both to learn more about the property and for various partners including manufacturers, licensees, such as toy maker Trendmasters, retailers and promotional agencies to meet one another.

‘It was an opportunity for all our partners to get a good feel for the content,’ says Chris Russo, executive vice president of franchise programming and marketing for New Line Television. ‘But it was also a chance for our partners to meet each other, and to help get them thinking of working across channels. We want them motivated for years to come.’

Whether it was a result of the strong sense of family that writer and producer Akiva Goldsman has built into the new Lost in Space script, or the outgrowth of a smooth-running production, there was a palpably cooperative spirit at the gathering of about 400 cast, crew and guests at Shepperton.

It could also be that recognition of the need, and the responsibility of, franchise building has now made its way right through to the production floor.

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