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The Chosen Cinematic Universe: Challenges & Opportunities to Grow the Franchise

Updated: Nov 9

Earlier this year, rumors that The Chosen would expand into a larger franchise began to swirl after a new "President of Production" was hired. The creators of The Chosen have said that they plan to produce four more seasons (including the upcoming Season 4), for a total of seven seasons. But many fans of The Chosen - myself included - have dreamed of seeing the same engaging approach applied to other biblical stories that the show won't be able to cover. In today's post, I'd like to think about the bigger picture and the challenges of The Chosen expanding into full-scale franchise.


The Cast of The Chosen
The Cast of The Chosen
 

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The Rise of the Cinematic Universe

In 2008, the debut of Iron Man launched what came to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - a fictional story-world that has come to span across dozens of films, TV shows, and other media. Prior to the MCU, multi-film franchises existed, but most took the form of three-film arcs (e.g. Star Wars) or episodic adventures with recurring characters (e.g. James Bond). Few franchises had ever sought to tell an ongoing, interconnected story with shared characters and events across so many films in diverse genres.


In 2012, the first phase of the MCU came to a close with The Avengers, a smashing box office success that set multiple records and (at that time) achieved the rank of third-highest-grossing-film-of-all-time. The success of The Avengers (financially and critically) demonstrated the immense potential of the "cinematic universe" approach to franchise building. In response, a number of studios sought to mimic Marvel's success and create their own cinematic universes.


The results were...mixed. Many of these "cinematic universes" were dead on arrival. Perhaps the most well-known failure was Universal Studios' "Dark Universe of Monster Movies" - a franchise that was originally supposed to to span at least seven films but which was instead canned due to box office failure of its opening film, the 2017 reboot of The Mummy. DC - the primary rival of Marvel - had some success in its attempt to build a DC Extended Universe (films like Wonder Woman and Aquaman), but gradually lost momentum and was recently forced to give up on the current DCEU and start over. But Marvel isn't the only success story. The Star Wars Universe, the Godzilla/King Kong Monsterverse, and the Conjuring Universe have shown that the "cinematic universe" approach has relevance beyond Marvel.


Challenges for The Chosen Cinematic Universe

The successes of franchises like the MCU and the failures of franchises like the DCEU or the Dark Universe of Monster Movies highlight some of that the creators of The Chosen will face as they seek to expand the franchise into a broader universe of stories:


Challenge 1: Tone

DCEU began on a bad foot with 2013's Man of Steel. Following in the wake of the immense success of Christopher Nolan's gritty and grounded The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel delivered an angsty, action-packed, and somewhat grounded take on DC's most famous super hero, Superman. The problem is that most viewers don't go to a Superman film looking for existential angst and realism. Superman is a fundamentally inspirational and optimistic figure and viewers expect a more hopeful and upbeat experience. Man of Steel is thus a poster-child of what happens when the films in a cinematic franchise ignore the tone/expectations derived from their source material and conform to an alien tone/feel.


One can easily imagine a franchise inspired by The Chosen falling into the same trap. A delicate tonal balance of heartfelt and inspiring character-driven storytelling and humor/winsomeness has helped The Chosen achieve its massive success. But that same tonal balance would not be appropriate for all biblical stories. If the creators of The Chosen attempted to impose the same feel on a film/series based on Job or Kings, it simply wouldn't work. When developing new films or series, the creative team behind The Chosen should carefully attune itself the tone/feel of the original source material - or simply focus on stories that are suited to a tonal balance similar to that of the core series.


Universal's Dark Universe Logo
Universal's Dark Universe Logo

Challenge 2: Quality-Control and Pace

Over the past few years, Marvel has been producing three or four MCU films a year, in addition to MCU streaming series and other media. But Marvel didn't start out producing content at such a rapid pace. In 2008, when the MCU launched, Marvel released two films, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The next MCU film, Iron Man 2, didn't come out until 2010, followed by Thor and Captain America in 2011. Marvel paced itself early on, so that it could both ensure the quality of its content and have time to learn from mistakes and make necessary adjustments.


Other franchises have been less cautious in their approach. As I've already noted, Universal's Dark Universe already had seven films at various stages of development when The Mummy (2017) made its lackluster debut. It would have been far wiser for Universal to focus on making The Mummy a success before making plans for future films.


*Correction: An earlier version of this section mistakenly claimed that episodes from The Chosen Season 2 were released while production was still ongoing.


The Chosen is now one of the most widely distributed series in the world. If the franchise is going to expand, it can do so with deliberate speed and caution, prioritizing quality content in order to protect the name that The Chosen has built for itself thus far. While it's good to dream, the creative team behind The Chosen should take baby-steps, experimenting with a one or two spinoff projects before committing to anything broader.


Challenge 3: Direction and Momentum

The cinematic universe approach to building a franchise is a middle ground between the disconnected episodic approach of series like James Bond and the more cohesive serialized approach of sagas like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Like Bond films, the early* MCU films could be enjoyed individually, without knowledge of other films in the franchise. But, like Star Wars or another trilogy, there was a sense of unified direction and momentum that united these early installments (*I'm commenting here on the early MCU here, because I think the approach of the MCU has morphed over time and is in a different place now.)


Much of the direction and momentum of the MCU was built through the use of mid/post-credit scenes. Sequences like these have become nearly ubiquitous in cinema, but were once fairly uncommon and mostly used for gags and inside-jokes. The MCU is largely responsible for perfecting and popularizing the use of post-credit sequence for world-building/inter-franchise marketing.


While these post-credit sequences are not-essential to the story of the film itself, they hint at how the film connects up to a broader narrative/world. Most of the films in "Phase 1" of the MCU focus on the origin story of a super hero. The post-credit sequences for these films often hint at how these individual super heroes are being gathered together into a team. These hints are then paid off in The Avengers, when the heroes finally band together. The MCU also uses post-credit sequences to track the progress of a looming threat that will impact the entire universe (e.g. Thanos' quest to gather the Infinity Stones) or to set-up/tease new branches of the franchise.


Marvel's The Avenger
Marvel's The Avengers

When I consider the possibility of developing a cinematic universe based on The Chosen, I struggle to imagine how the franchise will achieve a sense of direction and momentum across multiple shows/films. It's not that the Bible itself lacks direction and momentum. The problem is that the direction and momentum of the biblical story climaxes with the story of Jesus. Moreover, the bulk of biblical stories precede The Chosen by hundreds of years - which means none of the cast of The Chosen could play a role in them (except potentially Jonathan Roumie in a few pre-incarnate Christophanies).


Obviously there are stories that follow the Gospels - those found in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. The problem is that these stories do not lead toward a definite or center around a single conflict. There's no team to gather (the team gathered in The Chosen Seasons 1-2 spreads out instead of consolidating) and there's not a concrete looming threat to unite against and overcome (the persecution faced by the early church came from a variety of directions and was local, not systematic). Such stories would be connected in their origin, not in their destination. It's also worth noting that we only get a handful of stories in the Book of Acts that directly involve characters from The Chosen. Any content focused on popular characters like Matthew, Mary Magdalene, Little James, or Gaius would either need to be invented or drawn from extra-biblical traditions and apocryphal stories.


Challenge 4: Budget

I've been drawing comparisons between the franchises built by mainstream media companies like Marvel or DC and that being built around The Chosen. But it's important to note a major distinction. Even in the wake of its massive success, The Chosen only has access to a mere fraction of the budget of a company like Marvel. This will play a big role in determining what kind of content the franchise can produce going forward.


Period pieces - films/shows that take place during a distinct period of history - are notoriously expensive to produce. It takes a lot of money to create costumes, props, and sets that all feel authentic. It also takes a lot of research to ensure even a degree of historical accuracy and authenticity.


Producing The Chosen is not cheap (especially as the show ventures into larger locals like Jerusalem); but producing an Old Testament film/series would be even more expensive. In addition to all the costs noted above, films based on the Old Testament generally require massive casts, intricate fighting/stunt coordination, and extensive CGI. There are a few OT stories that aren't quite so involved - stories like those found in the Book of Job or the Book of Ruth. But one can't build a franchise around these quieter narratives. Any attempt to develop a franchise set in the Old Testament would almost certainly need to involve Exodus, Conquest, and/or the rise of King David.


This is yet another reason why any franchise developed based on The Chosen would likely be set during the New Testament. Such shows/film would would avoid the exorbitant costs that face an Old Testament production. They would also save on costs that faced The Chosen because they would be able to reuse cast, props, sets, and research.


Challenge 5: Competition

I sometimes wonder whether the DCEU would have fared better if it had been created in a vacuum and not in the wake of the success of the MCU. Competition can bring out the best - but it can also bring out the worst. In the case of DC, it seems like the pressure to catch up with Marvel's success led to all kinds of blunders: projects produced too quickly, a strange approach to pacing, and a variety of issues with tone.


A franchise based on The Chosen will inevitably find itself in competition against other Bible-based films. Most new Bible films - small productions with limited distribution or popularity - can easily be ignored by a behemoth like The Chosen. But the creators of The Chosen will need to be more careful about treading into territory that's already been claimed by other Angel Studios-backed productions. In particular, I'm thinking of the fledgling His Only Son franchise (based on the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the animated David movie, and Testament (an alternate-history version of Acts).


All things being equal, any project directly linked to The Chosen would dominate a competing project from any of these other teams. The Chosen has established a far bigger fan-base and has access to far more resources. But all things aren't equal. If The Chosen franchise launched a project that was similar to one of these existing productions, there's no way it would be completed first. As a result, The Chosen-version of the story of Abraham, David, or Acts would feel like a retread. There isn't going to be a strong demand for such a project, because the Christian audience's hunger will have already been satiated by another recent adaptation.


His Only Son
Abraham sacrificing Isaac in His Only Son

Opportunities for The Chosen Cinematic Universe

Based on some of the challenges that I've highlighted, I see a few opportunities for The Chosen franchise should consider as it seeks to expand beyond the core series:


Opportunity 1: More Christmas with The Chosen

The Chosen actually already has one significant spin-off project: Christmas with The Chosen. The Messengers gave The Chosen its first major box office success and there's every reason to believe that similar projects would also be successful.


This year, The Chosen is releasing a remastered/re-scored ultra-cut of The Shepherd and The Messengers, Christmas with The Chosen: Holy Night. Since the content itself isn't new, I don't expect it to be as successful, but I'm sure there will still be plenty of church groups that go. It can't have been a very expensive project, so I'm sure it will be a win, both financially and in terms of drumming up anticipation for Season 4.


Even though the core Christmas stories have already been captured in The Shepherd and Messengers, there are other narratives that could be told in future installments. The most obvious is the story of the Magi - a narrative that has captured the imagination of Christians for centuries. I could also see the story of John baptizing Jesus or the story of Jesus' temptation being covered under this label, since they shed light on Jesus' incarnation. Another option would be to do an Old Testament story that foreshadows/anticipates the first advent - perhaps the story behind some of Isaiah's prophecies or the story of Hannah's conception.


The important thing about Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers is that it connected itself back to characters seen in the core series. We got a frame narrative that included Mary Magdalene, Mary of Nazareth, and Lazarus. If there are more Christmas with The Chosen episodes/films, it would be wise to do the same. Either we can see the Evangelists collecting stories/memories, as we saw in The Messengers, or, in the case of Old Testament content, we can see the disciples discussing/reflecting back on the Tanakh (or maybe Jesus giving his Luke 24 Bible study).


Mary in Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers
Mary in Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers

Opportunity 2: Go Deeper with the Original Cast

Fans of The Chosen aren't just attached to the series in the abstract, they're attached to the specific actors who have brought biblical figures to life. For the near future, all projects in The Chosen universe should include cast members from the original show - if only as part of a frame narrative for stories that venture farther afield.


As much as I'd like to see a bunch of full-fledged series based on the Old Testament, at present, it would be unwise for the creators of The Chosen to undertake such a project, given the many challenges that I've noted above. However, if they test the waters using one-off projects (e.g. my OT Christmas with The Chosen suggestion above) and one of these projects is a success, they might eventually be able to leverage that momentum in order to launch a more extensive series/film based on the Old Testament.


In the mean time, The Chosen franchise should develop spin-offs that are focused on its existing characters. Some series could function as prequels, fleshing out the backstory of figures like John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary. Others could function as sequels, following the ministry of the disciples after Jesus' ascension.


In most cases, this would mean transitioning from the mixture of biblical adaptation and fiction that we see in The Chosen to pure historical fiction. Some fans might take issue with this, but it would actually be less controversial in the long run. One of the biggest complaints about The Chosen is that it's difficult for viewers to discern what is biblical history and what is merely plausible fiction. There would be no such confusion in spin-offs that took the route of pure fiction (as long as they were marketed honestly).


Opportunity 3: Reach Kids

I once floated the idea of an animated kids series based on Abigail and Joshua, the kids from Season 1 Episode 3. I still like the idea. But more than that specific concept, I like the idea of The Chosen franchise experimenting with different types of storytelling. In particular, there would be value in trying to create a branch of the franchise that serves younger children - adjusting the tone, length, and potentially the medium of each episode.


Any content geared toward younger kids would function as an on-ramp to the core series. Ideally, it would introduce characters, settings, and elements of the cultural context, preparing younger viewers to make sense of the complex dynamics at work in the core series. Aside from my Abigail and Joshua idea, I could see a series focused on the Parables (narrated by Jonathan Roumie) or a series following another pair of minor characters (like Shua and Barnaby) serving a similar function.


Opportunity 4: Find a Direction (or Don't)

I don't think The Chosen franchise needs to become a true cinematic universe. If it never becomes more than a core series and a few tangential spin-offs, that would be totally fine in my book. But if the team behind The Chosen does aspire to build a franchise that has the narrative momentum akin to a major property like Marvel, they need to figure out some conflicts/events that can unify and give direction to future projects.


As I noted above, the biblical books that take place after the Gospels do not suggest an obvious direction/unifying conflict. But there are a few minor events/conflicts that could be used to bring narrative unity. If The Chosen franchise were to expand into multiple series following the lives of disciples like Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, or Thomas during the time of Acts, Saul could function as a unifying antagonist early on. Later, after Saul's conversion, the franchise could invent a leader for the Judaizers (just as The Chosen invented Shmuel to serve as a face of the Pharisaical opposition to Jesus). In that case, the Council of Jerusalem could function as a central crossover event bringing together characters from different series. The only downside to all of this is that it would require The Chosen franchise to cover events that will most likely be central to the story of Testament.

Ramah, Andrew, and Tamar in The Chosen
Ramah, Andrew, and Tamar in The Chosen

Alternatively, The Chosen franchise could choose to skip ahead of the events in Acts and imagine the events taking place during the writing of the New Testament. We've already seen some of this in The Chosen itself - both in Season 2 Episode 1 and in Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers. This later period hasn't been covered as much as the Book of Acts (which, in addition to Testament, has also been depicted fairly recently in AD: The Bible Continues and Risen). It also coincides with some pretty dramatic events - particularly the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem.


Opportunity 5: Expand Merchandising & Revenue

The Chosen is a business. Like all businesses, it needs revenue to pay its employees to produce a product. Early on, a lot of the revenue for the show came from donations. If the franchise is going to expand into multiple series and maintain high quality actors, writers, and crew members, however, it will increasingly need to find additional sources of revenue. And the most obvious source of revenue for a streaming/film franchise is merchandise.


Up until this point, merchandise for The Chosen has been fairly limited - primarily taking the form of apparel and devotional-content. That makes sense, because it's easy and cost-efficient to produce and sell stuff like shirts and devotionals. But, given its immense popularity, The Chosen franchise should now consider investing in a more diverse array of merchandising options.


Given the culture of American churches, there would almost certainly be a market for board games/trivia games (e.g. The Chosen: Fact vs. Fiction), puzzles, more children's books (like Jesus Loves the Little Children), and adult/young adult fiction focused on specific characters. Toys would be a little more controversial (would an action-figure based on Jonathan Roumie's Jesus qualify as an idol?) but would almost certainly be popular among both children and adult collectors. Video games (along the lines of Bible X's Gate Zero) would require a lot more investment, but could also help the franchise engage more deeply with a younger audience.


In addition to concrete merchandise, The Chosen can also increase revenue by selling experiences. The decision to air episodes in theaters is a perfect example: doing so provides a more special viewing experience to those who are able/willing to pay. The Chosen Con earlier this Fall is another example. If The Chosen Con was a success, I could see it spawning similar (but smaller) regional events for fans across the country (or even across the globe). I could also imagine the set for The Chosen being opened up for tours/tourism in between shooting for each season.


I imagine talk of merchandising and revenue might feel icky for some fans of The Chosen. Perhaps it will evoke thoughts of Jesus overturning the money-changers in the Temple. But I actually think an increase in merchandising and other revenue streams will put The Chosen franchise in a less murky position. As long as the franchise relies heavily on donations, people will struggle to discern whether it is a business (which it is) or a church (which it isn't). I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with Dallas appealing for money before each episode, but I also don't like it (and I know I'm not the only one). If the franchise was earning more revenue through other means, it would not have to rely so much on this kind of appeal - which would ultimately lead to greater trust and less confusion.


The Chosen Clapboard
The Chosen Clapboard

So , what are your thoughts? Are there additional challenges that I'm not seeing? Want to push back against my suggestions or ideas? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!


Artist Interviews (The Bible Artist Podcast)

The Chosen Season 4

The Chosen Season 3

Adapting Biblical Characters Series

Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]

Season 3

Season 2

Season 1

Specials

The Chosen Controversies Series

How to Discuss The Chosen - and Why

Themes & Theology of The Chosen [Exclusive for BMC Members]


Season 1

Beyond The Chosen

Other Bible Adaptations


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