The Corporate I.P. Death Cycle
The decline of creative industries has given rise to what I call the “Corporate I.P. Death Cycle,” wherein corporations routinely resurrect their nostalgic franchise properties to return them to relevance and profitability. I.P., in this case, means “Intellectual Property” and composes the copyrighted works and rights to derivative works, as well as trademarks. Like real property, intellectual property is expected to generate a return in the form of rents or other products for sale. A movie or similar entertainment product is not viewed by the corporation that produced it as a work of art existing for its own sake but as an asset to be traded or used. Like a piece of real estate, such as an arable plot, the asset can’t always be used to generate income. Sometimes it must rest, be resown, or be repurposed to continue being valuable. Thus, like with land, the corporate model produces a cycle of use with intellectual property.
The corporate I.P. Death Cycle has five phases:
In the birth phase, something is created, though not intended to be a franchise, but a one-off work specifically. Like most corporate products, it is aimed to appeal to a specific part of the market.
In the second phase, the artistic work explodes in popularity and spills over its original expected bounds. One or more sequels are produced. The high quality of the original remains mostly intact in this phase, with most of the original creators still on board to repeat the magic of the first entry. Profits soar, and this is the peak of popularity and demand.
In the third phase, the corporation that owns the franchise looks to pull as much money out of its original investment as possible. Priorities shift toward a cost-to-profit model. Actors in movies are usually retained and may even increase their salaries, being the face of the product, but less obvious creators, such as writers, move on to other projects where they can earn a bit more with their record of success. Replacements are hired at a discount (thus increasing or maintaining margins). Spinn-offs and multi-media tie-ins enter production—things like comics, novels, cartoon series, and video games. Merchandising takes off as the corporation looks to convert the value of the I.P. along every vertex and produce the maximum number of economic products from the property. As the phase progresses and popularity falls off (often due to falling quality), budgets may be cut, further decreasing quality, but a core group of loyal fans will continue supporting the franchise for long after it ceases to be good.
In the fourth phase, the I.P. disappears from popular consciousness. No new movies or T.V. series are made. Toys leave the shelves. Tie-in novels and comics might still be made, keeping the franchise on life support since books are the cheapest media to make, but for all other purposes, the I.P. is dead. After some time has passed and the public’s memory of the bad entries from the milking phase softens, the company may consider trying to bring it back from the dead.
In the fifth phase, the I.P. is brought back with a reboot, sequel, remake, or requel (a reboot-sequel hybrid, like The Force Awakens). If the new version is a hit, the company will go directly back into phase three and proceed to milk the I.P. until it dies again.
There are a plethora of franchises that fit this paradigm at many scales. Star Trek is perhaps the best example. It started as a T.V. series in the 1960s but only lasted three seasons before being canceled (and the third season was considered weak due to budget cuts, indicating it was already in phase three). It was then dormant for a decade and a half, kept alive by a dedicated fan base, tie-ins (including an animated series from 1973), and syndicated reruns. It then received a motion picture treatment in 1979 following the mega success of Star Wars. This was an attempt at a revival with a sequel (or perhaps an early type of requel), and though the movie was not as commercially or critically successful as expected, it was enough to allow for the production of The Wrath of Khan, a hit that fully resurrected the franchise despite a budget that was less than a third of the first film.
Star Trek fans enjoyed a slew of films in the 1980s and 90s, followed by a sequel series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, with two spinoffs, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and several Next Generation movies in the 1990s. These later movies fit well into the milking phase, being made on reduced budgets and directed by franchise veterans like Jonathan Frakes, who truly cared about Star Trek but were not star producers. The death spiral of the franchise began in 2003 with the release of Star Trek: Nemesis, a shoddy short-cut film made by a director who cared nothing for the franchise and didn’t understand its deep lore (or the fans who cared about it). On TV, the prequel series Enterprise was a commercial failure and was canceled after four, rather than the customary seven, seasons.
After a long, successful milking, the franchise was dead and dormant again, with only a few tie-ins keeping the memory of Star Trek alive. It was then resurrected in 2009 with a reboot film directed by J.J. Abrams, who would also direct the first of the new Star Wars films in 2015. It was successful enough to spawn two milking sequels (at which time the movie franchise once again died) as well as two T.V. series of dubious quality. You can probably think of other I.P.s to fit this cycle. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Godzilla, Star Wars, Gundam (the cycle is not the sole possession of the West), God of War, Dungeons and Dragons, Spiderman, and Castlevania all fit the bill. Disney even resurrected Willow and The Dark Crystal with sequel series in recent years, a scraping of the barrel that should prove the flaccidity of the corporate model in these later years. Again to prove my point, the Willow sequel was deleted from the Disney+ platform so the company could write it off as a loss; even in death, the I.P. must convert to some sort of value.
The cycle goes on and will go on until either the corporate paradigm or the last generation to experience pop culture dies. The industry no longer has the talent to write wide-market stories, the mass media power to create new franchises has been diminished by the internet, and the culture is less able to accept franchises with wide appeal than in the 20th century due to its own balkanization.
Next time I’ll write about the corporate IP cycle, a predictable use of corporate-owned franchises like Star Trek. In the meantime, read my creativity manual or my newest fiction: