It started with the news that Warner Bros. was returning to its cash cow and getting back into the world of Harry Potter. Newt Scamander doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice to start a new franchise within that universe, but J.K. Rowling knows a thing or two about great stories and characters. Besides, the suits at Warner Bros. would have signed off on just about anything that would allow them to include the words “Harry” and “Potter” in any and all marketing materials.
But then came word that AMC was moving forward with a spin-off from Breaking Bad focusing on Saul Goodman. Frankly, I have some conflicting feelings about this one. On the one hand, Bob Odenkirk is almost always the best part of any scene he's in as Saul, so it's hard to imagine that this won't be great. On the other hand, characters like Saul are best in small doses, so focusing an entire shows around them can be risky. You need to inherently change or add something to supporting characters to make them work as leads, and at that point it's not really the same character you're there to see, is it? It's a problem Will Arnett keeps running into, because Gob Bluth as a supporting character is amazing. But as a lead…not so much.
What capped this movement was more from AMC as the network announced that it’s creating another series set in the Walking Dead universe. Evidently this one is going to focus on different characters entirely, and since it won't be tied to the storyline from a comic book, let's hope it can stretch the characters and the concept. While I do genuinely enjoy the show, it takes plodding along to an entirely new level. That spurred Hollywood Reporter to publish a story that talked up five potential Mad Men spinoffs, and while I don't think it was a totally serious article, it really speaks to the interest creators and audiences have in expanding the stories that we've come to enjoy and love. God help us if there's a Sally Draper spinoff though.
Many people assume that Hollywood has no interest in original properties anymore with the amount of sequels and reboots they produce, but the numbers don't lie. Audiences want to see familiar characters and stories so these spin-offs are an attempt to give people exactly what they want. This means there's more pressure than ever to create not only a character and story that are compelling, but to set them in a world that allows for expansion in many different ways. Even though Harry's story might be over, audiences are anxious to explore different scenarios and characters that are set in that world. And that's a testament to the world J.K. Rowling created, whether she wanted this world to function in that manner or not. As you can imagine, though, such things make creators want that development to be very intentional in their own creations.
It can be a dangerous game to play because just giving people that familiar setting and those familiar characters isn't enough. And spin-offs can be especially tricky because they often are not utilizing the idea or concept that people are attracted to the most in the first place. Anyone remember the Joey sitcom? Returning to these worlds and these characters doesn't mean the creators will be able to recapture that magic — and it doesn't mean the audience will automatically remain faithful. That’s why creating a world that allows these stories and characters to renew and reinvent themselves is more important than ever.
Creating these sorts of worlds was a big part of Houston Howard's presentation at the TransVergence Summit, The Art of Creating a Robust Storyworld. In it, Howard went though a number of different examples and talked about how creators can create storyworlds that allow them to continue telling stories using various characters and plotlines. With a robust storyworld, the possibilities are practically endless, and the recent spinoff announcements prove that.
But they also prove it's not just about the storyworlds. The Walking Dead spinoff is certainly about utilizing that universe, and the same with the new movies in the Harry Potter franchise. But the Breaking Bad universe is little more than Alburquerque, New Mexico. Albuerquerque is a lovely little city with an awesome balloon festival, but you would certainly never look at that world and figure it would be teeming with potential drama. And yet here we are, looking forward to seeing Saul Goodman hustle his way through it as only he can.
It supports the point that Howard did and will always make…that story should be at the center of any endeavor. Robust storyworlds are great and should absolutely be something the creators consider, but the emphasis should be on the story itself. Without a strong story, you have little more than a good idea. But is that the message creators will glean from this week’s announcements?
It’s interesting to contemplate what sort of effect the success or failure of these spin-offs will have on creators. Surely they realize that coming up with something that allows them to create new properties is more worthwhile than a one-off. There's incentive on both sides to pursue properties that are set in worlds that contain and encourage multiple plot lines and stories. But will a creator's focus on the franchise and spinoff potential stop them from developing a great story?
I'm looking forward to Better Call Saul, not because it's keeping us in the Breaking Bad world, but because Saul Goodman is a great character, and the creative team behind the spinoff is fantastic. And that's what audiences and creatives should be paying attention to more than anything else.
Let's just make sure we all remember what can happen when people lose sight of that.