Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors whose books have been published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I edit for New York University Press.

I have followed the career of Derek Johnson since he was an entering Master’s Student. We were foolish enough to have rejected Derek when he applied to be part of one of the first classes accepted into the MIT Comparative Media Studies program — it is not a mistake I would make again, because I now see Johnson as one of the most impressive cultural scholars of his generation. I admire his commitment to test theoretical frameworks against carefully documented case studies and his refusal to take an either-or position in our ongoing debates about structure and agency. He is someone who pays attention to points of negotiation or, his term, “collaboration,” where different participants in the processes of cultural production meet each other with differing stakes and differing degrees of power and control.

His strengths as a theorist and researcher are aptly demonstrated in his new book, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. The term, “franchises,” has been used loosely in media studies for years, but no one has systematically developed a framework for understanding its historic emergence, its discursive implications, its relationship to other industrial practices, and its consequences for what media content is produced and how it is marketed and consumed. Johnson’s work here is multidisciplinary — including a focus on the management of media systems, archival research and interviews with industry insiders, textual analysis, and audience research, all in the service of understanding the logics shaping contemporary media production. The book makes a vital intervention into ongoing discussions around transmedia storytelling and places a new emphasis upon the role of production design and world-building in the contemporary entertainment industries. I have already incorporated this book in my own teaching and writing, especially his work on “world-sharing” within the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek universes. His writing is clear and accessible enough to satisfy many undergraduate students and sophisticated and provocative enough to generate heated discussions in graduate seminars, a hard balance to achieve.

The following interview focuses  on some of  the book’s core concerns, since there is so much there which will be of interest to the various communities that follow this blog. But, you need to know that Johnson is now producing scholarship at an astonishing speed on a broad range of contemporary media practices — from My Little Pony to Lego culture — and topics — including an important new collection on media authorship and another book in the works that deals with the processes and structures of media management. His recent work has especially engaged with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, as they relate to the development of children’s entertainment properties.

As you note, the concept of media franchises involves “a migration to the media industries of market logics from other business sectors.” What can you tell us about how the concept of media franchises emerged and what do you see as the implications of using the same concept to discuss the production of “McDonald’s, Mr. Goodwrench and Chicken Delight” and of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?

There’s at least two levels at which I think it’s important for us to draw this connection between the production of entertainment and these kind of business formats often used in the retail sector.  At the most basic, economic level, a franchise is a business arrangement where one party extends to another party the right to use some kind of idea or intellectual property in a new market.  In the mid 20th-century, McDonald’s and other franchisors increasingly looked to sign a bunch of independent franchisees across the country (and later the world) to extend the corporate footprint with little risk and investment (since the financial burden for operating these new locations fell on the franchisee, who actually paid the franchisor a fee for this right).  This is a very similar arrangement to what we see with media licensing—film rightsholders, for example, extending production responsibilities for video games or comic book tie-ins to third parties who absorb the production costs and risks.

Of course, media licensing is a practice with a long history predating the post-WWII franchise boom (see Avi Santo’s excellent work for this), so I’m not claiming that this kind of arrangement was fully inspired by McDonald’s and the like.  But I think it’s an important connection to draw because there’s a large literature in organizational communication, business, and other non-media fields that have reflected on the social dynamics of franchising structures.  Retail franchisors and franchisees have not always worked in unison; instead, franchisors are always working to assert their authority over independent outlets they cannot fully control, and franchisees seek to assert their local agency in a larger corporate culture (in a way a bit more complex than George Ritzer’s notion of the “McDonaldization” allows). It’s exactly the kind of question of power and negotiated struggle that I think speaks to cultural studies of the media.

What I do think is perhaps more “new” is the way this franchise boom in the latter half of the 20th century helped to shape the way in which the production of media entertainment would be increasingly imagined.  Media licensing, and even formatting (in the sense Albert Moran researches, where ideas for TV programs are exchanged between different local markets) were not new to the entertainment media of the 1950s and beyond, but came to be understood through this same “franchise” imaginary.  As Moran tells us, Romper Room was a 1950s children’s television series that was originated in one local television market, and then spawned new productions in others—with the creators having looked to fast food franchising as an alternative model to network distribution.  It is by the late 1980s and early 1990s, of course, that the language of franchising enters common usage for making sense of entertainment media—where we start to understand “franchise” as a commonsense descriptor for things like Star Trek, Batman, and others that cross multiple sites of branded production and consumption.

I think it’s particularly crucial to understand this connection because the franchising metaphor also shapes our critical orientations to these entertainment brands.

Calling something a “franchise” is not a neutral declaration: it prompts us to think about the media in the same terms that we think about McDonald’s.  There is a recognition of the industrial basis for that culture and its hyper-commercial, systemic mode of multiplication and maintenance over time.  Often that comes with an implied critique as well, where acknowledging something as a “franchise” product suggests that its existence is based on market calculation more than creative expression.

When I first offered franchising as a site of analysis at a conference many years back, one colleague advised me to come up with a different term because of the very economically determined, delegitimating connotations it had.  The link between McDonald’s and media in franchising, therefore, is one that makes cultural production meaningful, and it does so in ways that are not always flattering and make it a source of tension and struggle for those involved or invested in that production.  My interest was not to take the economic determination implied by franchising for granted, but to think about how those implicated in and by that term work to negotiate those meanings.

 

You argue that franchises are not “self-propagating” phenomenon. So, where does agency lie in our discussion of franchises?

In the people who do the work of that propagation.  I consider franchises not as produced by corporations who own the rights to media properties, but also all the other stakeholders who seek to get something out of the work of expanding production and making more of that cultural product.  This could be the producers hired by major media conglomerates to take the reins of a particular franchise—author figures like Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) or JJ Abrams (the recent Star Trek films) or the long line of different comic book authors and editors hired by Marvel or DC to be steward of their ongoing superhero narratives.

Despite whatever authorship and genius we might recognize in these folks, they are still “for hire” workers with only a very bounded and limited (often contractually temporary) claim to authority in the franchise.  The site of agency could also lie in the less visible below-the-line labor of production designers, musicians, and technicians who are asked to recognize the vast histories and networks of collaboration surrounding a franchise in the course of their work.  And it could also extend to the licensees who are contracted to produce ancillary materials meant to work in some relationship to other products, but produced from a position outside more privileged sites of creativity and subject to the stringent approvals of rightsholders and other authorities.  I also want to locate agency within the consumer as well, as fans and other audiences do a lot of work to help these franchises move across markets and persist over time.

 

The idea that a popular narrative is a complex mix of commercial and cultural motives has been one of the most long-standing themes in film studies (going back to the auteur theory), so why has it been so hard for some people to accept the idea that “franchise properties” might also be culturally meaningful? In what sense are the properties you study “creative”?

 

In that there’s a lot at stake in the ability of people working in these contexts to be able to lay claim to the idea of creativity.  On the one level, I definitely acknowledge and am fascinated by the capacity for franchising to support complex storylines, design histories, and capacities for expression.  But on the other, I see “creativity” not as an essential truth but as a status and subjective identity that media producers and workers would claim about themselves (“I am creative; I do creative work”).  Particularly because the hyper-commercial realm of media franchising is so critically delegitimized, I’m particularly interested in how those involved with franchising might position themselves in opposition to that franchising and assert their uniqueness, authority, or vision.

Think JJ Abrams and not only his choice to replace the old Star Trek continuity with the new one, but also the distance he puts up between himself and the original series (he prefers Star Wars), and his tendency to retroactively disavow ancillary video games (he just claimed to have “dropped out” of producing the 2013 Star Trek video game despite his co-producers’ participation in the development stages, distancing himself from perceptions that it was nothing but a cheap cash grab)

One of my other favorite examples is how Dirk Benedict, the original Starbuck from the 1970s Battlestar Galactica, attacked the new series by emphasizing its “franchise” status and casting the mass production of franchising as part of a gendered war on masculinity.  The commercialism of franchising raises the stakes for media workers to position themselves as creative and as different from all the others that use the same idea or premise or property toward this ongoing commercial end.  It helps to position one’s self as such if you actually do innovative things, and I think we do see that a lot in media franchising given this imperative for differentiation.

But sometimes that differentiation comes as much in the identity claims of specific contributors as it does the product itself (and as the case of Benedict and what Suzanne Scott calls the “fanboy auteur” suggest, these franchise identity claims are often explicitly gendered).  As much as franchise products may or may not be indicative of creativity, I see franchising more broadly as a site of struggle over creativity, what it means, and who can claim it in industrial contexts.

You describe in the book interviews you have done with media industry insiders who want to deflect or disavow the concept of franchising as informing their creative decisions. Why do you think the term produced such discomfort? What alternative models do they draw on to describe their work?

 

Similar to the above, I think it’s because when you’re talking about creative decisions, the idea of franchising (and all the economically-determined calculation it implies in popular and industry use) calls the potential creativity of those decisions into question.  So what I found were often appeals to reassert creativity—and often singular authorship—in opposition to the idea of franchising.

While this wasn’t one of my own interviews, Lost is a great example of this, where the conclusion of the series generated all kinds of industry and critical speculation about franchise potential, and the producers repeatedly came out to publically state that they would have none of it and that theirs was “definitive” version of Lost.

To me that’s what fascinating about franchising—it is both a logic for multiplying media production, but also a meaningful discourse for making sense of and assigning value to that production.  It forces producers to confront the fact that they don’t have creative monopoly in the for-hire work they do for corporations.  It also forces them to position themselves and their work in relation to that of others who come before, after, and in parallel.  That can create contradiction and discomfort around the idea of creativity, which leads to that disavowal.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.