On Disney, Franchises and the new "Franchise-Filmmaking" Methodology
Disney-owned Lucasfilm has, it has been almost universally proclaimed, righted its wrong (Star Wars episodes 1-3) with the release of “The Force Awakens”, which is also on track to becoming one of the biggest blockbuster films in history. That’s the good news for both fans of the cinematic universe George Lucas envisioned and put to film in his original Star Wars trilogy as well as the studio execs at Disney. But here is where things get a little more complicated. As a person madly in love with movies, I can’t help but see through what Disney is trying to do to get even more money. I’m not trying to say that “The Force Awakens” was bad in any way. My opinion on the film itself is that it was a much needed revival for the series and I loved it. This article is more to do with the business side of things. The insatiable greed of movie studios that own the intellectual property rights to the best selling franchises on the planet is, in this author’s opinion, making things worse and harder for filmmakers to create good content that can stand its own ground.
Let’s go back to when we were first introduced to the galaxy far, far away with the 1977 “Star Wars”. The film created a unique universe and captured the imaginations of audiences all over. It redefined the limit of filmmaking and cemented itself as the gold standard for sci-fi films for decades to come. Looking at the film itself, even as a standalone film it works nearly perfectly. A good number of characters in the film are introduced to the audience, namely Luke, Ben Kenobi, Leia, Vader, C3PO, R2D2, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Admiral Tarkin and I can distinctly recognize each character simply by their individual personalities and characteristics. The main characters that film centres itself upon undergo a complete story arc and character development and by the end of the film you leave satisfied, having experienced a universe like no other with characters that you loved and saw grow in some way. The ending of “Star Wars” had closure and one didn’t expect to be back for a sequel. The success of the film did of course lead to a sequel and we got “The Empire Strikes Back” which expanded on the original film’s universe and its story with one of the greatest reveals in cinema history. That film too, stands on its own, albeit less so than its predecessor. Except for the fate of Han Solo and his rescue, I would not be expected by a studio to come back in 3 years to watch its successor. Ending with “Return of the Jedi”, where we get to see Darth Vader fully redeemed, bringing his character’s arc to a very good end, the original trilogy is a prime example of how the whole trilogy business should be done-with fresh content in each part and continuity that keeps us in the universe that we saw in the first.
Fast forwarding to 2015, I am in the theatres watching the Avengers sequel, “Age of Ultron”. Forget the fact that it was pretty much a repeat of its predecessor (A robot army comes to attack a city again? Really) with an insane amount of one-liners that seem extremely out of place, there is a moment in the film in which the situation seems dire and hopeless, at which point the helicarrier, the big flying aircraft carrier that can become invisible from the 2009 “Avengers” film, gets ex-machina’d(a plot device that is suddenly thrown into the story and propels it forward, an easy way out for screenwriters) into the screenplay. I know how it got there, and that’s because there is an entire story line devoted to explaining this particular event in Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”, a TV show on ABC, which I have seen. Is it reasonable to expect that most people who flock to the theatre to catch the Avengers sequel would have watched the TV show on ABC? Of course not! So to fans of the films, its just another ex-machina (of which there are plenty of in blockbuster action films…) which comes out of the blue to save our band of heroes. This of course was the smallest of issues I had with Marvel. The bigger, more obvious one is Marvel producing multiple single-protagonist films for each of the Avengers, most of which simply add bits and bits of plot-movement to get the setup for the big all-starring film that comes out later. They rarely stand their own as individual films (“The Winter Soldier”, the Captain America sequel film, is a stark exception to this, and was arguably the best film to come out from Marvel). What they do contain, however, are tid-bits of information that become slightly important for me to understand the Avengers film that would follow later. I would have needed to know that S.H.I.E.L.D was almost obliterated from the inside by HYDRA in the events of “The Winter Soldier” in order to understand why S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t as big and powerful a government agency in “Age of Ultron” as it once was. I would have needed to watch “Guardians of the Galaxy” in order to understand what the four infinity stones that are mentioned briefly at the end of “Age of Ultron” are, also to know the setup for the upcoming 2 part “Infinity War”. Marvel has designed the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be such that the single-protagonist films are used just to setup the Avengers films, a self reinforcing trend: I need to watch the single-protagonist films to know the setup for the Avengers films and I need to watch the Avengers films to know what becomes of the fragments of plot-lines that I have picked up from all those single-protagonist films, (Not to mention the TV shows:“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”, “Agent Carter” etc.) all based on one not-so-secret formula: More movies with thinly connected plot lines means more ticket sales and more money. The same thing is now what is going on in Lucasfilm.
Lucasfilm announced recently that there will be a Star Wars film released every year until 2020. That’s six films including “The Force Awakens”! The six include the main trilogy, episodes 7, 8 and 9, “Rogue One”, which is apparently going to be about what happened before the beginning of Episode 4, i.e. how a team of people acquired the Death Star plans for Princess Leia, a Han Solo film and another anthology film that we don’t know about. While fans may be excited for the new content coming their way, they are being duped into paying the price of 6 tickets for a story line that could most easily be made in two to three films at the most, and be better films on their own instead of continuously setting up the premise for the next film that we will be forced to pay for in order to see what’s going on with the story. If you are from the Gordon Gecko School of “Greed is Good”, then I’ve probably lost you right here, but as a person who loves film, I want movies to be the best they can possibly be, but I can’t help but think that a lot of screen time is being wasted in setting up sequels forcing fans of the franchise to cough up more money to the studio instead of giving us a complete story arc inside an individual film that fans would almost definitely appreciate more and adore for life, as the original “Star Wars” did.
A similar story can be told of the new Star Wars: Battlefront video game released by EA, who obtained exclusive rights to produce Star Wars games. While critics have raved about how gorgeous the game looks thanks to the next-gen consoles(PS4 and the Xbox One) and gaming PC’s, many fans of the Battlefront franchise have been disappointed by how little content there is in this $60 game. There are only 4 major playable maps, individual locations of the Star Wars universe where multiplayer gameplay can take place in the game for the uninitiated, and if you are not familiar with first person shooters, that’s an extremely small number, especially given the huge price-tag. The only work-around for the fan: Purchase the Battlefront Season Pass which grants you access to 16 new maps and more playable characters of the franchise that will be released in 4 stages over the next year or so for $50.
The moral of the story is, everything changes once something becomes a successful franchise. Sequels are rarely better than their predecessors (“The Dark Knight”), and are pretty crappy most of the time. They are almost always solely purposed to setup a finale that completes the trilogy of the franchise, or even a whole “saga” of things to come, as is the case with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the upcoming series of Star Wars films. Disney is sacrificing all of the values that these studios originally stood for. Even Pixar, one of the most creative studios on the planet, kind of lost its creative ways with “Cars 2”, but came back to its senses with the outstanding “Inside Out”. Even then, most of these Disney-owned studios are spending most of their resources at producing sequels to successful original films (“Toy Story 4” is underway! As if there wasn’t enough closure at the end of “Toy Story 3”). At the centre of all of this sub-par filmmaking is good-old greed, and it makes me sad to see studios putting creativity second to it.