Star Brands The Sometimes Elusive Franchise

The fate of film and music might have diverged to some extent in the case of Wild Wild West, but they remained linked as media products, sold at least partly in terms of the brand image established around the central figure of Will Smith. As with Men in Black, the distinctive Smith brand was a crucial ingredient in the selling of the product; it does not appear to have suffered much from the disappointing reputation of the film (Wild Wild West 'didn't hurt him. He's still a great investment,' as one 'top studio executive' is quoted as saying in a survey of star values in Entertainment Weekly, March 2000). The construction and ownership of identifiable brands and franchises is at the heart of the preferred industrial strategy of contemporary Hollywood. The ideal property for a studio is one over which it retains legal rights, for future exploitation in the shape of sequels or other spin-offs. Men in Black is a good example; a potent franchise developed by Amblin and Columbia which spawned a sequel in 2002, in which Smith reprised his role in return for a healthy slice of the gross. Wild Wild West is unlikely to follow suit in this respect, although it was exploited in other media, including books and a video game. A franchise is the clearly marked property of a studio, unlike a genre or cycle, for example, to which all have access (see Altman, 1999:115).

Stars occupy a distinctive posidon in this industrial context. Stars such as Smith establish brand images of their own, based on the construction of an identifiable persona on-screen and off, effectively converting themselves into their own franchise properties, as Barry King (1991) suggests. These are not so easily 'owned' or controlled by the studios. In Wild Wild West, rights to the Will Smith brand were not secured by Sony/Columbia, the recipient of the synergistic benefits of Men in Black. For a moment, it seems, Sony/Columbia achieved the perfect combination of mutually reinforcing Smith-related in-house properties. Smith was at the fulcrum of an enormously successful collection of cross-media enterprises focused on his twin roles as film and music star. The coherence of this strategy did not last, however, a fact that highlights the difficulties the studios face in maintaining all-embracing relationships with such desirable star quantities. Smith's next film after Men in Black, Enemy of the State (1998, USA), was made under the aegis of Disney's Touchstone imprint. Wild Wild West came from Warner, part of the Time Warner empire (one of the largest of the corporate cross-media behemoths).

If the relative success of the music balanced to some extent the disappointing performance of Wild Wild West in the cinema, it did not, in this case, work to the benefit of the corpo rate parent of the film. The music associated with Wild Wild West was not released on any of the myriad labels in the Time Warner empire. If film/music synergy existed, it was not contained under any single corporate umbrella. Columbia maintained a large share of the Smith revenue stream, releasing both the single and Willennium. The Warner labels did not even have the movie soundtrack, which was released on Overbrook Records. And who controls Overbrook Records? Not one of the big conglomerates this time, but Smith himself, along with his partner and manager James Lassiter. Overbrook Records is part of Smith and Lassiter's Overbrook Entertainment, a company through which Smith, like many other Hollywood stars, has sought to gain his own stake at an industrial level.

Overbrook Entertainment is in some ways a typical example of the kind of company formed by Hollywood stars in recent decades, although most have been restricted to the arena of film (and, in some cases, television), rather than crossing over into the music business. Stars have gained a great deal more control over their destiny since the classical studio system - with its standard seven year contracts - began to deconstruct during the 1950s. Big stars, as we know, have enormous industrial clout, seen as one of the most reliable sources of box office security. Many stars have established their own companies. In some cases, this is largely a matter of avoiding taxes; in others, however, it is an attempt to gain greater control over the kinds of projects with which the star is involved, whether as star or in the arena of producing or directing. The aspect of these companies on which I want to focus, through the example of Smith's Overbrook Entertainment, is the relationship established with the studios - not always an easy one.

Star-led production companies tend to exist within the orbit of particular studios, as do companies created by major producers or directors. They need access to studio resources: finance and access to the crucial networks of distribution and promotion. The studios, of course, are very keen to forge special relationships with stars, ideally tying them down in some way. Stars, with or without their own company infrastructures, are often given in-house or 'housekeeping' deals in an attempt to keep them attached. Overbrook Entertainment was created in 1997 in an arrangement with Universal Studios, part of the Seagram group (subsequently merged with Vivendi). Universal provided office and other facilities for Overbrook Entertainment at the Universal City complex in Los Angeles, along with finance for Overbrook to develop potential projects. In return, Overbrook was contractually obliged to offer Universal 'first look' at any projects developed, the first option to take any of them into production.

The system is designed to be of mutual benefit to star and studio. The studios are particularly keen to keep as much as possible of the film business within their compass, to maintain oligopoly power and hedge their bets, as demonstrated by their efforts to absorb the more profitable elements of the independent sector. In some cases, 'first look' or other such deals have led to stable and productive long-term relationships, such as that developed between Clint Eastwood's Malpaso and Warner since 1975. Elsewhere, however, and including the Overbrook-Universal arrangement, the benefits for the studio have been less tangible. A glance through the history of films in which Will Smith has appeared helps to demonstrate the difficulties involved for studios seeking privileged access to the star-image brand, one that is far more difficult to tie down than some other types of in-house franchise.

Smith is reported to have signed a two-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox on the strength of the buzz created by his appearance in the pilot for the comedy television series, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-96), his first move into acting (Nickson, 1999: 49). What exactly became of that arrangement is unclear.6 His initial foray into film was a small part in Where the Day Takes You (1992, USA), produced and distributed in the international/independent realm. Made in America (1993, USA), in which he had another minor role, was an independent production distributed by Warner. Six Degrees of Separation (1993, USA), an 'arty' film in which Smith played a central part, was distributed by MGM/UA. His association with Columbia came with his first major mainstream performance, in the buddy-action-comedy Bad Boys (1995, USA), although the studio initially resisted suggestions that he was suitable for the part ('Will power', Entertainment Weekly, 20 June 1997, accessed at http://www.ew.com/ew/archive; 'Will power', The Hollywood Reporter, 10 March 1999, accessed at http://hollywoodreporter.com/archive/hollywood/archive). His move into the ranks of major stardom began with Independence Day for Fox, followed by Men in Black (Columbia), Enemy of the State (Disney/Touchstone) and Wild Wild West (Warner). The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000, USA) was distributed by DreamWorks in the US and Canada, and principally by Twentieth Century Fox elsewhere. Men in Black II (2002, USA), another Amblin production, and Ali (2001, USA) were both distributed by Columbia/ Sony.

Columbia appears, to date, to have gained by far the largest access to the career of Smith as a major star, although apparently through no formal multi-picture arrangement other than the studio's ownership of rights to the sequel to Men in Black. But what of Universal, with its privileged first-look deal? Very little was forthcoming, even allowing for the time many Hollywood features spend in 'development hell' before entering pre-production. Universal, along with Paramount, is one of the two major studios not to feature at all in the list of titles cited above. A number of projects are reported to have been in development, or under consideration, by Overbrook, involving Smith as star in some cases and as executive producer in others. Titles to which his name was strongly linked as star included K-Pax (2001, USA), a Universal film that eventually starred Kevin Spacey instead and was produced by Lawrence Gordon Productions, rather than Overbrook. The Mark, listed as a joint project with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's production company, Centroplis, was reportedly to feature Smith as a con artist enlisted to save the world. He was also described as prospective star of Love IILove, a romantic comedy script bought by

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