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Watch Out, Marvel, the Hello Kitty Movie Could Launch a Cinematic Universe

New Line Cinema has entered a partnership with Sanrio to develop an English-language film based on the Japanese company's popular Hello Kitty franchise. The development deal marks the first time in the 45-year history of the character that a company outside of Japan has optioned a film based on the global multimedia brand. And though it hasn't been announced as such, the film studio and Japanese merchandising company may quietly be planning what could become the most lucratively successful shared cinematic universe this side of the MCU.

Following the escalating critical acclaim and commercial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe culminating in 2012's The Avengers, virtually every major American film studio has attempted to develop a similar filmverse of their own, usually to middling success at best. Warner Bros. created the DC Films studio imprint to launch the DC Extended Universe starting with 2013's Man of Steel. Universal attempted to link all of its classic monster properties under the Dark Universe banner with 2014's Dracula Untold. Fox began to expand its X-Men film franchise with solo spinoffs and prequels beginning with 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And Sony tried to develop a wider Spider-Man cinematic universe with 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man while also strongly considering connecting its Men in Black and 21 Jump Street franchises.

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As history has since shown, that this Hollywood trend would largely prove disappointing for studios and audiences alike. The disappointing reaction to 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse and Fox's impending acquisition by Disney has left the current iteration of the franchise's future all but officially dead. After Universal's Dark Universe failed to take off with Dracula Untold, 2017's The Mummy led to the shared universe's demise, with future monster movies by the studio now planned to be standalone stories. Following the poor reception to 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony quietly shelved its expansion plans, entered a licensing deal with Marvel Studios to share the Spider-Man property, and began building a different cinematic universe focused on Venom instead. And while DC Films certainly experienced worldwide success with 2017's Wonder Woman and last year's Aquaman, it similarly has deemphasized a tightly connected shared universe in the wake of the critical failure and commercial disappointment of 2017's Justice League.

The DC Cinematic Universe

At first glance, a Hello Kitty shared cinematic universe would seem destined for the same disappointing fate as other attempts to replicate Marvel Studios' success; a single film based on a merchandising brand let alone an entire cinematic franchise could be easily dismissed by cynical observers. However, looking at the brand from a wider, global perspective reveals that a cinematic universe based on Sanrio properties is a guaranteed international success.

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While the Hello Kitty brand is certainly popular and profitable in the United States, it is a massively recognized and successful property in foreign markets. It's second only to Nintendo's Pokemon as the largest retail revenue generating franchise in the world, with combined worldwide retail sales through 2018 coming in over $50 billion and averaging currently approximately $8 billion in retail sales annually. All told, it's earned nearly $10 billion more than Star Wars' lifetime merchandising revenue since 1977.

Hello Kitty's biggest market and brand recognition remains in its native East Asia, especially the massive and growing retail market in China which has also, over the past five years, become a significant destination for Hollywood films. The Chinese market has saved major studio films including Alita: Battle Angel, Pacific Rim and Warcraft from becoming box office bombs after their disappointing domestic earnings, while helping propel Aquaman over $1 billion and Avengers: Infinity War over $2 billion worldwide box office totals this past year. Even in the event that a Hello Kitty movie fails to connect with North American audiences, it's virtually guaranteed to do big business overseas, especially in East Asia.

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Something not readily apparent to casual observers is how expansive the Hello Kitty brand actually is. There's much more to it than just its flagship, eponymous white kitten. The success of the initial property led Sanrio to develop different spinoffs and separate lines to their own respective success. From My Melody to Jewelpet to Cinnamoroll, Sanrio's properties are extensive and have developed cult followings of their own around the world. Sanrio has branched out licensing for its properties to anime, manga, theme parks, cafes, music and high end jewelry. With its own vast library, the company's potential is virtually limitless.

As Hollywood reconsiders its strategy to create shared cinematic universes in an effort to cash in on Marvel Studios' runaway success, Warner Bros.' New Line subsidiary may have just optioned a genuine no-brainer brand to expand on the big screen. With millions of fans worldwide developed over 45 years, Hello Kitty is one of the most enduring, popular properties in history. And with box office success virtually assured, the studio may have just greenlit the most lucrative cinematic universe outside of the MCU.

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