A Certain Tendency of Franchise Cinema
By now, you’ve probably read Devin Faraci’s piece on why fandom is broken. If not, take a moment to do so. Even if you disagree with the premise – especially if you disagree with the premise – it’s probably the closest thing film criticism has to Required Reading from the past week. How we engage with pieces like this and move the conversation forward determines whether we are truly interested in the quality of the conversation or just preaching to our own personal choir. To reject the message because you dislike the messenger only makes us all weaker.
I myself may not agree with everything that Devin has to say, but there was one section that stood out, especially in light of another news item from this past week.
“(Modern creators are) nobody compared to the ones who invented this stuff. The modern creator is the server, and they should be going back into the kitchen and bringing back a Captain America cooked to their exact specifications, and without any sort of complications or surprises.”
The timing of Devin’s post could not have been any better. This past Sunday, Dan Aykroyd – writer and star of the previous Ghostbusters films – attended a test screening of the new Paul Feig film and had nothing but nice things to say about the all-female Ghostbusters brigade. “Apart from brilliant, genuine performances from the cast both female and male,” Aykroyd wrote, “it has more laughs and more scares than the first 2 films.” This upset some lifelong fans and encouraged others, but it also pointed to a revealing new trend in film marketing: side-stepping the content custodians entirely by sharing praise directly from the creator.
A few examples from the past twelve months:
- In April 2015, Entertainment Tonight shared exclusive footage from a behind-the-scenes featurette for Jurassic World that included a few words of praise by Steve Spielberg. “To see Jurassic World come to life is almost like seeing Jurassic Park come true,” Spielberg said. Jurassic World received a 72% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $652 million on a $152 million dollar budget.
- In June 2015, James Cameron sat down with Yahoo! Movies to discuss Terminator Genisys and described the film as breathing new life into the franchise. Although he had no involvement in the creative process, Cameron referred to himself as a “fanboy” and praised the film as the true spiritual successor to his own Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. “It’s being very respectful of the first two films,” Cameron said in the video, “and then all of a sudden it swerves and now I’m going on a journey.” Terminator Genisys received a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $89 million on a $155 million dollar budget.
- In December 2015, the Hollywood Reporter reported that George Lucas had seen an advance screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and, according to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, “he really liked it.” A few days later, on the red carpet for the Kennedy Center Honors, Lucas expanded a bit on his secondhand remarks. “I think the fans are going to love it,” Lucas said. “It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” Star Wars: The Force Awakens received a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $936 million on a $245 million dollar budget.
Kind words from a franchise creator have become something of a staple in the Hollywood hype cycle. On the one hand, this is nothing more than an effective way to sell a remake or sequel to a skeptical audience. Each of the above filmmakers – including Aykroyd – saw their opinions circulated before critics and general audiences had an opportunity to see the new releases. If you know that fans revere the people who created the original films, then a positive review by the original filmmaker – regardless as to whether they’re involved in the project or not – should make the new movie pretty much infallible. Jurassic Park is a great movie, and Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park, and Steven Spielberg loves Jurassic World, so by the transitive property…
Then again, there seems to be a more systemic force as play here. By soliciting positive responses from disenfranchised franchise creators – people who had little-to-no involvement in the new films – studios seem to be actively blurring the line between creator and audience. If James Cameron can describe himself as nothing more than a “fanboy” of the Terminator property, then his opinion holds little more weight than that of a random audience member pointing out flaws in a Reddit thread. Devin Faraci describes this as “the corporatized nature of the stories we consume,” but the dynamic he describes still has three separate parties at play: the creator, the studio, and the fan. If comments by the Spielbergs and Aykroyds of the world are any indication, it seems that studios are of the opinion that individual creators are the third wheel in their box office happily-ever-after.
And that also might help explain why each of the movies listed above represent something of a return – or even a re-appropriation – of the original movie. There’s a wonderful Brian De Palma quote making the rounds today about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When asked his opinion on new releases, De Palma said that he enjoyed the new Star Wars film, but that “it was basically the old Star Wars. Good idea, George – it worked again.” The director certainly isn’t the first to point out the similarities between Star Wars, Jurassic World, or Terminator Genisys and their originators, but there seems to be more at work here than just rehashing old stories to minimize risk. The filmmakers – the pantheon of franchise movie gods – have been wrested from the pedestals and made to walk with the common fan. These stories are being retold with the studio re-positioned as storyteller as well.
Or maybe not! Maybe this is much ado about nothing, and it took Hollywood more than a century to adopt the author blurbs common in the publishing industry. Either way, though, the relationship between fans, studios, and creators does seem to be in a period of unprecedented transformation, and it will be interesting to see which party ends up wielding the power. And until the dynamic solidifies, keep expecting to see the elder statesmen of Hollywood trotted out to give half-hearted praise to the movies that – good or bad – try to wipe their legacy from existence.