Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) has had great success with the "X-Men" franchise that it licensed way back in 1994 after seeing how well "X-Men: The Animated Series" was performing in its Fox Kids programming block. With a collective worldwide box office take of over $2.3 billion across the series' six films and X-Men: Days of Future Past making its premiere on May 23 (or May 21 for international audiences), it's obvious that Fox won't be letting the rights to the franchise go back to Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Studios anytime soon.
With a third "Wolverine" solo film planned, a Days of Future Past sequel already announced, and various spin-off projects rumored to be in the works, Fox seems confident in where it wants to take the franchise. After some recent comments by Days of Future Past writer/producer Simon Kinberg, it looks like those plans might involve a trip to the small screen as well.
I want my X-TV
In an interview with Collider, Kinberg discussed the company's plans for the "X-Men" franchise. Referencing what Disney has done with ABC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and its upcoming Netflix shows, he stated that "...when you look at 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' to some extent and what Marvel is doing now with 'Daredevil' and other shows on Netflix, it makes sense to tell some of these stories in TV partly because there's just not enough screens to do all these characters, and also because the serialized format of comic books is better suited for TV."
While the effects budgets behind superhero films may once have been an issue with developing an X-universe TV show, that may not be the case anymore. Kinberg explained, "I think what [Fox is] seeing now is with the proliferation of new kinds of visual and special effects, there's a way to make these stories that don't cost $300 million every time you have to make a huge movie."
Taking the X-universe to TV is a smart move for Fox. In addition to having multiple networks in house such as Fox and FX that could air the show, it would provide a venue for the company to explore popular characters that might not fit easily into one of the X-movies as more than a cameo. Not only that, but the opportunity to cross-promote future films (as Disney did with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.") within the TV series would give the company a new promotional outlet that could potentially drive both box office numbers and TV ratings.
Way back in 1996, Fox aired a made-for-TV movie called Generation X that was based on a mid-'90s "X-Men" spinoff. While the movie failed to make much of an impact and was quickly forgotten, it did give fans their first taste of Marvel mutants and showed how the characters could work on the small screen (though some "Generation X" characters with flashier powers were cut and replaced to save on the film's FX budget). Looking back at Generation X now, it may also give us an idea of where Fox might be headed with its TV ambitions.
Generation X focused on a team of teenaged mutants who were coming to terms with their powers, as opposed to the more well-known X-Men that would become a $296.3 million worldwide box office sensation four years later. Using the Generation X team allowed Fox to test the viability of Marvel mutants without potentially spoiling the big-screen draw of the main X-Men cast.
The company could take a similar approach with a new series, using a team such as the New Mutants or X-Factor for a connected TV show that would be self-contained but might have the potential for "X-Men" movie actors to make guest appearances or for "S.H.I.E.L.D."-like reaction episodes that tied in to the events of theatrical releases.
Would people watch?
The problem is that nobody knows how well an X-universe show would do on the small screen. There aren't many superhero-related TV shows to use as a comparison, and those that exist are all over the board in terms of viewership and ratings. "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." got off to a rocky start, and while it looks likely to be picked up for a second season, Fox might not be so patient. The CW's "Arrow," on the other hand, is often viewed as a genre show done "right," but it's hard to draw a comparison because of the differences between the unpowered Green Arrow and the powered team dynamic of the X-universe teams.
Even shows that were similar to the X-Men aren't necessarily a good indicator of how the show might do. "Heroes" on NBC started off with critical acclaim but started a downward spiral in its second season. SyFy's "Alphas" only lasted two seasons, ending (like "Heroes") with an unresolved cliffhanger. If an X-universe show couldn't draw in the ratings, it's unlikely that Fox would keep it around just to serve as a promotional vehicle for a film series that has at best released just one new film per year.
Land of the small-screen heroes
A TV series based on one of Fox's Marvel properties wouldn't be the only superhero-related series that the company's airing. "Gotham," a licensed show that will serve as a prequel to Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) "Batman" mythos, is currently in production for the 2014-15 season. While many were skeptical of a "Batman" show where Bruce Wayne is just hitting puberty, support for the show has been slowly building as more details have been released. Of course, it remains to be seen whether those supporters will tune in week after week.
A "Gotham" success would be great news for a potential "X-Men"-related series. In addition to potentially serving as a lead-in or promotional tie-in for the new show (possibly even creating a "super" programming block), a successful "Gotham" could show that Fox really gets small-screen comic book storytelling and might cause the studio to move forward with a Marvel series sooner rather than later. On the flip side, of course, if "Gotham" tanks then Fox might hold off on its X-show to avoid critical backlash from negatively impacting its fledgling mutant production.
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John Casteele has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.