The Corporate IP Death Cycle

50% off Star Wars

As a fitting follow up to yesterday's post about how shortsighted corporatism killed American comics, YouTuber David V. Stewart recommended his insightful video The 5 Phases of Corporate IP Ownership.

In his video, David breaks down the corporate decision making process that runs franchises across all media, not just comics, into the ground.
Let me talk a little bit about why this happens. Corporations have a different set of motives than artists, and artists have deeper intrinsic reasons for creating the art than [corporations] do. That's part of being an artist. They have soul in the game.
When you write a song, you're expressing something fundamentally about yourself. When you create a movie and you create a story, you're expressing something fundamentally that's important to you, hopefully. 
And so, when the ownership of being able to produce sequels is handed off to a corporation, they don't view the art as something that needs to have soul invested in it--that needs to have meaning behind it. They view it as an asset, and an asset needs to be creating value for the company, so it becomes just a value transaction.
These conflicting artistic and corporate mindsets produce the following IP death cycle:

  1. Creation: An artist with soul in the game creates a work--usually low budget; usually not expected to turn a profit. The work is a labor of love.
  2. Explosion: The work resonates with a mass audience and becomes a surprise hit. The studio/publisher/network immediately demands more in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. With a bigger budget and the original creator still on board, some superior content can come out of this phase.
  3. Milking: Emboldened by success, the creator asks for more money. The corporation does a cost-benefit analysis and refuses the deal, reasoning that the back catalog is already successful, so they don't need the creator to maintain momentum. With a massive hit under his belt, the creator secures better paying work elsewhere. The corporation brings in pens for hire to exploit the original work to the fullest extent possible.
  4. Death/Hibernation: The IP gets so watered down by the endless glut of progressively lower quality sequels, TV spin-offs, tie-in novels, toys, and breakfast cereals that the public loses interest. The IP goes moribund, and the fans move on to something else.
  5. Reboot: Enough time passes that the last milking phase is forgotten. Maybe the IP has changed hands a couple times. Perhaps a wave of nostalgia sweeps the zeitgeist, and the corporate IP holder makes a move to cash in. Either way, a reboot--sometimes disguised as a sequel--is released. It doesn't approach the original's quality level, but nostalgia may lead fans to overlook the warts. Regardless, the franchise immediately returns to the milking phase, and soon another death phase, which may or may not be permanent. Otherwise, the cycle eventually repeats.
David fleshes out each of these points in his excellent video. It's well worth a few minutes of your time if you want to understand the death cycle almost all Western IPs currently find themselves in.

Check it out!

One takeaway is quite clear. Whatever comes next, it's going to come from independent creators who control their own IPs. Hollywood is a propaganda factory that's forgotten how to entertain. The Big Two comics publishers are now brand management firms maintaining copyrights for propaganda films. The Big Five book publishers are dead and on their way to going broke.

Creating a cultural touchstone like Spider-Man or Star Wars takes a visionary with an idea that resonates with mass audiences by solving longstanding storytelling problems in revolutionary ways. Furthermore, that next-level artistic vision must be paired with expert marketing savvy.

A combination like that only comes around once or twice in a generation, and in Current Year, the big media corporations have become too bloated, monopolistic, and shortsighted to foster what's next.

The revolution awaits an indie creator to come along with the right idea at the right time and maximally leverage the new open distribution infrastructure. We're already seeing the first glimmers of this future in newpub.

Support the sea change in science fiction. My record-smashing campaign for Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming has less than two days left. Act now to claim awesome perks, get your copy before anyone else, and help usher in the new age of entertainment.

Back it now!

Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming - Brian Niemeier


  1. Oof. I have absolutely lived through phases 1-4 of that in the video game industry, where you can often see the entire cycle compressed into less than 10 years.

  2. Brian

    Again how fortuitous that different analysts have reached cogent conclusions on the subject.

    TL;DR artist and the society at large have skin in the game; corporation never will.
    Conclusion: time for artists and the community to take back their heritage from the prodigal son and make him work in the fields


  3. Related tangent to Aaron's comment, this reminded me a lot of what is taking place in video games right now with the Triple A companies pursuing games-as-a-service with their micro-transactions and pay-to-win hell. No love for the IP or the fandom, just treat the IP as a cash cow and the fandom as pay pigs.

    I find that when I have rare moments of free time to freely dump into a game, I play old games or retro clones. The only new AAA games of the future I may purchase will be Cyberpunk 2077 and Outer Worlds, and the only backlog will likely be Metro: Exodus.

    1. They absolutely see their IPs as cash cows.

      And there's no reason for them to respect a cash cow beyond its monetary value.

    2. Brian,

      I've heard about micro transaction. This is disguised gambling isn't in?

      So the major video game companies are grooming kids to become gamblers in defiance of parental authourity and legislation?

      If so, wow just wow at their astounding presumption.

      Final question, has technology flattened the entry barriers in the video game industry as happened with publishing?


    3. True, corporate has no reason to see it as anything but a cash cow. What is bristling is their blatant hiring of psychologists to help create addictive continuous transaction systems to bilk the customers, and they have no problem pillaging a beloved IP to extract as much as they can. And now they are denying the gambling mechanics and are trying to claim they are surprise mechanics to avoid European governments from cracking down on these game companies producing young little gambling addicted children.

      But the customers did bring this upon themselves. Nintendo a few months back, stated that their future games on non-Nintendo owned platforms would be freemium, because of the profit difference between one IP that was a 1 charge and done game on iOS/Android vs another on the same platforms that was freemium. The difference in profit was around $10,000,000. They said they had a duty to the share holders to make the game perform like the freemium version.

      I recall in Econ 101 being taught that corporate greed and abuse would lead to a correction, and the impression was that it would be a quick one. But such outdated models were based on European citizens who were far more Christian than today and therefore more used to denying their appetites than the typical Post-modern. And gatekeeping means counter-operations have to develop slowly on the fringes. This is why a non-Christian society can’t have nice things.

    4. Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" refers to God.

    5. To answer buscaraons' final question, technology has mostly flattened the entry barrier for game dev, but that also depends heavily on what kind of game someone wants to make.

      A big, high-fidelity multi-platform game like a Halo, Red Dead Redemption, or Borderlands title literally requires a team of hundreds and multiple years to create. That level of expense is one of the biggest drivers for nearly every major game to be a cross-platform title (unless Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo are underwriting a big chunk of the expenses to make it a platform exclusive), and pushes big publishers into being very risk averse. Microsoft knows that a new Halo game will make money. They have no clue whether a new IP from a new studio will become a big hit, muddle along somewhere in the middle, or just totally flop.

      On the flip side, a lot of the best regarded new IPs are coming from small indie studios. Tools like RPG Maker, Unity, and Pixel Game Maker allow almost anyone who can understand basic programming logic to tell whatever story they want to tell, provided they don't mind telling it with 8- or 16-bit graphic styles.

      But a lot of this also comes back to the corporate IP death spiral. Indie dev makes game, game is a hit, gets more money to make bigger sequel, dev gets bought out by corporate, IP goes to corporate studio, IP gets milked for all its worth, IP goes dormant. Former indie devs get laid off, go form new studio, and the circle begins anew.

  4. All the more reason we have to create new IPs in all forms of media.

    1. *nods* If you've got something to contribute, get off the bench and in the game!

    2. And if you aren't a creator, give your money to people who will entertain you and respect you.

    3. And who own their IP, not to people who prostitute out the IP creators.

  5. Hey, so, if I backed, and I did, does that make me a Harbinger?
    I've never been a Harbinger before!