Corporate Mergers and the Battle for Fandom

Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

Back in 1999, the Cluetrain Manifesto appeared across the nascent web as a predictive gospel of what this new technology meant for commerce. Still revered among software entrepreneurs, the ebook outlined the paradigm shift of business in the digital era from a transactional model of one-off payments, to a continuous relationship, pre-empting the subscriptions and software-as-a-service (Saas) craze by over two decades. With the weekly news of media corporate mergers, the manifesto’s predictions again seem prescient. This is because what these companies are competing for is continued attention, and no assets fill this space better than the superhero franchises and accompanying fandom that have characterised the cinematic landscape over the past decades.

Fandom has become truly valued in media assets. True, a loyal base was always appreciated in the notoriously volatile industry seeking as much certainty as possible in an uncertain atmosphere, but the value proposition has been expedited in recent years. Fans are the people that will buy the merchandise, market your film on social media, pay for assets on freemium model games and make the increasingly rare trip to the theatres so they can be part of the success. Superhero movies in the past decade can be attributed to this, being tailor made for the present framework. Compare this to the 70s era of cinema: the Godfather, Jaws and One Flew over the Cuckoos were smashes at the box office, yet the movie brand is harder extend to games, tie in brand partnerships and sell costumes. To this end, the number of superhero movies saturating the higher echelons of the film market has been kicked into overdrive over the past 30 decades. Of the top 50 highest grossing or rated films in the 1990s, 15 were associated with a superhero film or franchise. In the 2000s that jumped to 39 and in the 2010s thus far, this has grown to an astonishing 48 (only American Sniper and Inception were not an animation, superhero film, remake or series). These assets are the closest thing a studio can get to a sure hit these days, and whilst many of media’s business models are declining (pay TV, television advertising), the rights to these films remain astonishingly valuable.

There are several reasons for this. Much in the same way the 90s CD boom facilitated investment in more experimental acts and their videos (allowing the rise of Radiohead, Bjork and Massive Attack to become household names despite the less radio friendly versions of their music), film experienced a similar scenario. Piracy and declining cinematic audiences (in terms of volume) have forced studios' hand into bidding up the price of sure-fire hits (Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and LucasFilm).

While people may point to Solo: A Star Wars Story’s underwhelming box office performance, in pure financial terms, this will be of little relevance to Disney. The actual film’s performance is of less consequence than the entire brand performance across merchandising and brand tie-ins. Expect this trend to continue while traditional media remains uncertain of its future.

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