Some of us have gotten hit so hard with franchise fatigue within the past few years that franchise fatigue fatigue is a legitimate condition. We’ve gotten overwhelmed by being overwhelmed, and Mark Harris at Grantland just delivered a barn-burning opus that acts as the best possible, most complete state of the Hollywood union address possible. Go read it, relish and shudder.
His core thesis is that the studio system isn’t just dependent on franchises, they’re solely comprised of them. The new corporate mentality which will shape the coming years is to focus wholly on what’s worked and not at all on anything marred by risk. The immortality of James Bond has spread to anything that turns a profit while selling action figures. Comic book movies are just another segment of the globular, pulsating mass that epitomizes repetition and the safety net of familiarity.
In short, fans of originality are going to be hurting for a while.
Everything Harris says in the article is accurate. With the rise of quality TV and streaming options, the studios have backed themselves into a corner of spectacle and name-recognition at the same time they discovered they could be making billions instead of hundreds of millions. Harris’ post is extensive, beautifully written and level-headed even as he considers the potential failed state of the industry’s heart.
Yet there are three reasons why it’s perfectly fine that Hollywood is only going to be making sugary cereal from here on out.
One, the sky has fallen like this every decade or so for the past century. Studios have always (repeat: always) relied on name-recognition, adaptations and franchise entries to make the bank accounts balance. The highest grossing movies of any given year (at least for the last half-century) are predominantly adaptations or remakes or franchise flicks, and the ones that aren’t are inevitably eyeballed to evolve into the “first of a series” instead of an only. If they aren’t, they’ll still be considered later on for a remake. I know, I like Father of the Bride, too.
There are exceptions. Harris points out 1999 where only 4 movies in the top-grossing 35 were sequels (Phantom Menace, The Spy Who Shagged Me, Toy Story 2 and The World is Not Enough), and they were right there near the top. 1997 was another banner year for originality: 7 of the top 10 were original, un-franchised films. In fact, none of those 7 got sequels of their own either, regardless of how loud we clamored for As Good As It Gets 2.
It’s impressive, but it’s an outlier. Maybe it’s my fault for including adaptations, and maybe it all depends on the user, but the curve of history on this is definitively against original works.
Two, the movie franchises and reboots being foretold through 2020 is the press conference equivalent of hearing the click-thumps of your car climbing the first crest of the roller coaster. It’s emotional seeing everything lumped together in a single barrage. It’s large, and it’s running toward us. It gets that reptile part of our brain humming. That doesn’t mean it’s genuinely threatening, though.
These movies represent a disproportional amount of our cultural brainspace (not to mention the homepages of movie blogs and magazines). Yes, you’re going to get the tiniest, non-newsiest bit of news about Star Wars 7 and Avengers 3/4 every single day until they come out. It’s exhausting, but when they hit theaters, they can’t do anything to change the fact that they’ll represent 5 hours of the 1,000 hours of movies released in any given calendar year. (PDF link warning, see page 23.)
So, okay, the infographic Harris uses shows that franchises are going to own something closer to 60 of those hours in total (and I love any list that includes both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Furious 7, because they’re basically the same movie), but that’s still only 6% of our potential viewing time. Not to say that the other 94% will be golden gems. Plenty will be heinous, but the avalanche 100% sequels at studios doesn’t translate to all that large a slice of pie when considering the whole board.
Mixed metaphors aside, that list is brutal. But here’s another list to consider. The hitch here in comparing the Hollywood Goliath of 2015 to the franchise-happy incarnations of the past is that fewer movies were made overall back then. We also certainly didn’t have nearly the kind of magical access to other stories that we do now.
Movie franchises are going to own the marketing landscape because that’s what they’re designed to do. They’re given steroid at birth and trained relentlessly in order to fulfill their duty as heavyweight moneymakers. They’re the children on Toddlers and Tiaras.
But they also aren’t the only game in town, and some of them are really, really good movies. If you categorically hate franchise movies, then there’s nothing I can say that would matter here, but even while groaning, blockbusters and sequels have delivered some excellent cinematic experiences. The main reason that they’re getting traction is because an exorbitant amount of people liked them. That’s why you don’t see a Battleship sequel up on the big board. Or another Green Lant…ah, damn it.
Admittedly, there are going to be weaklings that get more time on screens because they’re part of a larger, popular family, but 1) the next Green Lantern could be really great and 2) you don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to. Harris offers “more than 2, fewer than twenty” as a rubric, which is either depressing or encouraging depending what end of the scale they end up on.
Finally, I need to address the major concern from Harris’ article – that this crush of sequels and movie franchises is keeping us from getting other, better work.
He’s right. There’s no way around it. The money and time the studios spend on these sure things isn’t being spent on other projects. It’s unfortunate that Spielberg had to scrounge for Lincoln, or that no one could carve $8.5m out of their comic book movie’s press tour’s sandwich budget to make Nightcrawler. There have been, there clearly is, and there will be eras in studio filmmaking where they get overzealous about adaptations and remakes, ignoring the original work for others to worry about.
Talking of Megan Ellison’s good Samaritanship, Harris offers his most damning indictment of the unintended result of the current studio atmosphere:
“The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
No, it isn’t, and most are appropriately grateful for the movies that her funding has allowed to emerge.
But great movies are emerging.
Label me an optimist, but after rending my garments over franchise fatigue, I’ve come to the fifth stage of grief. Harris asks us to imagine the “movie culture of the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty,” but we don’t have to, and I don’t think we’ll have to even in 2020 when the next Green Lantern attempt is set to hit theaters.
Hollywood is going to do what Hollywood is good at until it runs out of steam or implodes, and as it does, the spirit of BBS Productions will imbue itself into filmmakers that will carry the torch of risky originality. Or a hundred filmmakers. Or a million. We’re lucky to have a safety net that the 1960s and 1970s didn’t have. Harris is right that something is happening to the studios, a change or a devolution, but at the same time an equal and opposite reaction is happening that should make movie fans breathe a little easier. When this year’s Easy Rider comes out, we won’t have to worry about whether the one theater two towns over is going to run it (because they wont, the owner hates Peter Fonda); we’ll be able to watch it on iTunes. Or we’ll be able to watch a dozen other interesting movies and a few splashy blockbusters waiting for it to come out. As Hollywood morphs, Not-Hollywood accepts new responsibilities. As budget money dries up, CGI and camera tech come down in price. As studios grow disinterested in risks, we’ll rely on the grace of billionaires and grinders for a while.
Studios are addicted to movie franchises, and everything is going to be fine.