Why Blockbusters Franchises Won’t Destroy Cinema

I just returned from seeing the Hobbit. I had enough fun, having seen the things that I expected to see with the creativity that Peter Jackson brings, but felt that […]

I just returned from seeing the Hobbit. I had enough fun, having seen the things that I expected to see with the creativity that Peter Jackson brings, but felt that the intent of a children’s book was lost in favor of conforming to the current model of high-octane action franchises. This was something the original Lord of The Rings trilogy managed to pull off without losing the appeal and charm of the initial book. With the Hobbit, a lighthearted children’s book, things became a bit more of a problem. There are plenty of angry reviews of the Hobbit though, so I find it immensely more interesting to talk about its place in the current landscape of films.

As 2014 has passed, you’ve no doubt seen a number of articles, discussing the very subject, many lamenting the overpowering presence of the franchise, bemoaning the presence of Young Adult novel and comic book adaptations. Oftentimes the word ‘teenager’ will be used in a derogatory context, as though teenagers are some subhuman mass dedicated to ruining meaningful film rather than a subset of the human population that are no less deserving of fiction that speaks to them. The general idea is simple, that the dominance of big franchised blockbusters is polluting the market and preventing more meaningful, artistic films. There was even a pretty good movie that lived under that pretense this year.

I think it’s inarguable that the dominance of any single type of film is harmful to film. Not just silly action movies for teenagers, but thoughtful character biopics, history epics, romance movies, forcing too much of anything harms the system, even if all of these movies were to be legitimately great. Broccoli might be good for you but you’ll still get sick if you only eat it. This of course includes a need for diversity in the manners of race, gender, and sexuality. However trying to claim that issue is a result of modern film trends rather than an unfortunate history of the medium would get that person laughed out of the room.

The problems concerning franchises to my mind is related to the name itself. Franchised continuing stories in film go all the way back to the earliest days of film. People would regularly go to the movie theaters to see Commando Cody, The Shadow, and -proving that the more things change the more they stay the same- Batman. They weren’t called franchises, though. They were called serials. Calling a movie a ‘franchise installment’ carries a much different implication than calling it ‘chapter two’ or ‘the next episode’. It emphasizes that these movies are for profit rather than that someone thought more stories could be told with these characters. Even the continually critically-lauded Marvel movies are designed around having each installment encourage you continue to see the next one. The teasers are patently designed to get you excited for the next film, with nearly a decade’s worth of films designed to get you excited for the next film. That almost sounds like the plot of some metatextual cyberpunk story.

Of course I don’t think it’s necessarily as bleak as that. Commission and committee based art often gets a bad rap. The Sistine Chapel was commissioned, as was Macbeth. Film in of itself is a committee-based art form, depending not just on directors (though they often have the most control) but actors, composers, editors, and numerous variable factors. None of these things make a movie less valuable or meaningful. Even the goal of creating something profitable that incites a positive response isn’t a bad thing so long as it leads to creating genuinely good art. While I wouldn’t put the film on the level of MacBeth, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a commissioned film that takes advantage of its pop culture position to make statements about modern American digital surveillance.  Similarly Guardians of The Galaxy touches on the way we can use art to escape our problems, which can have a comforting but also stunting effect. It’s a bold choice for a piece of fiction that is primarily escapist. By contrast, artists left to their own devices without editors or even public opinion to sway them can create ponderous, self-indulgent pablum. For every Citizen Kane or Brazil there will be dozens of The Lady In The Water.

Of course, just as an artist’s own self-obsession can taint a project, so can the desire to make a profit or be a crowd-pleaser. It’s an issue that goes well beyond the issue of reaching for lowest common denominator ways to please, but rather in assuming that the customer is always right. We’ve seen a lot of book adaptations being split into multiple films. It’s something that seems like a win-win. Fans of Harry Potter and Hunger Games value accuracy and want to see everything they possibly can in the book. The logical conclusion is to split up these adaptations into multiple segments. The fans get what they want and we get more money! It’s not the soundest logic as accuracy doesn’t necessarily promise a good film. Some things need to be cut or don’t work in a film. Novels, comics, and film are all very different mediums and one should consider what makes communicating the ideas of the source material more effective rather than what would make for the most rigidly similar. Gone With The Wind insisted on using only lines from the novel and this results in rigid dialogue. It also results in slow, ponderous films that dwell rather than take too long.

All of this is to say simply that franchised blockbusters have different pitfalls to avoid rather than are inherently inferior. If a few Hunger Games movies are what I’d have to pay to get films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier then I would pay it, just as I’d deal with movies like The King’s Speech if it means that it will result in films like Fruitvale Station. I think it’s worth noting it’s very rarely asked why the market is filled with these franchises, when they haven’t been before, at least not to this extent. We’ve covered the blaming of teenagers and the greed of film studio executives but teenagers have always been around and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest people have become greedier. That can’t be the source so what is it that drives these franchises?

Familiarity is a constant that backs any franchise. Any franchise from film to food to music works on the premise that you know approximately what you are getting when you buy something with a label slapped on it. Freddy Krueger kill teenagers, McDonald’s has Quarter-Pounders, and Metallica sounds like someone in back of the sound studio is banging pots together. Critics often bemoan that people want the same thing over again, and not to be challenged based on this fact. While I don’t disagree that the lack of willingness to challenge oneself with new and foreign types of film is a problem, I don’t think that seeking out familiar things you love is automatically a bad thing. It can be comforting, relaxing, and good for your mental health on a stressful day. After a long day of work it’s completely understandable to want to see Iron Man save the day rather than to be confronted with the darkness of No Country For Old Men. The fact that we create fiction like this doesn’t speak to some weakness of the general public rather than a human need for it.

Another reason I find multi-film franchises can succeed is that it’s a lot easier to understand them  today. In the era of serials everyone went to the movies all the time so it could be expected that the children watching them had seen the previous episode. This format moved to television later and even then it used to be rare that keeping up with every episode was needed. However in an era of Netflix and Wikipedia writers don’t have to worry about information from previous episodes or even films. If you catch an episode of Sleepy Hollow and decide you like it, you can see every previous episode on Hulu or even just read the plot summary on Wikipedia. In the modern era of the internet it’s harder and harder to make anything inaccessible.

Finally, the changing landscape and economy of the theater changes what people are going to see on the big screen. A legal drama gains a lot less on the big screen than a superhero epic where half a city is destroyed. This means that those types of movies are the ones that get the most push and publicity even while other often better movies don’t get as emphasized because Guardians of The Galaxy’s spectacle will be more impressive on the theater screen while the emotional impact of Selma or the hilarity of 21 Jump Street will remain intact being watched on my home entertainment system. It seems that film studios are slowly learning this, such as with the internet release of The Interview. Not every film benefits from the theater but the ones that do are the ones that emphasize spectacle.

The question I suppose what should be done to stop the tide of the bad films in this trend. I don’t think there really is an answer there. Until we and studio execs learn the way to only make and patronize good movies, bad movies in any trend are going to exist. Transformers 5 is coming out and Warner Brothers is going to desperately work to mend their mess of a superhero franchise. The good news though is that there’s probably also going to be good stuff coming out and maybe even important ones that change how we look at the medium. Celebrate the good stuff because there’s more than enough of the bad. No matter what the trend is, it’s important to remember that there will be some good and plenty bad. Maybe in twenty years I will be bemoaning the overemphasis of jukebox musicals as a plague on cinema and when that happens I’ll be just as wrong as all the people complaining now.