From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’: How Big IP Is Driving the Streaming Wars

Joe Otterson
·18 min read

For years, rumors persisted that Lucasfilm was developing movies based on “Star Wars” characters Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But by 2018, after disappointing box office returns for other stand-alone “Star Wars” films like “Solo,” both projects stalled. Today, limited series built around both characters are in the works at Disney Plus, with the actors who played them in the prequel films on board to star.

What a difference a few years makes. Where gilded properties like “Star Wars” and the many characters of the Marvel universe were once stratified as the stuff of movies only, the explosion of content platforms has erased the lanes that used to so specifically define something as “film” or “TV.”

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As legacy media companies like Disney, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS and Comcast have launched their own direct-to- consumer divisions, the demand for preexisting storylines that offer recognizable titles, characters, stars and settings has turned into a frenzy.

As such, entertainment giants have reorganized their businesses around their recognizable intellectual properties — known in industry parlance as IP — regardless of how the content is ultimately delivered to the consumer. In doing so, they are building out vast interconnected “universes” with the potential to yield greater numbers of projects across all of their production divisions.

These companies have already begun realigning their executive ranks to foster greater collaboration across film, TV, digital and live event businesses. Marvel Studios set the recent precedent with Kevin Feige, who originally led the company’s film endeavors, adding TV to his purview with the dissolution of Marvel Television. Others have followed suit, as witnessed by the increased cooperation at WarnerMedia among Walter Hamada on the film side and TV leaders Casey Bloys and Channing Dungey. The hiring of former Hulu chief Jason Kilar as WarnerMedia CEO — with Ann Sarnoff as chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, responsible for all of the company’s content-focused teams — signaled a dramatic shift to a more forward-facing era at the venerable studio.

“For the foreseeable future, companies are restructuring their businesses around synergies and determining what their big brand capabilities are,” says Allan Haldeman, a UTA partner and co-head of TV lit. “The biggest version of that is Disney, where you have theme parks, a streaming service, merchandise and more.”

One factor that has contributed significantly to the blurring lines is the collapse of the theatrical window caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Countless films, including big-budget fare like Marvel’s “Black Widow” and Disney’s “Mulan,” which were meant to run in theaters, are instead being released on streaming services due to exhibition being largely shut down for all of 2020. WarnerMedia went so far as to announce that all of its 2021 slate would be released simultaneously on HBO Max and in cinemas. Now, with COVID numbers declining and theaters reopening, the question becomes: Will audiences rush back to cinemas or stick with the home-viewing experience?

Brian Robbins, president of Nickelodeon, says that it is ultimately up to companies to put their films or shows wherever the audience wants them to be.

“What used to define a movie was where it was exhibited,” Robbins says. “It was a theatrical experience in the theater. Obviously, films are now delivered on multiple platforms on the same screens as all kinds of content. As a company, we still believe in the theatrical experience. But we also know that the consumer wants to consume the content in the way they want to consume it where they want to consume it.”

Alex Kurtzman is one of many Hollywood writers, directors and producers who routinely work across film and television. At the same time the multi-hyphenate has overseen multiple “Star Trek” movies for Paramount Pictures, he has also been responsible for steering the launch of four “Star Trek”-branded shows since 2017 for Paramount Plus (formerly known as CBS All Access), with more on the way. So when he says the distinct tracks for film and TV projects have disappeared, he knows what he’s talking about.

“I think vertical alignment has made it so that it’s impossible not to accept the reality that the line between movies and television is gone,” says Kurtzman. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a feature that is separate from television. But if they aren’t connected in some way, then you’re basically running two universes parallel as opposed to interconnected, and I think that those messages could potentially cancel each other out.”

In addition to mining the planets of “Star Trek,” Paramount parent ViacomCBS recently announced that the company is building out the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” with the formation of a studio headed by series’ creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The two will oversee development and production of projects that may be conceived as TV series, feature films or all manner of digital formats.

Franchise fever was on display in February when ViacomCBS raised the curtain on its programming plans for the rebranded Paramount Plus streaming service. Film titles ranging from “The Italian Job” to “The Parallax View” to “Love Story” were revealed to be on tap for series remakes. TV shows such as “Frasier,” “Dora the Explorer” and “The Real World” are being revived.

Wholly new ideas are becoming rare commodities for all the focus on existing IP. But creative talent, too, is seen as a franchise-able force. Showrunner Taylor Sheridan scored a sleeper hit with Kevin Costner drama “Yellowstone” for the Paramount Network cabler. Now there’s talk of building the “Sheridan-verse” within ViacomCBS: The writer-producer has a “Yellowstone” prequel and the original drama “Mayor of Kingstown” starring Jeremy Renner lined up, with more on the way.

David Stapf, president of CBS Studios (which recently dropped “Television” from its name), knows his way around franchise management, leading the production arm that is home to “NCIS,” “CSI” and “Star Trek.” But he adds a note of caution about leaning too heavily into existing intellectual property. If a streaming service becomes simply a “house of IP,” he says, then it won’t serve subscribers.

“I think [IP] is an important component, but not the only component,” Stapf says, when it comes to considering programming strategy. “With most IP, there’s a built-in fan base that already exists so you’re going to hopefully be bringing in new passionate subscribers. Having that known, big IP is incredibly helpful for new platforms. And, obviously, from a branding standpoint, it’s easier to market and publicize. But that said, I think every platform needs a combination of IP and originals.”

In the aftermath of the 2019 merger of Viacom and CBS, the company set up committees of executives designed to find ways to exploit existing IP across multiple business sectors. A number of them are said to have engaged in a prolonged debate over whether the animated series “Star Trek: Prodigy,” originally ordered by Nickelodeon, would premiere first on the cabler’s linear channels or on the Nickelodeon-branded portion of Paramount Plus. It is now set to debut on the streamer, then air later on cable. “Prodigy” was viewed by many as critical to the fate of the “Trek” franchise, as it’s the first bid to engage families — a path that can lead to ancillary products such as toys and theme park rides.

Kurtzman says those who oversee the various “Star Trek” properties have begun strategizing to an even greater degree within ViacomCBS in the past year, with the launch of a monthly showrunners’ meeting. It allows everyone to see what parts of the “Star Trek” universe are being utilized on other shows.

“We make sure that those showrunners are coordinating so that they’re not stepping on each other’s toes,” he says.

The gold standard in managing these new universes is, without question, Disney’s master plan for its Marvel and “Star Wars” riches. With “The Mandalorian” hitting big on Disney Plus, there are seven other live-action “Star Wars” shows in the pipeline, most of which tie directly into the previous films. And after Marvel ruled the box office for more than a decade with its Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney has begun rolling out a slate of limited series built around MCU characters like Scarlet Witch and Vision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki. There are roughly a dozen Marvel shows set up at Disney Plus in total, counting the ones previously mentioned, with more in development. And that’s not even considering the shows that Disney is making that build upon the studio’s celebrated slate of animated films like “Moana,” “Big Hero 6” and “Cars.”

Julie Plec, showrunner and co-architect of The CW’s “Vampire Diaries” franchise, says that one of the keys to successful world-building is having solid characters at the heart of the stories.

“I think that if you look at the Marvel universe, specifically, what they have done so well is the character work and the emotional work within the spectacle of their world,” she says. “Each of the characters that they showcase across the ‘Avengers’ and every other spinoff series that they’re doing are all driven by a strong emotional perspective. So you really are watching character drama that’s dressed up by a lot of awesome sequences.”

WarnerMedia is employing a Disney-like strategy with its DC properties at HBO Max. The company is prepping a series set in the Gotham police department that will tie directly into the new Batman film starring Robert Pattinson, with the movie set to debut in March 2022. At the same time, James Gunn has shot his pseudo-sequel of “Suicide Squad” while also readying a spinoff series called “Peacemaker” starring John Cena. Gunn created the series and will direct multiple episodes. Meanwhile, DC series guru Greg Berlanti has a brace of shows set up at HBO Max, including one built around the Green Lantern Corps. Ezra Miller, who plays the Flash in the DC Extended Universe, even made a surprise cameo in Berlanti’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event at The CW.

Then there is “Game of Thrones.” The wildly popular HBO series, which aired its last episode two years ago, has spawned six spinoffs in early development at HBO and HBO Max, with the prequel series “House of the Dragon” set to bow in 2022. George R.R. Martin, whose “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series served as the basis for “Game of Thrones, recently signed a five-year overall deal that will see him develop projects for both the premium cabler and its streaming counterpart.

None of these expansive plans would have been possible without Netflix opening the content floodgates, joined by Amazon and now Apple. But media conglomerates rooted in Hollywood with studio-sized vaults have a built-in advantage even as they scramble to keep pace with the marketplace changes.

Netflix and Amazon haven’t been standing pat. They’re writing massive checks for brand-name material. Netflix just forked out an astounding $450 million-plus for the rights to two sequels, and a possible third, to Rian Johnson’s 2019 whodunit feature “Knives Out.” The dark comedy cost $45 million to make and
grossed $311 million globally.

Amazon, in 2017, committed an estimated $250 million to acquire the global TV rights to “Lord of the Rings,” a payout that doesn’t include the cost of actually producing a series. For context, the first “Lord of the Rings” film, set in the world crafted by author J.R.R. Tolkien and released in 2001, cost approximately $93 million to produce. Amazon recently announced that former Legendary TV chief Nick Pepper will serve as head of studio creative content, working with creators and producers to identify ideas and IP, and package them with talent for development.

Showrunners say streaming executives all have one thing on their minds — finding a hit with the legs to yield spinoffs. “Multiple people running these streamers have said to me, ‘We need our “Mandalorian,” our big splash, the thing that is undeniably going to bring eyeballs to us,’” says Plec.

Netflix also went all-in on projects that include a big-budget series based on “The Witcher,” starring Henry Cavill, and reportedly spent $10 million per installment on the show’s eight-episode first season. A prequel series is already in the works. In 2017, Netflix acquired the rights to Mark Millar’s Millarworld comics for both film and TV. The first series produced under that deal, “Jupiter’s Legacy,” will debut in May. And the streamer is in early development on a spinoff series of its successful “To All the Boys” rom-com films.

Having the auspices of “Star Wars” or Marvel attached to a show is a huge asset, but enlisting high-profile talent, like Gunn or Kurtzman, behind the camera can also be essential. There are no sequels, prequels, lunch boxes or T-shirts to sell if the underlying project doesn’t take flight. Worse, a poorly executed remake or reboot can cast a long shadow and alienate the property’s core audience. Paramount Pictures learned that the hard way with underwhelming “Star Trek” movies and series in the early 2000s.

For sure, creating a complex interconnected universe of shows and films is no small feat, particularly considering seasons of some of these shows now have budgets that rival those of blockbuster film releases.

“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” says Tom Wellington, co-head of television for WME. “Try to coordinate with some room of people working hard to make the best show they know how to make, while simultaneously three other guys are making three movies in some other part of the country. There’s got to be some genius across it all that has it all in their head. It’s pretty hard to replicate.”

A big positive of the mania for IP-based projects, note industry insiders, is the fact that up-and-coming creators are getting a shot at putting their stamp on established worlds. Bisha K. Ali, a staffer on Hulu’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” after being selected for BAFTA’s 2018 Elevate program, is writing the “Ms. Marvel” series, while Emmy winner Jessica Gao (“Rick and Morty”) is penning “She-Hulk,” both at Disney Plus. Joe Barton, who created the English-Japanese series “Giri/Haji,” which airs on Netflix and BBC One, took over as writer and showrunner on the “Gotham PD series” at HBO Max following Terrence Winter’s exit from the show.

Hrishi Desai, a partner and co-head of the lit department at ICM, points to the advocacy of Barton’s reps to land him the “Gotham PD” job based on the strength of his work on “Giri/ Haji,” which showed his deft touch with drama and suspense even if it didn’t involve any capes or crusaders.

Desai notes that some creatives take on IP-based properties with the hope of finding an easier path to getting a yes on their original concepts in the future.

“If you do well by them, the sky’s the limit,” Desai says. “If someone may not be at a certain level, but [companies] believe in that person, and that person does well by them, I think they’re opening a door for these companies to say, ‘Hey, do more of this. These are some other opportunities that we can throw your way.’ It’s an opportunity that’s going to be hard to say no to.”

UTA’s Haldeman says that now more than ever, talent representatives have an obligation to “highlight original voices and ideas” when trying to break through the deluge of IP-based projects.

“You may have to launch with a big hook to bring consumers under the tent, but then you’re going to want to keep them engaged,” he says. “You will need to have a variety of programming that speaks to an audience you’re pursuing.

“There have been many examples of IP strategy over the past year,” Haldeman continues. “Despite this increase, part of our job is to pinpoint series that highlight original voices and ideas, and to determine ways to get those projects onto platforms.”

Plec, who has more than two decades in the industry, echoes that sentiment. She sees the current laser focus on IP-based material as a cycle that will ebb and flow over time. At a moment of tremendous change for the industry and consumer behavior, “IP tends to rule the day,” she says. In time, she predicts there will be a “spiritual backlash” from the creative community and from viewers.

“And then a lot of original content is given its time in the sun,” Plec says from experience. “So we just ride the wave as storytellers.”

In the Changing Entertainment Landscape, These Executives are Hollywood’s Power Players

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard. The entertainment industry has been through unprecedented rounds of consolidation, cutbacks and reorganization over the past few years — and it’s surely not done yet. As studio-network conglomerates move aggressively into the direct-to-consumer business, traditional bedrock operations such as marketing, distribution, affiliate sales, physical production and of course, content creation have been reengineered to operate for a very different era.

In recent months, media giants have undergone some of the most ambitious overhauls in their history as they move toward a future that is becoming ever more digital. The largest players — including Disney, Comcast’s NBCUniversal and AT&T’s WarnerMedia — have taken radical steps to realign businesses that were once heavily siloed. Where decision-making and executive hierarchies were once defined network by network, now the norm is centralized groups to steer development and production for a myriad of potential outlets. Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal have cleaved TV operations along the lines of distribution and content creation. Film studios have been told to stop thinking purely in terms of theatrical releases and to start pitching ideas to their corporate cousins at Peacock, Disney Plus or HBO Max. That has created new power centers and new power players such as Kareem Daniel, who was elevated last year to lead the revenue-generating distribution side of Disney’s vast TV and streaming operations.

The movement at the top has been followed by what has seemed like a musical-chairs environment for midrange executives from departments that may have been eliminated or collapsed as part of larger restructurings. At the same time, a wave of mergers and acquisitions, such as AT&T’s purchase of TimeWarner and Disney’s absorption of Fox, have emboldened these companies to make sweeping changes in record time while introducing a new band of decision-makers to the C-suites around Hollywood. Roughly a year ago, Jason Kilar was a brainy former Hulu executive. Now he’s in charge of WarnerMedia and tasked with guiding it through the streaming era.

The wave of newness to studio org charts has been a challenge for deal-makers and the creative community, particularly at a time of pandemic lockdown and social upheaval. It’s not always clear who to hit up when you’re trying to get that passion project greenlit, or which chit to call in when you need to get your client attached to the next hit franchise.

Meanwhile, the disruptive forces of Netflix, Amazon and Apple have seen their media-centric executive ranks grow apace as they expand the scope of their streaming activities. Netflix’s hiring binge over the past few years has had a big impact on the senior and midlevel ranks of the major networks, so much so that it has sparked poaching litigation with the former 21st Century Fox and ViacomCBS.

To illustrate the depth of the personnel changes across Hollywood, here’s a look at the top leadership ranks of the industry’s major corporate forces.

Note: These org charts focus on content and distribution-related departments and do not include all CEO direct reports.

Cook: zz/John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/AP; Cue: Roy Zipstein/Apple; Erlicht: Peter Yang; Amburg: Maarten de Boer/Apple; Roberts: Comcast; Michael Buckner/Variety; Conde: Heidi Gutman/NBCUniversal; Hammer, Lazarus: NBCUniversal (2); Igbokwe: Chris Haston/NBC; Langley: Universal Pictures; Bezos, Jassy, Salke: Amazon (3); Hopkins: Sony Pictures; Vinciquerra, Rothman: Sony Pictures (2); Ahuja: Disney; Le Goy: Tori McCaleb/Sony Pictures; Kilar: Julie Cahill/WarnerMedia; Forssell: Evan Agostini/Invision for fullscreen/AP; Goncalves: Stewart Cook/Variety; Sarnoff: Robert Voets/Warner Bros.; Zeiler: WarnerMedia; Zucker: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP; Iger: Gavin Bond/MasterClass; Chapek, Bergman, D’Amaro, Daniel, Rice: Disney (5); Campbell: Bob D’Amico/ABC; Horn: Photograph by Robert Maxwell; Bakish: Asa Mathat; Annecchino, McCarthy, Robbins, Ryan: ViacomCBS (4); Cheeks: Paul Drinkwater/CBS; Gianopulos: Gilbert Flores/Variety; Mills: John Salangsang/Variety; Nevins: John Russo/Showtime; Hastings, Bajaria, Reinhard, Stuber: Netflix (4); Sarandos: Paul Zimmerman/Variety; Cobb: Photograph by Dan Doperalski;</code?

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