Case Studies on Successful Media/Transmedia Franchising: Could *Dune* be Next?

Could Dune be The Next Big Franchise?

I am a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. I came to Arrakis in mid-life, when my sci-fi aficionado friend Deb introduced me to the series 20+ years ago when I was 40-ish. Perhaps because I started into the series as an adult, halfway through a career that included too many experiences of toxic leaders, I especially appreciated Herbert’s exploration of power and its impact (“Power is a magnet that draws the corruptible.”). As an amateur organizational ecologist, I also dug into his principles for developing a sustainable environment, and, as a futurist, his explorations of human elements in possible futures.

I’ve posted about his views on power, developed my own version of a chronological “reader’s guide” to the entire series, and even set up a “visual bibliography” fansite with some of the classic products that have been licensed to tell the story of Dune in other types of media — movies, games, audiobooks, toys, music, etc. This is all a part of my fascination with transmedia and the inner workings of successful storying franchises. This is something I’ve been tracking since the days of Harry Potter books and films and Lord of the Rings movie series, and more recently with The Hunger Games.

A recent discussion on Twitter initiated by Secrets of Dune asked whether people thought that Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming adaptations of Frank Herbert’s Dune could become the next Lord of the Rings or Star Wars franchise. I thought about this a while, and this was my response:

As I think back on earlier 2019, there seemed to be some significant fan momentum building. Especially those who’d been long-time followers of Dune were posting all kinds of information about the book series by Frank Herbert and various related novels by his son Brian Herbert and co-author Kevin J. Anderson. There were Dune-related podcasts, speculation on casting, filming news watches, and the like. Brian Herbert posted details about various new and renewed product licenses to coincide with the forthcoming movie. For a while, there was even #FremenFriday to cap off the week … but that fizzled, unfortunately, in about May, though many stalwart Dune fans continue to post periodically.

But the biggest gap seemed to be in official news about the movie development, casting, and filming. It mostly came out in eeks and leaks. And any kind of official fandom development seemed nil. So with Warner Bros. now asking whether Dune could be The Next Big Thing … well, not necessarily — even if it has a stellar adaption of a complex novel, a spectacular cast, exquisite filming and editing, and an already-contracts TV series featuring the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. All the other qualitative necessities of successful franchising can be in place, but what if the fans are not? Or not yet?

I’ve hoped for clear interest from the studio and production, more news, better connections. It’s not too late, but I’m concerned the groundwork for success is not in place.

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Recent Media/Transmedia Franchises

I’ve been a fan of concrete media and other kinds of storying media for many decades — action figures, anime, board games, books, comic books, graphic novels and manga, movies, music, pressbooks and press kits, puzzles, scripts, toys, trading cards. And over the past 20 years I’ve occasionally delved into what makes for successful franchises, especially in translating some form of story into films and other products. Here are some resources if you want to dive into this subject yourself.

Adaptations in the Franchise Era: 2001-16

Adaptations in the Franchise Era: 2001-16, by Kyle Meikle (2019; Bloomsbury Publishing). From the publisher’s description: “While adaptation has historically been understood as the transfer of stories from one medium to another-more often than not, from novel to film-the growing interconnectedness of media and media industries in the early twenty-first century raises new questions about the form and function of adaptation as both a product and a process. Where does adaptation fit within massive franchises that span pages, stages, screens, and theme parks?” This volume includes chapters on:

  1. Introduction: Franchised Adaptations
  2. Streaming Adaptations
  3. Fannish Adaptations
  4. Game Adaptations
  5. Live-Action Adaptations
  6. Conclusion: Dimensional Adaptations

I haven’t read this book yet, but plan to before the end of this year, as I’m working on a case study about The Hunger Games, and the many elements Suzanne Collins integrated on toxic systems of social and political power, the impacts of physical violence and psychological terror on people, resistance against abuse, and trauma recovery.

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How Media Influences Us – Books

[The following excerpt is from a January 2010 post on my “Top 12 Books and DVDs from 2009, Plus 3 from TV.”]

We live in an era immersed in media – TV, films, iTunes, books, e-books, games, apps, etc. And that doesn’t even begin to calculate the influences of social media connections. With the multi-availability of IRL purchasing, playing online, printing on demand, downloading, and flashdriving, it’s hard to imagine a media-free life anymore.

This past year I began thinking more deeply about how media influences us, and how media that originated in one format can be translated into another. For instance, The Lord of the Rings has been remolded from novels into films, action figures, board games, video games, live symphony performances of soundtrack with film, stage musical, radio programs, etc. The Harry Potter series has met a similar “fate.” The following five books reflect those holistic studies, and the sixth set of sets represent the stories I’d most like to see translated for the big screen.

Harry Potter is to younger generations what The Lord of the Rings was to Boomers. So, if for no other reason than that, it’s worth a read to understand why it went viral. Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon by Susan Gunelius tracks the development of JK Rowling’s series into a decade-long world-wide treasure hunt. And the quite fascinating Prejudice in Harry Potter’s World: A Social Critique of the Series, Using Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice by Karen A. Brown shares an in-depth analysis of the social hierarchy structures in the wizarding world and how they relate to global forms of basis against certain kinds of people.

The Lord of the Rings will likely see a resurgence in interest once Peter Jackson’s and Guillermo del Toro’s two-part film series on The Hobbit finds its way into theatres in the next two years. This past year I read The Lord of the Rings: The Official Stage Companion by Gary Russell about the stage musical adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpiece. And I’ve started in on Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, et al. This is a comprehensive look at the preliminary promotional work done to transform a film into a global marketing event. With the theatrical releases alone of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy bringing in about $1 billion worldwide, this kind of development is crucial to financial success.

Meanwhile, these days, soundtracks are a crucial layer in the film experience – not just for sales of music CDs, but for immersing an audience in a heightened emotional ambience. So, at the other end of the spectrum from the macro-marketing book, Projecting Tolkien’s Musical Worlds: A Study of Musical Affect in Howard Shore’s Soundtrack to Lord of the Rings by Matthew Young focuses on the specialized micro-aspect of how LOTR music moves the emotions.

The stories I’d most like to see made into a film octology are the four-part-each series of Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card. The initial cast of characters and storylines in the two series are interrelated, and this makes for an intriguing study in parallax, where you get two different viewpoints around the same shared event. (With thanks to my friend Kristen for introducing me to this amazing world of a speculative fiction future!)

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Marketing and Franchise Development: Harry Potter

[The following excerpt is from the Resource Materials (print sources) page on my Harry Potter Notes website.]

To get to potential aspects of how the Harry Potter developed into a worldwide mega-franchise, check out Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon by Susan Gunelius. Basically, by making the release of HP novels a 10-year world-wide mystery-solving endeavor, J.K. Rowling used mystery and imagination along with intellect and curiosity to capture the attention of millions of readers in over 60 languages – which is relatively equivalent to immense publication statistics for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

This book also talks about keeping the “brand” pure – like J.K. Rowling’s not allowing HP products ever in something like a McDonald’s Happy Meal – and the careful translation of the story and characters from the print medium to other media and products. It also contains a number of “mini-case studies” on other print and media franchises, some which soared and most which bombed. The ones which faltered or failed also are instructive for issues of brand dilution and lack of careful translation across media formats. Chapter topics include:

  • Introduction: The Making of a Global Literary Phenomenon
  1. The Book that Lived
  2. The Value of a Good Product: Setting the Stage for Marketing and Promotion
  3. The Buzz Begins
  4. Harry Potter as a Powerful Product and Brand: An Education in Marketing and Promotion
  5. Harry Potter’s Influence on Print Publishing
  6. Harry Potter’s Influence on Movies and Television
  7. Harry Potter’s Influence on Retail
  8. Harry Potter’s Influence on Merchandising
  9. Harry Potter’s Influence Online
  10. Harry Potter Becomes a Theme Park
  11. Harry Potter’s Global Business and Personal Impact
  12. Predecessors to Harry Potter’s Success: Who Else has Gotten it Right or Wrong?
  13. What is Next for Harry Potter and the World Affected by the Boy Who Lived?
  14. Conclusion: Recreating a Literary Phenomenon

I found this book a fascinating read, especially as on of my key interests is in how global franchises based on literary series either succeed or fail. For additional perspectives on Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon, check out the following links, most of which go to reviews:

Another book that covers some similar material on the unfolding franchise, but from the story of one person’s experience, is Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli, the webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron HP fansite. I haven’t read this volume yet, but purchased specifically suspecting it would complement the HP marketing history by Gunelius.

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Marketing and Franchise Development: The Lord of the Rings

[The following excerpt is from the Resource Materials (print sources) page on my Harry Potter Notes website.]

For a fascinating comparison of the Harry Potter marketing franchise to that of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, see the following two books.

The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007, ISBN 9780520247741). A wonderful narrative of how The Lord of the Rings film trilogy came into being, based on interviews with many of the principal cast and crew. Includes sections on the film, building the franchise, beyond the movie (licensing products; interactive Middle-earth), and the lasting power of the Rings. Sections include:

Part One: The Film. Chapters 1-Prudent Aggression, 2-Not Your Father’s Tolkien, 3-Handcrafting a Blockbuster.

Part Two: Building the Franchise. Chapters 4-Flying Billboards and FAQs, 5-Click to View Trailer, 6-Fans on the Margins, Pervy Hobbit Fanciers, and Partygoers.

Part Three: Beyond the Movie. Chapters 7-Licenses to Print Money, 8-Interactive Middle-earth.

Part Four: The Lasting Power of the Rings. Chapters 9-Fantasy Come True, 10-Right in Your Own Backyard.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King, and Thierry Jutel (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780719071980). A set of academic essays using The Lord of the Rings trilogy to illustrate how a film can now become a global phenomenon through careful planning, marketing, licensing, and promotion … in ways that intersect with fan (and potential fan) interests. This one-of-a-kind resource includes a timeline, filmography, references, index, and 7 sections totaling 28 essays on:

  • How to study the trilogy and its audiences.
  • Multiple DVD releases.
  • How technology changes have enhanced possibilities for producing LOTR.
  • Marketing strategies.
  • International reception of the films.
  • Cross-cultural and cross-generational audiences.
  • Economics of creating intellectual property and licensed products.
  • Filmmaking as a “creative industry,” digital actors.
  • Stars and celebrities.
  • Production and post-production.
  • Soundscapes.
  • Epic/operatic music.
  • Film technology.
  • Script adaptation.
  • Religious themes.
  • History and fantasy.
  • New Zealand and national identity.
  • Tourism in “Middle-earth.”
  • Production infrastructures and corporations.
  • Integration of game and film industries.
  • Credits.
  • Awards.
  • Critics and reviews.
  • Religion and Philosophy

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2 thoughts on “Case Studies on Successful Media/Transmedia Franchising: Could *Dune* be Next?

    • Thanks, Jan. I find “futuring” fascinating! It combines both intuitive and intentional processes. I do the best I can in reading the horizon of cultural trends to see what’s relevant and how it potentially alters the course of particular situations.

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