The Karate Kid: A Classic franchise from John G. Avildsen

Last month I came across the book “The Films of John G. Avildsen” by Larry Powell and Tom Garrett.

My primary goal was researching brand and audience connectivity leading to brand loyalty. Therefore I was first interested in researching successful brand and franchise developers. After reading the book I realized that Director John Avildsen was exactly that person in his field of expertise. What brand or franchise did he develop?

Well, “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid”.

“Rocky” was an amazing franchise and years later, John Avildsen repeated his talent on “The Karate Kid”, making Robert Mark Kamen’s script a landmark of the 80’s.



Looking back in time, it probably would had been difficult to believe that a movie based on a storyline about a struggling teenager, having a hard time to adapt to his new environment, learning Karate in an unusual way (painting fences and waxing cars…)  would be a great success.

However, “The Karate Kid” not only was a worldwide success, a critically acclaimed movie, but it conquered an audience for decades to come. Basically, paving the 80’s with a tangible message of friendship, respect, love and anti-bullying.

The audience was conquered by the story of a struggled son and mother that moved from New Jersey to California (Just look at their vehicle to summarize the word “struggling”… ). The boy Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, did not adapt to the new reality in California, but found in Elisabeth Shue “Ali”, a point of support and later in Pat Morita “Mr. Miyagi”, a point of reference and guidance, as Ralph confronts bullying and harassment by the students of a local Karate dojo – “Cobra Kai”.

What surprised me the most in this franchise, was the fact that John Avildsen did not have a huge budget in the making of The Karate Kid, but he had a huge talent. A talent that he already had displayed in the making of Rocky.

The result can be measured by the spontaneous reaction from the public for the past 30 years. Reflecting a basic principle in Branding, that you can not have a large audience without having a niche fan base as brand ambassadors. This franchise had a strong niche base resulting in a large audience.

The film was recorded mostly in San Fernando Valley – CA, for a period of 45 days. However, it is amazing that after 30 years, you can still find new articles and blogs  (written with extreme detail) commenting different aspect of the film and filming locations. Fans simply seem to enjoy comparing how the sites were back in 1984 and now. Often these sites were “every day” common places, as we can see on the slide show below, from a 2014 article. That is artistic influential power of a brand!
The interesting part of the filming location was that Robert Kamen, the screenwriter, had never been to the San Fernando Valley prior to the movie. He drove around the whole area to capture the environment that later became the main storyline of Pat, Ralph and Shue’s filming location.
For the 30th anniversary of  The Karate Kid, director John Avildsen, screenwriter Robert  Kamen, Ralph Macchio, Elisabeth Shue and producer Jerry Weintraub did an interview to the L. A. Weekly titled “How a Movie Shot in the San Fernando Valley Made Us all The Karate Kid”.
They commented the early stages of the movie, the storyline, how they selected the cast and the filming location:
During the interview Jerry Weintraub said: “...You can see the birth of Daniel LaRusso in that first audition, available today on Avildsen’s YouTube channel.”
So, 30 years later there are plenty of articles and blogs about this movie. It shows how The Karate Kid franchise expanded its original niche fan base.


(L.A Weekly: Elisabeth Shue, John Avildsen and Ralph Macchio in 1983)

The Karate Kid had recognizable “signatures” that helped perpetuate its franchise among the audience worldwide. Pat Morita teaching Ralph karate based on painting fences and waxing vehicles, creating the unconventional slogan “wax on wax off” and the “Crane Kick”, which became iconically linked to the franchise.
During an interview with John Avildsen (linked below on Youtube), Darryl Vidal, the creator of the “Crane Kick” explained how this “kick” became a reality for the movie:



(Columbia Pictures)
The audience all over the world was captivated by Kamen’s script brought to light by John Avildsen.  The movie was a visually compelling brand, exploring Daniel’s learning path with Mr. Miyagi. The development of his relationship with Ali, and his struggles facing bullying. It was also compelling that in the storyline Ali was a “rich girl” accepting Daniel – the way he was –  despite social-cultural differences.
The audience understood the Franchise message that everybody has struggles in life but people still can conquer difficulties, and good things can come out from these difficulties. If Daniel had stayed in New Jersey, he would never had met Ali or Miyagi in the storyline.
(Columbia Pictures)
Despite being a successful franchise, the only thing I found regarding Karate Kid not developing its full brand spectrum, was the breaking of brand continuity. Fans worldwide were expecting a development of the franchise based on the core values of the brand. Therefore they were expecting a development on the relationship of Daniel, Ali and Miyagi, which would have brought The Karate Kid franchise to an even more popular phenomenon.
The audience did not understand why Ali simply vanished from the sequel after all they had been through. Keeping them together would had maximized the brand equity.
Reading the book “The Films of John G. Avildsen” I realized that it was not John Avildsen nor Robert Kamen’s intention to remove Ali out of the sequel. The producers did not agree to pay for her role on part II. Therefore, ending Ali’s storyline abruptly. A big mistake from the branding stand point.
The sequel ‘The Karate Kid II” was a worldwide success, surpassing the original one. Ironically, because the audience was interested in the continuation of Ralph, Elisabeth and Pat.  Even Peter Cetera’s song “Glory of Love” in “The Karate Kid II”, would had made more sense in the context of the strong story between Ralph and Shue, written by Kamen in The Karate Kid I.  (Youtube link to Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love”)
Despite that, “The Karate Kid II”, had a good storyline, the idea of Ralph following Pat into his Japanese hometown, and confronting difficulties there, was well received by the public. It helped the audience to understand more about Pat’s past. Also Tamlyn Tomita was great as acting as Ralph’s new girlfriend, but her role also would not continue on in “The Karate Kid III”.
Finally, “The Karate Kid III” did not finish the franchise well. It led many fans to believe that a sequel as a final instalment would be more appropriate, bringing the core values of the brand back to its original roots. Actually, John Avildsen had a different vision for the third movie, but was not supported by the producers.
Fans started suggesting “ideas” on how to end the story, even prior to the 30th anniversary of the franchise. A tribute to John Avildsen, Pat Morita and a closing for Daniel and Ali.
Particularly, I don’t think that the final story should be revolving around a “Karate tournament”, because the stature of the franchise deserves a more profound story. Daniel can not be seen now as a “kid”, but as a mature person. Thus well skilled in the martial arts, perhaps speaking Japanese, Cantonese and Mandarin as he had traveled to Asia with Miyagi. The story can take place 10 years after the first one, with a new cast of actors, bringing Daniel and Ali back, as Daniel faces the final strike, meaning, dealing with the loss of a friend and mentor.
I imagined John Avildsen with his career talent (or another director like him), directing a final instalment of the franchise, leveraging the storyline of Karate Kid I. Perhaps director, Derek Wayne Johnson, since he already directed an amazing documentary on the life of John Avildsen.
Let’s see if a final story will ever be written and a final movie ever made.