What happens when one week has so much news and the next has very little? Well, you roll one topic over. So the “most important story” this week is last week’s runner-up.
The Most Important Story of the Week – Game of Thrones and Star Wars Franchise Lessons
Last week began and ended with dueling Star Wars and Game of Thrones news….
– First, HBO cancelled it’s “Age of Heroes” prequel series for Game of Thrones.
– Second, HBO announced another prequel series for Game of Thrones, based on the book Fire & Blood about the Targaryens.
– Third, David Benioff & DB Weiss—the Game of Thrones showrunners—had left the Star Wars prequel they planned to make.
Since HBO Max sucked up the oxygen out of the entertainment biz room last week, I didn’t really have time to examine what the big franchise moves meant for entertainment. Which is a shame; monetarily, these announcements would have been the most important story in most weeks.
Here’s why: both of these franchises are worth billions. As I’ve written extensively on here and here. And it’s not too bold to say that how HBO manages Game of Thrones and how Disney manages Star Wars will play a key role in either launching successful streaming services or failing (and losing billions).
Today, let’s look beyond how fans will feel about these announcements, to what we can learn from a business strategy perspective. Meanwhile, Marvel will keep coming up, because it’s the most well-run franchise in the game right now.
Business Issue 1: Pilots Are Great Investments
You’ve probably heard the old story that Seinfeld tested very poorly as a pilot. Development executives bring this up all the time when a pilot inevitably gets bad reviews. “Well, Seinfeld tested poorly too!” It ignores obvious counters that most pilots that test poorly ended up being poor TV series. Conversely, quality pilots are highly correlated with successful series. Take Game of Thrones. Sure, the initial pilot tested poorly, but the reshot pilot is one of the greatest in TV. The Breaking Bad pilot was similarly fantastic.
This is why, I praised HBO for making a pilot for their “Age of Heroes” GoT prequel. You’re about to invest maybe a hundred million dollars in a TV series. Make a pilot and see if it’s good. Except then HBO went straight-to-series on their House of the Dragon prequel series. Sigh. Essentially, HBO Max made a good decision (make a pilot, it tested poorly, don’t go forward) and then made a bad decision (go straight to series).
When it comes down to it, overall going straight-to-series is just another example of how prices are increasing for distributors without actually increasing the top line. It increases the upfront costs (full season commitments to talent) while decreasing the hit rate (no pilot data to kill duds early). HBO feels like it has no choice, though; since Netflix and Amazon are pushing everything straight-to-series, to stay competitive, everyone has to make everything straight-to-series.
Creative Issue 2: The Source of Game of Thrones Greatness
Still, there may be business logic for why HBO chose one pilot over the other here to go straight-to-series. Looking at what made Game of Thrones great, a lot of things contributed from the showrunners crafting a great story to Peter Dinklage just owning it. But if I had to pick the single biggest driver, it would be George R.R. Martin. Yes, Benioff & Weiss successfully managed a monster TV show, but at its core they wrote in an extremely fleshed out world of George R.R. Martin’s creation.
As a Game of Thrones fanatic, I’ve read everything GRRM has written on the series. Including a history book and the Targaryens Fire & Blood book (the one that is the basis for the straight-to-series order). If you asked me, what has a more fleshed out world, the Targaryen reign or the “Age of Heroes”, it’s the former by a landslide. (The Dunk & Egg books seem like a no brainer for a limited series as well.)
If that’s where you think the source of GoT’s success comes from, that makes the decision for which prequel series to order much easier. Go with the “Targaryens” every time. It has literally hundreds of pages of source material that will require much less from its showrunners than the “Age of Heroes”, which has about a dozen pages of material to draw from.
Even in Disney’s own house, as the latest departure shows, they can’t learn any of the lessons about leveraging your source material. Star Wars decided to toss out all it’s source material after the Lucasfilm acquisition. Specifically, the dozens of books in its “Legends” universe. (I’ve, uh, read all these too.) Instead, Kathleen Kennedy and team burned it all to the ground, and as a result had to come up with new stories from scratch. (Sometimes these stories had a vague connection to the Legends universe, but emphasis on vague.) Which makes the hit rate much lower than what Marvel is doing. It also requires A-List directors–or at least Kathleen Kennedy wants to work with A-List talent–which makes business point four below much harder.
Alternatively, Kevin Feige leaned into Marvel’s history. This source material is part of the reason Marvel has been so successful. It’s not like Kevin Feige is writing all these Marvel stories from scratch. He’s just adapting the best Marvel stories of all time, like Civil War or The Infinity Saga.
Business and Creative Issue 3: Avoid Bad Villains
Multiple friends—all Game of Thrones fans; all unsatisfied with the finale season—complained to me about the prequel series being about the rise of the White Walkers. The logic goes, “They were dispatched so quickly and easily, I don’t want to see them in another series.” Yes, this is an unrepresentative sample size, but it speaks to very real creative issues.
If that sentiment showed up in the testing—and I believe HBO tested the latest pilot with focus groups—then that alone could explain why the prequel didn’t move forward. Doubly so if combined with the lack of source material on the “Age of Heroes”.
There is a business lesson here too, one about coordination and intertwining storylines. If the ending of the White Walker story was more satisfying for viewers, then maybe my friends message saying, “Man, I can’t wait to see the beginning to that.” Instead, the abrupt/rushed downfall of the White Walkers in a dark episode of television fundamentally ended the ability to create another revenue stream for HBO/AT&T.
Star Wars faces this too. The last trilogy create a brand new bad guy (Snoke), then [spoiler alert] killed him off, and is currently debating if the big bad guy–Kylo Ren–will become a good guy. Notably, in Avengers Thanos stayed bad the whole time. And now Star Wars may bring back Emperor Palpatine. In other words, after one of the best bad guys of all time–Darth Vader–Star Wars doesn’t know what to do.
Business Issue 4: Franchise Management is Hard. Really Hard.
The challenge for a network like HBO or a studio like Disney is managing not just the creative for one series, but thinking how the movements/plots in one TV series impact the larger business. Or one film impact the larger brand perception.
My current working theory is that Warner-Media doesn’t have as ingrained “franchise management” as a skill as someone like Disney. Disney has TV series and movies for Star Wars, Marvel, Disney animation and Pixar. Every character worth their salt has teams dedicated to manage that brand, building value over time. They really are experts at it and integrating it everywhere.
Compare that to GoT. Game of Thrones acts like an HBO property first and foremost. So HBO gets first crack at all the TV shows, but then nothing else happens. (Part of this is due to the fact that George R.R. Martin still owns the rights, but obviously AT&T should try to buy those.) We see the same thing with Harry Potter going the other way: lots of movies, no TV shows. (And slipping viewership.) DC probably has the most things being made, but with little connection between the movies and TV shows, just volume. (And a comic strategy of rebooting the whole thing every five or so years.)
This is likely the key issue with Lucasfilm too, in that top tier talent doesn’t want to sacrifice their creative vision for the larger universe’s needs. Which begs the question, “Why doesn’t Kennedy bring in creatives who will fulfill her vision?” That would mean not flashy names–like Benioff & Weiss–but directors who get the job done.
Really, only one person has figured out how to reliably do this right now.
The Reality: Marvel/Kevin Feige is the Best at Franchise Management Right Now
If you take all the lessons from Game of Thrones and Star Wars above, Marvel does each one well. Pilots? Feige does test shoots for controversial films to make sure they’ll work. (He did with Ant-Man, for example.) Source material? Yep, he picks the best stories and adapts them well. Good bad guys? Yep, Feige finds fresh bad guys each film. (Though arguably kills them off too quickly.) Coordination? Um, yeah we just saw that with Avengers: Endgame. (He found a set of directors who shared his vision, by the way, in the Russo brothers and gave them four huge films.)
Finally, he keeps the quality high. That’s a unique skill he has. (Unique as in one of maybe 5 folks in Hollywood.) Which is a credit to him. Marvel was barely anything when this century started. But by giving Kevin Feige the reins, his successful stewardship has created tons of value. And now he’s taking over TV whereas HBO/HBOMax is trying to figure it out and Lucasfilm fumbles for the next creative vision.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story – Apple TV+ Launched