New Hollywood: The Franchise Factory

The chances are you don’t need me to point out that cinemas and wider popular culture are rammed full of regurgitated property (IP), and like other regurgitations that we might experience in our own lives, the second viewing rarely lives up to the first. In recent months, Disney has announced close to ten remakes/revivals/reboots of familiar and popular films from early in their tenure as industry titans. The latest news is that Snow White is awaiting a reboot; news which followed The Lion King onto centre stage (live-action-ish from the Hollywood heavies who delivered The Jungle Book). Oh, and infamous director Tim Burton has reportedly got his hands on a small flying elephant…

Besides Disney’s near fail-proof production, the whole of popular culture and new media (characterised by transmedia crossovers like film and TV: e.g. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Spooks, Divergent, etc.) are riddled with repetitive strain injuries. My favourite example is Pirates of the Caribbean. I watched and enjoyed The Curse of the Black Pearl, fresh-faced and entertained, as was the world, by Johnny Depp’s caricature of himself surrounded by his fellow comical cast members in a pantomime set on the high seas. Then number two came along and I tolerated it (when I wasn’t slightly awe-struck by Bill Nighy’s screen presence). After ‘episode 3’ I gave up. Talk about flogging a dead horse.

One of the most commercially successful directors working in Hollywood today is a classic marmite character. The UK’s quiffed critic, Mark Kermode, describes the Transformers director, Michael Bay, as “the reigning deity of all that is loathsome, putrid and soul destroying about modern-day blockbuster entertainment…a hit-maker who proudly describes his visual style as ‘fucking the frame’ and whose movies appear to have been put together by people who have just snorted two tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium”. Even Bay has ‘admitted’ to producing rubbish. At an event for another film, he said of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (second in the toy-inspired franchise): “When I look back at it, that was crap.” His awareness of his own film’s awfulness was reflected by domestic box office figures for that film and future Transformers movies (I should point out though, that the popularity in the foreign markets soared even as American interest fell. More about that later).

Just like TV shows that bang on for too long where not initially intended (see ‘I Hate Television’), even exciting new movie IP gets old quickly. Exhilarating and refreshing concepts inevitably become canon fodder for the marketing machine and turn into the first of many instalments, losing the exclusive appeal of suspense and unfamiliarity, and moving into predictable territory which rapidly demands less and less from our grey matter, and from our wallets as we redirect our interest to Netflix.

Exhilarating and refreshing concepts inevitably become canon fodder for the marketing machine, losing the exclusive appeal of suspense and unfamiliarity, and moving into predictable territory which rapidly demands less and less from our grey matter.

Once upon a time, in deepest, darkest cinephilia, originality was the order of the day. Everything at the cinema was strikingly new and awe-inspiring, including the now simple image of a train arriving at a station, a giant monkey plucking biplanes from the sky atop the Empire State building, or a satellite sliding across the screen in outer space. The tectonics shifted with the steady domination of the television and home entertainment systems like DVD, blu-ray and latterly digital downloads.  This new structure was far-removed from the vertically integrated studio system of the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ , in which studios enjoyed exclusive access to the eyes of their audiences, the only competition being their counterparts in the industry. Far fewer films were made back then and the chances of seeing a movie more than once were slim except by the most enthusiastic and obsessive cinephiles. Television, the de-centralisation and dis-integration of the studio system (United States vs. Paramount Pictures, 1948) and the rise in independent movie-making flattened barriers to entry and opened up the industry to an exponential growth in competition. Hollywood heavies could no longer release a movie confident of success as they could once before. Marketing, star power and ever-bigger arsenals of spectacular effects were called to action to maximise the probability of box office success.

top10snewhollywood
Figure 1: Top-10 worldwide box office from 1975 to 2015 (via data from Box Office Mojo (www.boxofficemojo.com) and The Numbers (the-numbers.com). NB: for films which became a series/franchise only after their release and good reception are counted as original and all subsequent films as sequel/franchise, except where the film was always going to be a franchise because of contracts or original material. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and the first Lord of the Rings movie would be categorised as a franchise rather than ‘based on…’ because of the books and the fact that a second film was already in the works.

It is widely agreed that ‘New Hollywood’ was born with the release of the game changing blockbuster, Jaws, in 1975. The first Rocky movie came out in 1976 and the series it spawned would go on to gain huge cultural significance, though not quite to the degree of Star Wars, gifted to the planet by George Lucas in 1977. In cinemas dominated by drama, musicals and comedy, epic adventure and fantasy movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones claimed their places and before long would come to write the script for the future of the industry.

Looking at figure 1, it’s fairly clear how the industry has changed over a 40 year period. Sequels and franchises have gone from minor placings to near domination; animated movies have steadily been stealing our hearts since 1989, and the days of chart-topping blockbuster IMAX documentary movies faltered after 1985 (at least one IMAX documentary has been made every year since, but the chances are you’ve never heard of any of them). One step behind Rocky in 1976 was a documentary called To Fly! which took its audiences on a journey following the history of flight. This 34 minute documentary even beat King Kong; “the most exciting original motion picture event of all time”, to box office supremacy. The exhibition format and the opportunity to see the world from a new vantage point will have worked in To Fly!’s favour, but these are things that modern audiences are not so fussed about, at least not on our own planet. Moviegoers are bombarded with new innovations, new formats, gimmicky dark glasses and mind-blurring frame-rates on a yearly basis, and now we’re bored and tired. We’ve seen it all. Furthermore, we don’t need the cinema to show us the world, we’ve got David Attenborough and the BBC! Seriously though, audiences still want to be shocked and transported to other places, but we’re wanting to get ever further away – outer space, preferably – via ever more spectacular and bombastic means.

Moviegoers are bombarded with new innovations, new formats, gimmicky dark glasses and mind-blurring frame-rates on a yearly basis, and now we’re bored and tired.

What figure 1 doesn’t show is the types of original film that are being made, nor the genre of franchise or sequel. We have seen a huge shift in our genre preferences since Spielberg fought with that big scary shark. The days of cinematic laughing factories are fading fast. Although comedies remain one of the preferred genres to see in the cinema due to the vastly superior collective experience, it is all too easy to pocket the tenner and carelessly declare: “Oh, I’ll wait for the DVD,” or perhaps more latterly; “I’ll wait ’til I can stream it.” Horror, musicals and documentaries had been consistent contributors to the box office until their popularity spluttered and was extinguished by the early 1990s. Epic fantasy, science fiction and superhero sagas exploded onto our screens in 1977 when George Lucas introduced us to the Star Wars universe, simultaneously opening the doors to serialisation (sequels and franchises) and blotting out drama and original content, which would become the structure of New Hollywood.

Another characteristic of New Hollywood (1975-present) is the domestication of cinema. DVD release, TV broadcast, internet streaming and the transmedia franchisation of IP have extended the afterlife of films into infinity. Furthermore, the growing affordability and diversification of the technological home has an ever greater appeal when it comes to motion picture viewing; offering viewers flexibility, solitude and control, as well as an often superior viewing experiences compared to some struggling movie theatres. The impact that domesticated cinema is having on the film industry is huge, not least in affecting the way the audience watches films surrounded by the mediating forces of the domestic space, but also in the form and complexity of the films made for cinematic release. The only films we are told we must see in the cinema are those packed impossibly full with explosive and never-before-seen special effects (and celebrities) that could not possibly have the same full-frontal impact on the TV at home (yet). But it is not enough to simply promise gravity-defying stunts, effects wizardry and record-breaking explosions, they must invariably be accompanied by muscle-flexing celebrity actors and scantily-clad and/or perfectly-formed actresses enveloped in familiar worlds. So comedies, dramas and even action movies grounded in our own world have all but tumbled out of the top-10 in favour of sci-fi, fantasy (only just), superheroes and animations, and nearly all of these films are sequels or franchises.

It’s enough that it’s a struggle drawing audiences to the theatres without the trouble of persuading them that original content is worth their while.

The growing diverse competition is a big reason that sequels and franchises dominate the box office; it’s enough that it’s a struggle drawing audiences to the theatres without the trouble of persuading them that original content is worth their while. Playing with existing characters and worlds is a pretty safe bet where there is a loyal fanbase and trust in the filmmakers. In his pretty disgruntled Hollywood Reporter column of 28th November, Stephen Galloway wrote: “Franchise product isn’t meant to be original. It’s designed to be reassuring: the same thing we liked before, just with different wrapping.” Familiarity also means that half of the marketing is already taken care of thanks to a pre-existing world of hype and anticipation stemming from past success. It doesn’t matter then that the CGI all looks the same, the story is formulaic and actors look bored on screen, as long as Spiderman still swings through the concrete jungle and Batman still speaks like the cosplay chainsmoker we all know and love. The visuals, while often so familiar we forget which film we’re watching, are what keeps it together for the global audience. The Transformers movies are a tedious example of domestic flop, global phenomenon thanks to the ease with which the formulaic visual story translates to the multi-national audience. Grand-scale spectacle owes a lot to the Asian market, for instance, which has spent the past decade absorbing all the comic book fantasy they can (and now seeks to initiate their own spectacle factory).

The cinematic experience owes a lot to the human condition’s inherent desperation to escape from reality and all its pain, emotion and politics. The perfect destination for escape is a world close enough to our own to maintain some credence while being far enough from our own reality to be fantastical. That’s why superheroes, aliens and space travel dominate the cinematic sphere. Let us get as far away as possible while inescapably glued to our cinema seats.

It is all too easy to paint a picture of despair regarding the trajectory of the film industry, as has been done on countless occasions in recent years. As it did when televisions first invaded the home, or in 1975 with the release of Jaws, cinema continues to evolve and this is just the next dramatic revolution. Popular culture is undergoing a re-arrangement in terms of what we seek and to where we escape, as is inevitable. Spheres of exhibition (where and how we watch films) are changing in their significance and influence on our perception and film consumption practices, and virtual reality and gaming are knocking aggressively on the film industry’s door. The future for awe-inspiring original content is more and more convincingly going to be fielded on television and the internet while “peddlers of grand-scale mechanical porn” (Kermode) will be left to it in Hollywood. The future of film sounds like a dark and dangerous place, but while it seems unfamiliar, it will fast become normal and the multiplex will continue to be a venue in which we can escape from the real world, where we can switch our bodies into standby mode and plug in heart-thumping, mind-boggling spectacle.

Reading:

‘The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex’ by Mark Kermode
‘Beyond the Multiplex’ by Barbara Klinger
‘Do the Movies Have a Future?’ by David Denby
‘Galloway On Film: “Why I Hate Star Wars”’ by Stephen Galloway
‘Box Office Meltdown: Hollywood Races to Win Back Summer Crowds’ by Brett Lang and James Rainey

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