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

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by Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna
November 1, 2012 1:44 PM
4 Comments
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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.

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'

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.

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.

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4 Comments

  • Joel Bocko | November 6, 2012 1:05 AMReply

    And just to add to your own notation in the above - "That said, every franchise was once dreamed up by a writer--as an original." That's what amazes me most of all. Billion-dollar corporations fight over the bragging and territorial rights to these characters and boast about which franchise feathers they have in their caps, yet the people who actually create these prized possessions are almost never employees crafting franchises on order from above (perhaps some of the later comics creators were, I don't know). No wonder Iger doesn't want to "risk creating something new." It's never studio politics and business didn't create a single one of these "properties." They did invest in them once, however.

    Now, in a kind of aesthetic equivalent of the toxic derivatives market, studios are just reaping rewards from the risks of previous generations or outside sources (all the most recent characters and concepts - Harry Potter, Jason Bourne - come from literature rather than originally from cinema, unlike say the Star Wars universe or the Disney characters who, oddly enough, are not mentioned among Disney's properties! They may not be important in terms of new films, but they certainly are in terms of merchandising not to mention theme parks...).

  • Joel Bocko | November 6, 2012 12:53 AMReply

    And just think...once upon a time (or "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" if you prefer) people actually invented these characters and franchises. Instead of just buying, rebooting, and recycling them. I wonder at what point audiences will hunger for something new.

    Also...what happened to #4??

  • korben | November 3, 2012 5:26 PMReply

    Factual error detected: Space Jam rules

  • BrianZ | November 1, 2012 2:25 PMReply

    Disney owns so much it's freaky. A mild correction, that's opinion I suppose, Fast and Furious wasn't a good run. It still booming and is now more popular than ever, with increasing international dollars and a surprise level of critical praise for its last installment.

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