Sunday, December 20, 2015

Franchise Fatigue, Do We Have It?

So the newest Star Wars movie is out, and guess what? It’s getting great reviews! Who knew? Certainly not the internet, who claims they did despite dreading the initial announcement. Regardless, this is a fresh start for a franchise on life-support, one we needed. But since it’s the beginning of long-running Star Wars films and TV shows, the former releasing once a year, we’ll have plenty of Star Wars to keep us company for a while.

This also raises a question: considering that Disney, the company who currently owns Star Wars, plans to keep the flow for many years, is it good or bad? After all, this is on-top of 3 Marvel movies a year and soon starting their run of Indiana Jones films. When is enough enough? Could we be at franchise overload? This is tough to discuss without addressing both sides of the debate, but here goes.

First, context: back in the early days of filmmaking, i.e. the early/mid 20th Century, franchises were hard to do and, therefore, infrequent. Filmmaking wasn’t as cheap and quick as now, relatively speaking, so not only were there fewer franchises, there were fewer films period. For the most part, franchised properties were either those serials shown to kids in theatres, or cheap, C-list properties that no one care about. The big budget films, on the other hand, remained largely solo efforts.

The situation started changing in the 80’s, when a new generation of talents, ones who’d grown up with film, took the reigns and made their mark in cinema. People like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Ivan Reitman, to name a few, were discovering new film techniques and making them profitable. Suddenly, the prospect of franchises wasn’t so shunned. No longer was the big name film one movie, it was now an entire series and highly profitable!

It had a catch: rather than shove out sequel after sequel, studios had to plan their franchises based on popularity. Movies weren’t guaranteed successes because they were good, the sales had to warrant it. Even then, it wasn’t immediate either. Filmmaking was still difficult to do, so there were several year gaps between big-name releases. Regardless, franchises were now profitable.

But then something happened: the 21st Century hit, filmmaking became easier thanks to digital processing, and now films weren’t needed to be hits. All that was necessary was efficient directing, editing and marketing and BAM! Instant success! And with the rise of blockbuster appeal, it was no longer as difficult to make a franchise. What used to take years could now be done quickly and efficiently with minimal effort or skill. Not to mention, it could be done frequently.

The result was multiple films back-to-back on the same property, leading to the complaint that there’s “franchise fatigue”. To an extent, I get it: turning film into a conveyer belt of cheap product is annoying and disturbing. Something like that shouldn’t turn into a dark underbelly of capitalism, it ruins what makes the medium special. On some level, this is a big problem.

But here’s where I put my foot down. For one, long-running franchise aren’t new. Before the mega-Blockbusters of the 80’s and 90’s, movie franchises still existed. They were merely cheap, schlocky, B-grade horror films and thrillers that no one cared about. Even before that, there were the action serials in the 20’s and 30’s before major releases. If film’ survived both, it’ll survive the franchise age.

Two, there’ll always be original, passionate work to balance everything out. In 2012, for example, we had Looper, which was brilliant. In 2010, there was Inception, which was also brilliant. Even this past year, we had Deus Ex. Will they dethrone franchising? No, but they're alternatives.

Three, the franchise age will eventually end. Maybe not now, but people will want different. Similar to how the crap-tastic Summer blockbusters of the late-90’s were phased out because we demanded change, so the the same will happen with franchises. It’s as Doug Walker, aka The Nostalgia Critic, once said, “People get bored fast”.

And four, I think we ignore the effort being put into these franchises. So The MCU is formulaic? At least it’s trying more than most Marvel movies from the early/mid 2000’s. So Star Wars is gonna milk itself silly? Would you rather a repeat of the prequels? Even Indiana Jones has a chance of new life!

I find we forget that franchising isn’t always bad; after all, Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer were roped into the studio franchise system at one point, and their output under it is regarded as some of their best work respectively. Even George Lucas, whose most-notable work was Star Wars, had originally intended his brainchild to be a long-running franchise. Franchising can produce excellent results if done well, and the portfolio of The MCU and the new Star Wars films is indication. Does that mean this influx is fantastic? No, I prefer spaced out adventures. But it doesn’t automatically signal doom.

Additionally, I find people are more forgiving of franchised properties as long as there are good stories to tell. In the case of Marvel, you not only have over 50 years of material to draw from, but the characters are based on episodic comic adventures. They’re designed from the get-go to be constant, so it isn’t such a stretch. And Star Wars has such a rich lore that movie ideas can be pulled out left-right-and-centre, a fact made easier with the elimination of the Expanded Universe. These two examples not only thrive on franchising, they actually require it.

Essentially, this isn’t so much fatigue as annoyance. Annoyance with once-obscure properties now becoming mainstream, and the, what I feel, elated arrogance that accompanies it. Let’s face it, a lot of the complainers are merely whiners. Some of it’s legit, and I sympathize, but when two movies in a row can tell unique, compelling stories, well…isn’t that what counts? Isn’t the story what matters, not where it’s coming from? Or am I missing the mark, and have “drunk the kool-aid” of the franchise system? You be the judge.

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