Monday, May 11, 2015

Nothing Lasts Forever: Observations in the age of franchise tentpole productions

So a brief review in what larger patterns have guided the film industry to date:
- The creatively produced fully studio-owned productions
- The star system
- The blockbuster
- The auteur
- The spec script
- The franchise film

I am not a historian. It isn't my goal to pretend to be one.  The reason why I summarize this observation is because the franchise film soaks up hundreds of millions of dollars, pays off in the billions and has replaced the emphasis and importance on actors, writers, and directors.  Semi-competent visionaries surrounded by 30-40 year veteran technicians and craftsmen and aimed at well known faces can come together and do spectacular things that seem a lot like magic to us and why? Because the franchise they are currently working with has already done so much. 

Every pattern focus prior to this has had its peak and its wane, even while providing similar benefit (the stars were the franchise, the high production value genre films became franchises, the master filmmakers with the original visions had the franchise and then the spec script became a brief focus to pull the money away from everywhere else that had gotten too expensive - that was until the spec script was replaced by the spec adaptation and that boiled down to licensing pre-existing popularity and then figuring out what to do with it once the studios owned it).

So my questions are a) when does the franchise tap out and b) what's going to replace it so I know where to stand?

... and c) what about the franchise aspect that is shared with everything that's come before can be harnessed to a smaller degree while eliminating the faults of corporate conservative interests (what we'll say is responsible for the bets on entertainment over craft and white male leads over diversity)?

The criticisms provided above in the linked articles amount to an observation on race and a craft weakness in the shared universe methodology. If a pre-existing universe is explored it will only hold up as well as the writing holds up under scrutiny. If that writing was born in a generation where women were anecdotal and non-white protagonists were nearly absent then how can modern adaptations really hold fault?

If I want to sell something bold, cinematically-worthy, with commercial potential if not commercial allusions and save myself the emotional sacrifices of an auteur or the time it takes to write a spec script while suffering in doubt . . . well all that seems impossible actually. Suffering and sacrifice are a part of the job but a small compensation would be to know I'm pointed in the right direction.

What evolves from the death of the franchise film? Every period on the list was born in the age of its predecessor usually in attempt to divest power from the source so the studio could recoup more in profit. Early on in the period acquisition is everything and talent makes a lot of money.  But where else can you go from the franchise when the other creative areas have been exhausted?

In an odd way the film industry has evolved in a spiral. The earliest blockbusters (perhaps not wide releases) like Gone with Wind were successful adaptations of books with a large consumer base.  The stars they elevated became the commodity once the classics started to run thin.  We know the auteurs came during a time when a younger voice was needed because cinema had seen a decline and the old formulas stopped working (it's likely war was responsible for the lapse in adaptability).  New directors, new stories, new actors meant less studio control but more breakout success.  The newness, if not tied to an obsolete star system means it's all about the script and the director who can pull it off except that gives the director too much power.  You want a name so the financiers and the foreign sales can get attached and so the star system comes back but with their agents fighting for so much money the film might as well cost over $100 million to make which should require just as much in advertising to force it down the people's throat.  Original blockbusters or those based on old concepts like 'THE LONE RANGER' take a lot of work to sell to a rapidly evolving audience.  The comics become the new source of classics but we're finding diversity in talent is an issue and the comic universes are so twisted due to varied literary licensing issues that a prolonged franchise is likely to fall over itself and be maintained by sheer conviction alone (money spent, big stars, big explosions, big muscles). But once critique grows future movie-goers will become more discerning about the shared universe experiment and then . . . are there inevitabilities?

Marvel and DC will boot up more characters that are less known or reboot the first wave all over again to diminishing returns.  They will find new actors to pay them less, new directors to pay them less and more money will be put into expensive CG or effects based movies, but as the TVs and projectors get bigger at home the need for IMAX will decline.  My hope is that then moderation will take over and all aspects will be balanced as more opportunity is created but greed doesn't work like that.

Perhaps there is no new focus.  We've explored it all.  It's for the structure to change...

The blockbuster will turn moreso into an event-based niche product leaning heavily on foreign distribution. This is good money. These sure-wins will only go to the connected. The real movie business, where problems are still being solved in service of art, will exist in the independent market and its nimble distribution.  There are no rules here, no standards. It's full out competition here. Every film will have to exist on an island in terms of expectation, challenge and outcome. Any system that claims prediction will be false because success or failure will simply be a matter of whether or not the filmmaker and his co-creators can tempt an audience to become theirs.  With such low levels of entry to production, there are content creators everywhere.  The new skill to learn is leadership and community building.  I really do believe that the age of serendipity, of the lottery, of walking on the right set or bumping into the right exec, is over.  For serious creators it's about the craft, the audience and the belonging.  Its a terrifying prospect for many.  You can't be a passive creator.  You have to project a vision and you have to believe you are worthy especially if you're not born into it.  That's tough. But in a way it's good to perceive it. Passion isn't just a thing that's a privilege to have when money ruled  the decision making.  Now it's gotta be what gets you by and there has to be enough of it to intoxicate everyone around you.

Here are a couple more articles that add food for thought:
In the first article there's an important discussion about the fear inherent in presenting one's work in a public medium. In the second there's an inside look as to how new producers with the means to execute and compete are finding their way and how new talent might peek their interest. The last article is a case-study on how the IndieWire platform is used to build a campaign behind an issue-based project.

The tools are out there and the time to capitalize on all the heads shifting away from the smut in the theaters is now.  There's not much for indie-filmmakers to do except tell honest stories.  Leave the spectacle to hollywood. Our path has never been closer to us then the here and now where we can get our hands dirty. HOWEVER, this doesn't mean to be reckless.  After all this blog has a lot to do with the pursuit toward sustainability.  I just don't foresee a new boom of chance opportunity.  I think a lot of the ignorance that allowed for that has been worked out.

- C