Is This the End of Existing IP Domination?
IP is dead. Long live IP.
A series of underwhelming showings at the box office would indicate that the argument for Intellectual Property (IP) no longer has the standing power it once did. Streamers continue to pour out easily-accessible content while big studios traditionally send major motion pictures to the cinema needing an all-but sure thing to get butts into the seats. And, Netflix alone released over 70 new films on its streaming service in 2022 versus six released by Warner Bros. and 19 by Universal Studios.
But it’s not as easy or reliable as it once was (it never really was).
Lackluster performances for perceived highly-anticipated summer films like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and Fast X may show that audiences aren’t interested in just another sequel. That’s not a slight on the filmmaking itself, but a look at the fatigue that sets in for the fifth, seventh or tenth sequel, respectively.
But it’s hard to argue that IP doesn’t matter or that people won’t pay money to see these movies in theaters. Two films that have made over $500 million domestically this year so far have been Barbie (based on a decades-old doll) and The Super Mario Bros.Movie (based on a decades-old video game).
So, is this the end of IP domination in favor of unique original stories? Or are we looking at an evolution in IP? Let's take a closer look.
IP will always matter
What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual property can refer to any copyrighted material but let’s define IP as it relates to the film industry. It’s a piece of property that is not an original work for filmmakers to adapt. Spider-Man is based on the comic book IP. A film like M3GAN is original and doesn’t have any existing IP. A sequel of M3GAN will be based on existing IP though. Even the bible can be considered IP in the film industry.
The Importance of IP
You hear it all the time: showbusiness is a business. To run a business you need money, therefore, investment matters.
For decades, the United States was king of the box office, and still does for the most part where box office revenue is still the highest in the world. However, since (arguably) 2000, the shift has changed to overseas numbers so when a company wants to invest a few $100 million in a movie, they’re going to opt for the Transformers or Fast movie that will do decent business in the U.S. and dominate overseas (Transformers: Rise of the Beasts made two-thirds of its box office overseas; Fast X made almost 80% of its $700+ million box office overseas, according to Box Office Mojo).
The recognition of IP plays a lot into investors’ willingness to put their money into a project and expect a return partly due to its recognizability. Most of the films, from Marvel movies to sequels, don’t need to introduce themselves to the audience so the marketing efforts can focus on anticipation and release dates.
Just look at the highest-grossing movies of all time and you’ll struggle to find more than a handful in the top 100 that aren’t based on IP.
IP fatigue settles in when the audience doesn’t want to pay money for something they’ve already seen, and it can hurt box office numbers.
The recent Fast and the Furious sequel had a tremendous $700+ million worldwide box office haul of which 80% came from non-United States markets — pretty good for a summer tentpole. But the Fate of the Furious (the 8th in the series) in 2017 made $1.23 billion worldwide with nearly the same 80/20 split between the United States and the world. That particular sequel made $50 million more in the U.S. and $450 million more overseas than Fast X did.
(I didn’t use Fast 9 numbers because it was impacted by COVID-19)
Comic book movies are facing similar downward trends as the latest phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe chugs along. Part of the struggle might be the abundance of Marvel content and how it intersects.
For the upcoming The Marvels the film focuses on three main characters. However, it’s not just character introductions in a movie. To understand Captain Marvel, it probably wouldn’t hurt to see her title film Captain Marvel. For Kamala Khan you should probably watch the TV series Ms. Marvel. And then the third character, Monica Rambeau, made her debut on the TV series WandaVision – might want to watch that too.
These are barriers to box office business because casual Marvel filmgoers lack the sense of urgency that was felt during the first phase when it was easier to stay up to date with the characters in their respective films.
While studios can market more easily based on familiarity, audiences wonder what makes a particular film any different than previous iterations or what they need to see prior to going to the theater to understand the new piece of content. With so much high-quality content streaming, it’s hard for a filmgoer to justify spending the time and money on a movie that might feel stale.
Yet there are exceptions. In recent years, Everything, Everywhere All At Once, M3GAN, Parasite, Nope and Free Guy are all original films that had a decent run in theaters and even garnered some Academy Awards.
How IP Maintains Dominance
IP dominance is not a new thing. 100 years ago, two of the top-grossing movies were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Ten Commandments, both silent, black and white, and based on intellectual property.
In 1939, the Batman comic was created and remains one of the most popular IPs today. That same year The Wizard of Oz, adapted from the 1900 novel, premiered in theaters and Wicked, the origin story of the Wicked Witch of the West is a hit Broadway musical and the movie adaptation is scheduled to hit theaters next year.
Both of those IPs were initially created 85 years ago, are still popular and still have their place in pop culture.
IP will not go away.
But is IP domination dead?
No... but it is evolving because the expectations of the audience are changing. Big action sequences and stellar special effects aren’t enough anymore, nor have they been for quite some time.
So, how is it evolving?
Movies as Events
What makes Barbie and Oppenheimer different than the other summer movies is the anticipation and the idea that “you have to see it.”
Not too many people watch the Superbowl the day after because it’s something you have to see live — it’s an event. Barbie and Oppenheimer are two movies you have to see as soon as you can, and that means in the theater. They are essentially events, as well.
The dominant IP of the last 20 years is dying (not quite dead). The original Iron Man and Captain America movies you had to see because it felt like something special and most people knew it was leading up to a massive conclusion. Avengers: Endgame was novel and exciting, it was something you had to see — and it currently ranks as the second highest-grossing movie of all time.
Original Takes on Existing IP
IP is just as important now as it ever was and it will continue to dominate movie theaters and streamers just as before. What matters is how that IP is created. Wednesday was a hit for Netflix, whereas The Addams Family may not have been as popular if it was a rehash of the old TV series. Cobra Kai is another example of IP that succeeded on streamers going from The Karate Kid film series to an episodic series. Neither one was a “dominant” IP, but it struck the right chord at the right time.
Intellectual Property will continue to dominate. The successful ones will evolve with the times.