Fantastic Beasts and How to Franchise Them

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I’m talking from both the important perspectives here — the filmmakers and the audience — and from outside of the financial considerations. There was a time when the law of diminishing returns was the expectancy for a franchise; it was something reserved for the crowd of reliable diehards who continued to show up for films six, seven or even eight; when, if you weren’t a horror movie franchise, your life expectancy was pitched at round about the trilogy mark, if you wanted to have any kind of respectability.

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Franchising has become the mainstream, undoubtedly fuelled by competition with the increasing  popularity of television franchises. The exception to the rules the four I just mentioned live by is arguably Potter – it turned seven books into eight films but, unusually, it had a clear end. It was a franchise that, if financially successful, had a genuine narrative and creative excuse to keep going…but for a finite period. There was always more story to tell, but only until the books had ended.
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The story had ended. Any attempt to milk the Potter franchise beyond its natural, book-based lifespan would have been met with a sour reaction from its audience.
But the difference with Beasts was that this new story came from JK Rowling. This was to be her first screenplay, adapted from a brief, non-narrative, faux-textbook written for charity – another queasy notion for some. Authors don’t always have the best track record transferring to screenwriting, because it’s such a different discipline; the introspective and abstract nature of prose is not always a medium easily adapted to the perfunctory and visual nature of a script.

This and The Cursed Child stage play could well have been seen as a franchise extension too far; an unplanned stride forward whereas the other extensions — the theme parks in Florida and Japan, the Studio Tours in Leavesden and Hollywood — looked fondly back. Warner Bros. were going to snap it up either way, Harry Potter and now the wider The Wizarding World marking a phenomenal money-spinning property for them, but would it be well received beyond the accountants?
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That’s the key – that cynical cash-grab translates into the language of the audience remarkably clearly nowadays, thanks to the internet and the way the media likes to gear its reporting. There has to be more to it than profit – there has to be creative drive and a fresh product worth paying the admission.

Sony would remake Ghostbusters anyway, but for Feig to be interested in being part of it, he had to find something new to do with it. The director and writer had an idea they were invested in and excited about and saw a way to do something new; that was fundamentally relevant to it going into production and led to, I think, the funniest comedy, and my favourite movie, of 2016. The internet discourse — or, more a damaging monologue from a very harmful minority — on Ghostbusters perhaps unfairly killed any chances at franchise resurrection before they had even begun.

But arguably it was Sony that have a large share of blame for that. They risked overextending themselves too early by announcing Feig’s Ghostbusters and then greedily attempting to franchise it before it had even been shot. The unrelated movies to follow, including an animation, a Channing Tatum vehicle and a futuristic TV spin-off, were all to be produced under the Ghost Corps production banner but without embracing any kind of continuity an audience would expect from a shared universe or even attempting to claim they had a larger story to tell to make it worthwhile. It was a transparent franchising announcement.

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That wasn’t a product data sheet. That wasn’t a blatant blueprint for a business plan. My love for this world and my faith in Rowling’s ability as a storyteller never really presented me with the possibility that this could ever be a cynical cash-grab. Working in bookselling, I’d heard enough ignorant people remarking on how “she doesn’t need any more money, so why bother” with copies of The Cursed Child’s script this year already, and many a commentator and critic joined that chorus with Fantastic Beasts’ extended announcement.
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And this is what the audience wanted – very few fans of this narrative world would be despondent at the fact that it was about to be extended for several years with the same team who brought the same devotion and craft to the Harry Potter movies. The franchises mentioned above may not have a clear beginning designed towards an endgame, but they exemplify the new franchise model of the “extended universe” – one that the Wizarding World has now tried on for size. The proof was, of course, going to come in the realisation of the product and whether Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was worth the risk of bringing the Wizarding World movie total up to an overall thirteen films.
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I like that quote because I like that the sort of person whose knee-jerk reaction is to write things off as cynical can actually see the real point when shown the final product.
The proof is that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a superb movie. It’s easily one of the most intelligently plotted blockbusters of recent years, involving its audience with double bluffs and very carefully seeded red herrings amid brilliantly realised new characters. It is trademark, vintage JK Rowling.

The core of Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie provide four wonderfully distinct personalities that are served, without fail, by the inspired script. They don’t act in devotion to the plot, the plot acts around their decision and their narrative needs. It had to – there was too much riding on the script and the story, the legacies of Potter, Rowling and The Wizarding World, for it to be average.
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Again, it had to be right. The fine attention to detail and the hard graft put in to creating a world rich enough that you believe in it, just as was seen on the British side of the Wizarding World through the Harry Potter films, is remarkable. Plus, that world’s visuals and ideas are as much an integral part of its plot as they are a cinematic treat; the film works so undeniably well because the script, at heart, is about something bigger than a fictional world. It’s about a need for change that is chillingly convincing; it’s about a commentary on oppression and bigotry, apparent on both sides of the conversation, that works so beautifully because it is a recognisable part of an ingeniously plausible, yet wonderfully fantastical, world.
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The main thing I noticed as I watched it was how, with no school children or underage wizards in the main cast, the tone and structure of the story is necessarily different. Magic can be used without restraint; apparating as a form of cinematic shorthand means pace can be tightened; there is no need for classrooms and lessons as exposition, because we know this world already, we’re familiar with how magic works, what certain spells look and sound like. Freed from that particular setup, freed from having to teach the audience directly about this world, Fantastic Beasts can be a different kind of Wizarding World film; it can embrace that same imagination, verve for storytelling and wonderful characters but do something different with all of it, in a new place, a new time, with new rules.
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The problem with extended universes is that they might overlook that fact – the franchises mentioned at the beginning beside Potter skirt dangerously with repetitive formula and, in doing so, risk saturation and burnout. They risk creativity ceasing to be a motivating factor and a return to the days of Halloween Resurrection and Jason X, where profitability means every last penny is squeezed from a format as audiences, budgets and ingenuity forever dwindle, moving into the home video market, direct to cable, buried in wikipedia entries until some smart suit decides a reboot can fix everyone’s problems.
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But others are fuelled by the stories that can be told. Sony have been burnt with their plan for the Ghostbusters franchise and, through their own attempts at aggressive extension, have prematurely cut themselves off at the knees; Marvel continue apace with their formula, as do Transformers and Fast and Furious but how far more of the same will extend is hard to judge at the moment.
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