The History of the Multi-Part Film, Part I of I

In the 2015 article The Future of Franchising: The Shared Universe, I discussed the development of franchising strategies within Hollywood. In the 2010s, these strategies cumulated in the dawn of interconnected franchising through “cinematic universes”, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe. Today, as we watch Captain Marvel sore into the skies and impatiently wait for Avengers: Endgame to hit the big screen, I want to discuss the other franchising model which developed during the 2010s: the multi-part film.

The History of the Multi-Part Film, Part I of I
(Credit: Avengers: Endgame)

About the Multi-Part Film

The days of complex, lengthy films that don’t allow themselves to be bogged down by the attention span of the “average audience member” are long gone. During the 1970s and 1980s, Hollywood standardized its cinematic output into what we know now as “blockbuster cinema”. George Lucas’ Star Wars became such a big hit that the formula for the film has been copy-pasted for over 40 years. Most movies coming out of Hollywood share the same plot points, the same character beats, and even the same length. The average movie has a runtime of 106 minutes -comedies and horror films are generally a bit shorter, action-adventure films and dramas a little longer. If a film threatens to become “too long” in the eyes of its producers, it is cut to the point where the “average audience member” remains satisfied… yet the story often becomes muddled and confusing.

It would be naïve to believe this was the reason for the creation of the multi-part film – a film typically split in two, labeled with tags such as “Part I” and “Part II”. Unfortunately, money is the name of the game. Though technically Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was the first film to be split in half, it was the Harry Potter franchise that first used the concept as a franchising strategy. In March 2008, Warner Bros. announced they would split the last installment of the massively popular wizarding franchise in half. With the source material running out, this decision was their best option to squeeze the most cash out of their money-making franchise – until they decided to follow it up with another five-part film series, of course.

The History of the Multi-Part Film, Part I of I
(Credit: Kill Bill)

The reason given for splitting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts was that the source material by J. K. Rowling was considered too rich to fit into just one film (of producer-approved length). The split caused a bit of controversy, but both films were eventually well-received, as previous installments in the film series had been criticized for cutting down too heavily on the story told in the novels.

Still, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I and Part II instantly showed a flaw in the new franchising model which would become even more apparent in later multi-part films: the first part struggled with pacing issues, while the second part was too heavy on the action and lacked character development. Part I introduced the stakes, and Part II gave us the climax, but neither was able to give us both: the films can’t be – and probably will never be – watched as separate films.

The History of the Multi-Part Film, Part I of I
(Credit: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

Following Harry

The critical and financial success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ignited a short, but powerful new trend in Hollywood. Apparently, studios could double their intake by splitting films in half! The Twilight Saga was the first to take the bait. Despite their negative reception, the Twilight films had quite a strong following, which allowed its producers to cut their film reel in half and double their intake on Breaking Dawn. The result was even worse than expected: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part I told the story of how Bella and Edward prepared for their wedding, said the words, and then consummated their marriage. Though its runtime was nearly two hours, the whole film could have been summarized as the 15-minute setup for Part II. As with The Deathly Hallows, the first part of Breaking Dawn lacked action, while the second part had a surplus of it. In both cases, however, the second part received praise for delivering on the franchise’s overall storyline.

It’s easy to compare the development of the multi-part film franchising strategy to the trend of creating cinematic universes. Marvel Studios set up the first five films of the MCU as the lead-up to its climax, The Avengers. Just like with the split of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this idea came from the desire to tell a great story. The franchises that followed The Avengers wished to duplicate its success by trying to quickly milk their own cash cow franchises, but by doing so before even raising their calf to cow. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Mummy (as well as Dracula Untold), and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword all became franchise killers rather than grand successes. The same happened with the multi-part film.

The History of the Multi-Part Film, Part I of I
(Credit: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn)

The red flags raised by Breaking Dawn didn’t prevent other franchises from trying to cash in on the latest trend. In an attempt to prolong their respective series’ existence, The Hobbit famously split its paper-thin storyline into an overly long three-part film series; The Hunger Games massacred its audience’s goodwill by slaughtering the franchise’s pacing with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part I; and perhaps the most painful of all: The Divergent series decision to split its final film into two films turned out so bad that the studio never even bothered to finish the franchise.

The Superhero Contribution

Meanwhile, two major franchises still had a “Part I” and “Part II” in the pipeline. In October 2014, both Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios announced to split their team up-films: they would present us with Justice League Part One and Part Two and Avengers: Infinity War: Part I and Part II. After the critical reception of Mockingjay and Allegiant, however, the tags for both franchises were dropped and each film was marketed as a separate story. Unfortunately, Justice League didn’t fare well critically or commercially and any plans for a sequel – whether as a “part two” or as a separate storyline – were put on hold.

In turn, Avengers: Infinity War was neatly folded into the MCU as a singular entry. Though there are some people who wish to argue Avengers: Infinity War had an open ending, this is far from true when looking at the story the movie tells. In the year leading up to the release of Infinity War, the Russo brothers often pointed out that the film would tell the story of Thanos, marking him as the film’s main character. In the film, Thanos’ storyline follows the same traditional three-act structure as, for example, Tony Stark’s storyline in Iron Man. In Infinity War, Thanos hoped to collect all six infinity stones to be able to balance the universe. Along the way, he was thwarted by a series of enemies and, after being almost defeated and losing something precious to him, he finally managed to defeat the bad guys and achieve his goal. Though the film carried the bankable Avengers name, the superhero team’s role in the film was that of the antagonists.

The History of the Multi-Part Film, Part I of I
(Credit: Marvel Studios)

The Future of the Multi-Part Film

The commercial and/or critical failure of most of the multi-part films released after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seems to have lessened the willingness of the major studios to take the risk of splitting their films, regardless of the strategy’s short-term financial benefits. The decisions made by Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. to shy away from the model after having already announced the release of their split films, gave a clear indication that Hollywood’s major studios began to see the long-term consequences of splitting their stories in half.

Marvel Studios’ clever way of handling the story of Infinity War and the decision not to cut back on the three-hour runtime of Avengers: Endgame now seems to have truly put a nail in the coffin of the short-lived franchising strategy. If it’s up to the Russo brothers – and while handling a franchise as successful as the MCU, it kind of is – the future of film seems to be a return to the days of old, when movies like Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur still ran for as long as it took to tell a great story.

How do you feel about the multi-part film strategy?

You can also read this article on Flickering Myth.

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