A minor landmark was passed over in Hollywood this week when Black Panther became the first superhero movie ever to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards.
There was some inevitability to it. For one thing, Ryan Coogler’s film is a critical darling that made over US$1.3 billion in cinemas worldwide. For another, if Oscar overlooked comic book adaptations too much longer he’d have nothing else to choose from.
The rise of popular cinema’s dominant genre is not just about the kind of stories people want to be told when the lights go dark. It is about a convergence of consolidated media trends that will dictate how the business of popular entertainment – including sport – will develop in the years ahead.
Recent years have seen considerable genre churn. Romantic comedies, for example, reached a commercial peak in the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet the romcom has since all but disappeared as a major force at the box office, retreating instead to television, where comforting storylines and snappy dialogue can play out over years instead of hours. There’s a cultural argument to be made about why this happened – that these stories were a better fit for more optimistic times – but the real reasons are all business.
For studios, the romcom template is simple enough – cast appealing woman with well-matched appealing man, add appealing script – but it’s a relic of an era where stars were relied upon to ‘open’ new releases, and their presence gave some guarantee of decent financial returns. Today, that isn’t nearly guarantee enough. With the exception of awards bait and breakout independent hits, both of which promise the halo effect of critical acclaim, almost every major release now is founded on a bedrock of familiar IP.
Nine of the ten most successful films in the US last year were either sequels, based on stories or characters from some other medium, or both. The tenth, a biopic of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, only barely escapes that definition. There was a time when a completely box-fresh concept could support a tentpole release – as, say, Ghostbusters did back in 1984. But the next Ghostbusters will be another Ghostbusters, with a second sequel to the original planned for 2020. Sony is now pretending the all-female reboot of 2016, swamped as it was in misogynistic online psychodrama and middling reviews, never happened.
For some new investors, the starting position will be to accumulate as much of a given sport as they can before diversifying as far as possible
The media conglomerates that run Hollywood studios are taking bigger but safer bets all the time, and increasingly trying to be the bank as well. The apotheosis of their thinking is the sprawling and much-envied ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’, of which Black Panther is a part. Disney has formed a tight seal around that series of movies but allowed for ample crossover through its signature Avengers titles, amplifying interest and multiplying income. And that’s before you account for the bounty of small-screen spin-offs, licensed merchandise and theme park experience that have so long been the speciality of the House of Mouse.
In some respects, professional sport is already engineered for this content universe age. There is the live experience, obviously, and the broadcast product, replica apparel, an unending social media presence, and a galaxy of compelling stars.
Increasingly, there is scope for the kind of activity that brings one fanbase in contact with another. The Olympic Channel’s content deal with motorsport’s FIA expanded the horizons of the IOC in a way that could never have been considered until recently. And eyes will have lit up beyond the world of racing at the sight of video gamer Enzo Bonito besting 2017 Formula E champion Lucas Di Grassi and three-time Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay at last week’s Race of Champions in Riyadh.
There will be plenty within the sports industry who will be comfortable with all of this developing within the current framework. The challenge, however, is if all of this proves too disparate for big corporate entities that are enjoying ever greater control elsewhere. For some new investors, the starting position will be to accumulate as much of a given sport as they can before diversifying as far as possible.
That means access to the best talent, the most popular team brands and the most powerful media distribution, but it might also mean getting a stranglehold on intellectual property that is not in the public domain. The logical extension to all of this might be writing, and then copyrighting, their own rules.
Of course, that is how one competitive activity – esports – already operates. Video game publishers own their titles outright and can choose to promote their own tournaments with those games or license them to someone else. In the sports-adjacent bit of this environment, that is already having an effect on what people play. EA Sports’ FIFA series is the basis for most of the official esports events backed by leagues and governing bodies, rather than Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer; the NBA has gone with Take-Two Interactive rather than EA for its esports entry, the NBA 2K League.
We’re currently on the cusp of an era of overhauled formats, with new rule sets created to better cater for digital consumption habits and, most likely, a welter of different ones emerging within sports to cater for a range of audiences. There must be more than a fair chance that rights holders or their financial partners will seek greater ownership of those.
According to reports in September, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) was seeking an overseas trademark for the 100-ball format that is expected to form the basis of its new franchise competition next year – a move that could, in theory, allow it to charge other bodies for the right to play their own versions. In practice, it was noted in Law in Sport in November, it might prove too difficult to copyright the actual game as well as the tournament marks. Still, it is an indication of the direction of travel.
For all the friction created by its commercialisation, one of the great miracles of modern sport is that so much of it was gifted to the world by its creators for nothing. It is the basis of the entire business today and preserves the whole thing, just about, as a social good.
That may not be how the popular disciplines of the 21st century emerge, and the implications of that would be bigger than superheroes.