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May the Rights Be With You: Which Studios Own Which Franchise Characters?

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood November 1, 2012 at 1:44PM

In the wake of Disney's major purchase of LucasFilm for $4.05 billion, EW asks the pertinent question: Which studios own which major franchise characters? Disney's Robert Iger made clear during a conference call after the announcement that he'd rather pay through the nose for an established brand than risk creating anything new. He's making the smart bet that longtime Spielberg producer Kathleen Kennedy, president of LucasFilm, will be able to take consultant Lucas's blueprint for new "Star Wars" episodes and reinvent the series with fresh writers and directors. ("The Empire Strikes Back," directed by Irvin Kershner, is widely considered the best of the saga.) 
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Yoda

In the wake of Disney's major purchase of LucasFilm for $4.05 billion, EW asks the pertinent question: Which studios own which major franchise characters? Disney's Robert Iger made clear during a conference call after the announcement that he'd rather pay through the nose for an established brand than risk creating anything new. He's making the smart bet that longtime Spielberg producer Kathleen Kennedy, president of LucasFilm, will be able to take consultant Lucas's blueprint for new "Star Wars" episodes and reinvent the series with fresh writers and directors. ("The Empire Strikes Back," directed by Irvin Kershner, is widely considered the best of the saga.) 

Audiences today have an appetite for immersing in exotic worlds like Tatooine and Pandora. Characters are pulling them into theaters , not movie stars. That said, every franchise was once dreamed up by a writer--as an original.

JJ Abrams
J.J. Abrams

Below, a breakdown of studio marquee brands. The real question is which franchises have the most life left in them--and the best creative character wranglers? We rank studios in terms of brand name strength.

1. Disney, which has become a fiend for mega-mergers, now owns all "Star Wars" characters, every Pixar creation, the Muppets, Winnie the Pooh and many Marvel characters (like Iron Man and the Avengers), with the exception of Spider-Man and Ghost Rider (see Sony), and the X-Men and Fantastic Four (see Fox). Disney is in a strong position, as it also has powerful creative players in place such as LucasFilm's Kennedy and Marvel's Kevin Feige, to supervise the ongoing execution of the films.

2. Warner Bros. has a handle on DC Comics characters (think cash-cow Batman, and Super Man) and all Looney Tunes characters. But Warners has had mixed results with DC, which has never found its Feige equivalent, and animation is not its strong suit (see "Space Jam"). The gift that kept on giving, "Harry Potter," is no more. Nolan is done with "Batman." Someone else will have to reinvent him. David Goyer and Chris Nolan's "Superman: Man of Steel" is under way with director Zack Snyder.

Henry Cavill as Superman in Zack Snyder's 'Man of Steel'
Henry Cavill as Superman in Zack Snyder's 'Man of Steel'

3. MGM rules the character shires of "The Hobbit," James Bond and RoboCop, but shares the spoils with its partners Eon and Sony (Bond and "RoboCop") and New Line/Warners ("The Hobbit"). While "Skyfall" could be one of the biggest Bond films ever, it remains to be seen how avid the global appetite is for a return to Middle Earth--in three parts.

4. Paramount lost its Marvel deal, is struggling with Hasbro's postponed "G.I. Joe," and there's a question about how many more "Transformers" pixels audiences can stand. Luckily, J.J. Abrams is masterminding still vital "Star Trek" as well as "Mission Impossible." With DreamWorks Animation gone, Paramount really needs these franchises to deliver. Disney's LucasFilm and DreamWorks' Steven Spielberg could revisit the "Indiana Jones" franchise, which seems dormant for now.

5. 20th Century Fox rules over the "Planet of the Apes," which came back strong, the less profitable "Aliens"/"Prometheus" franchise, Marvel's X-Men and Fantastic Four and James Cameron's "Avatar." With Tom Rothman gone, Fox has brought back to the "X-Men" Bryan Singer, who many think desecrated "Superman," although truth is Warners was angrier at his out-of-control spending than the respectable grosses. We'll see if he's on his best behavior at Fox. And Cameron always did work closely with now solo studio chairman Jim Gianopulos.

Jeremy Renner Bourne Legacy

6. Sony has the popular Spider-Man, which they expensively remounted to respectable returns, with a sequel shaping up quickly. (Jamie Foxx is reportedly in early talks to play villain Electro.) The studio also has the less popular Ghost Rider; "Men in Black 3" was a costly sequel, and "Ghostbusters" may also prove too expensive to profitably relaunch.

7. Universal has rights to all Universal Monsters (this includes Wolf Man and the Mummy), plus "The Fast & Furious" and Jason Bourne. Tony Gilroy delivered a solid Jeremy Renner "Bourne," but the studio needs to lure back Matt Damon. They had a good run with "The Mummy" but "The Wolf Man" was a bust.

This article is related to: News, Entertainment Weekly, Walt Disney, Lucasfilm


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.