To successfully establish a horror franchise is to achieve some level of film industry transcendence.
Something you made is granted longevity, validation, acceptance, popularity in the form of sequels or prequels or spinoffs. It’s a crossing of the threshold into the pantheon of legendary horror franchises from our genre upbringing, like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination, Saw, et al. And it’s an amazing feeling, I’m sure, to be a creator lucky enough to be on board the franchise train throughout its run (a rare feat, as history has shown—hi, George Miller).
However, a word of warning: While it’s fun during the creative process to consider questions like “What would happen if we made the sequel, prequel or spinoff?” it’s an awfully misguided thought process. Take it from someone whose company owns Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister.
Yes, I’m well aware that you began this article looking for tips on how to possibly spawn The Next Great Horror Franchise, but look at this as a form of print hijacking—an intervention. At this moment, I’m the wise (potentially crazy) old man by the side of the road in a slasher film begging you to keep away from that decrepit, moss-covered campground where the bodies are piled high. “Dear filmmaker, temper those aspirations of creating a franchise or meet your doooooom!”
It’s already hard enough to create an effectively scary horror movie as it is. Why put the challenge of creating The Next Great Horror Franchise™ on your shoulders, as well? Focus on the movie you have at hand. Nurture it. Love it. Make sure it’s unique, make sure it resonates on some emotional level, has great characters, and scares the pants off of your audience.
Consider this: If you’re thinking “franchising” before you’ve even begun shooting, you’re already hindering your creativity, not inspiring it. You drift to ideas that you want to pour into future installments, and stop thinking about what’s best for the movie that needs your current attention. I can’t imagine there’s anything more stressful than working on a script and thinking “Well, I’ll save this information for the sequel!”
Present a challenge to yourself by placing all of the great ideas you have into the single most frightening, thoughtful, well-constructed movie possible. (There was a time when this was actually the norm.) And if, by some circumstance, that movie finds success and The Next Great Horror Franchise mantle has been bestowed on you by strong ticket sales and word-of-mouth, when you’re asked for prequel/sequel/spinoff ideas, they will hopefully come about organically. It’s possible.
There are far too many unfortunate examples to cite that belie a filmmaker’s thwarted ambitions to create a franchise or introduce the public to The Next Horror Icon. (In some instances, this franchise-itis victim even proclaimed in the press that they were at work on The Next Horror Franchise.) So learn from history and don’t get ahead of yourself. Those well-known aforementioned horror franchises had modest beginnings before transforming into fearsome, lucrative behemoths.
Then there are the many contemporary filmmakers who—as of this printing—have avoided the call of sequelizing and prequelizing their acclaimed works. Take a look at the careers of Jennifer Kent, David Robert Mitchell, Ti West, Adam Wingard and Ben Wheatley. Here at Blumhouse we’re wary of even mentioning “sequel” until the film is in theaters. I’ve found it’s a good stance to take.
Now, if you’ve come this far and still insist on ignoring the doomsayer’s plea, and plan to head to the creepy old campground regardless of his rants, here are some words of advice that are hopefully as creative as they are promotional.
- Expand your film’s mythology while staying true to it. Audiences have all seen cookie-cutter sequels in which new characters are dropped formulaically into the first film’s template and branded “” We’re living in 2015; viewers are more sophisticated than they’ve ever been thanks to strong television and film writing. They don’t want the same old thing the second, or third, or fourth time around. That’s why it’s on you to push whatever mythology and rules you’ve established in new directions. Introduce organic twists and turns. However, make sure they’re truthful to the world of horror you’ve created or your fans will call you out on it.
- Know your boogeyman. Spinning off from the previous point, if your franchise features The Next Horror Icon or some form of Unstoppable Evil, please make sure these elements are tonally consistent from film to film. There’s nothing worse than a franchise in which the creative team doesn’t fully know how to present its threat. Again, that’s not to say resort to familiarity with every story entry—your fanbase is eventually going to want to see your threat evolve!
- Don’t be afraid to collaborate. If you’re the sole writer and director of a successful franchise-building horror hit, you can certainly tackle sequels, prequels and spinoffs on your own. Yet you might find yourself hitting a creative wall. A fresh perspective could be in order. Bring in a collaborator in the form of a writer or director. You never know what kind of ideas they might have to improve your franchise. There’s nothing wrong with setting your pride aside and taking on the role of the franchise’s supervisor!
- Be a social media monster: Get creative with viral marketing. As your franchise’s legion of fans builds, give them insight into your story that they cannot get by just watching the movies. Create videos, character backstory profiles and more. Stumped? Don’t be afraid to look at promotional campaigns for other horror franchises that are five or six iterations deep (anything from Evil Dead to Child’s Play to Scream) and garner some inspiration there.
If there’s anything I want you to take away from this piece, it’s this: Never stop being creative, whether that means making 10 films in the same universe, or 10 films set in 10 different ones. You may very well go for the gold and attempt a franchise, only to find another original idea creeping up on you, with the skill of an axe-wielding murderer. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2015 issue, currently on newsstands, and in MovieMaker‘s Guide to Making Horror Movies eBook, currently available for download. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.