Committed to graduate in 2020, Laura Madler is Editor-in-Chief and fourth year staff writer for the Lion's Roar. Outside of class, she can be found twirling...
The Death of Film: Part II. The Box Office Beast
April 16, 2019
When exploring the topic of movie universes and sequels, it is necessary to consult the professionals. In Part II of the “Death of Film” series, creators and hosts of the LaF Podcast Richard Lusk and Ryan Bull discuss how franchises and universes dominate the box office and what happens to story quality once sequels start rolling.
It’s often said that if you haven’t started watching Marvel movies by now, you ought to give up – just getting through the official phase films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as of January 2019) would take close to 43 hours, and that’s not even considering supporting movies, Marvel TV shows, or Marvel’s major phase 4 blockbusters coming to theaters over the next few months.
“I hate Marvel,” grumbled Lusk. “It’s always the same to me. And I know that they’ve changed things up, and they’re aware of their frailties and the fact that they’re formulaic, but to me it’s always the same thing. There’s always the same demon or problem at the end, they always have to save the world, save the universe. Go bigger, bigger, bigger- and it’s annoying.”
Marvel is just one of the hulking (pun intended) enterprises dominating movie marquees today- the box office beasts. Its fellows include the likes of Star Wars, the Wizarding World, and Disney’s live-action and sequel domain. What’s worse? Three-quarters of those heavy hitters are all under the ultimate control of a few people at Disney.
So how do these massive universes and series get to such a successful standing in theaters? Besides ungodly amounts of money from production studios (here’s to you, $379 million budget for the lackluster Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), these films have successful formulas and a fan base devoted to their success. These studios have had years of practice to determine exactly what sort of plot, special effects, and casting they need to make the most money at the box office- and you can be certain that they’ll stick to the formula.
“As far as Marvel is concerned, they’ve sort of figured out the formula so they do a pretty good job with appealing across the board,” noted Lusk, citing the predictable action sequences and supervillains. “But then Star Wars failed with Solo pretty much, so the formula is there, but I don’t know if it always works. The equation doesn’t always match up.”
Bull chimed in with a critique of the formulaic storytelling and drawn-out franchises – “Eventually you run into the problem of you don’t have something new for the characters to do. There’s not a new challenge, there’s not a new character arc, you’re just rehashing old ideas. Whether it’s Star Wars or in horror movies, there are only so many times Jason can be a killer or Freddy Krueger can come do something.”
“That’s the thing with these franchises- there’s always going to be weak links, and you can’t appeal to every single person,” Lusk reflected.
Scores of failed sequels come to mind, from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to shortcomings in the Fast and Furious franchise. Formulas can be a crutch for lazy, even flat out bad, storytelling. Originally well-received and innovative movie concepts sag with the dragging weight of cheap spin-offs and unnecessary installments. And, yet, the fans continue rushing to theatres every time their favorite series is revived.
Take for example the recent revival of Star Wars. After three critical and pop culture milestones with Episodes IV-VI, George Lucas came back in the late 90s-early 00s with three prequel episodes and far too much access to CGI. The resulting films were a perfect storm of mediocre acting, rough special effects, and insufferable side characters that marred the series and became the punchline of jokes from fans and critics alike. In the 2010s, it was announced that JJ Abrams- the mastermind behind the successful modern Star Trek films- would be taking the reigns and releasing a slew of new episodes starring a new generation of heroes. His films would be heavily reliant on cameos from the original cast, hints of the original series, and familiar storylines just to keep audiences in the seats.
Lusk chalked this success of the recent Star Wars movies up to a potent combination of nostalgic references and adaption to earn the affections of fans both new and old.
“There were a lot of callbacks to things that people liked, you mentioned Easter eggs, but they might even be more sort of substantial motifs- not just the blue milk, but the idea of a person, an orphan trying to find his or her way through this experience in this world. The fans kind of wanted to see that I think.”
“As far as Disney and Marvel and Star Wars are concerned,” he added, “now I don’t think they care what the old fans want. They have to now appeal to 7 through 11 year-olds to keep the machine rolling. So, it’s not that they dumb it down, they’re just creating that like the new droid BB-8 is obsessively cute you know. He appeals to Star Wars fans as a callback to R2-D2, but also I think he’s really popular with younger kids, and that’s the cornerstone of keeping a franchise rolling- it’s making and creating new fans so [producers] can just use the patterns that they created with those old films.”
“Fans want more of the same,” commented Bull. “In music we want the same bands, in literature we want to read the same authors, but with movies we don’t want new original properties. We want Lucas to just keep making Star Wars, we want James Cameron to keep making Terminator, we want Alfonso Cuarón to come back and do the Harry Potter films and not let David Yates ruin the franchise,” he joked.
The last part of the sentence brings up an interesting point in how fans feel these universes are handled. The Yates-directed films in the Harry Potter franchise have often been chastised for their gloom, butterfingered approach to the source material, and overall inferior artistic direction in comparison to earlier installments (notably Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Academy Award-winning director, Alfonso Cuarón). In recent years, fans of the original series have pushed back even more against the creator of the universe, author JK Rowling. Rowling’s retroactive changes to key characters, plotlines, even timelines, as she crafts add-on plays and movies to her wizarding world have left fans angry with what they see as a lack of regard to the original source material. Whether she’s revealing unpleasant factoids on twitter or claiming that the villainous Lord Voldemort somehow had a secret child in the seventh book, fans have equally laughed and raged in the face of Rowling’s world-building, with her creative process becoming a cruel internet meme.
Fans feel a certain ownership over the stories and characters put out by franchises. A writer gives the audience a limited base of characters and plot, but the audience is free to imagine what happens to the characters when the official story ends. When original creators then add on to their stories and contradict the closure that fans have created in their heads, there can be backlash. As Bull phrased it, “After the first couple stories, the fans feel like they know these characters better because they’ve lived with these stories, re-watched them so many times, and they feel that they know better than the original author.”
“In Harry Potter we’re seeing that [fan rebellion] with Rowling, we’ve seen that with Star Wars. People don’t want Lucas’s version, or they only want the version [of the story] that’s true to them, but that never existed,” Bull continued. “With Fantastic Beasts they’re saying, ‘It’s not true to the ideals of Harry Potter,’ when really the author of Harry Potter wrote the screenplay.”
A massive fanbase and strong dedication to the franchise universe really only benefits the studios and producers behind the movies. Every new addition to Star Wars or Marvel will have a guaranteed audience, every movie they put out is guaranteed to be a relative success. Fans’ feelings are not going to stop them from buying a ticket to the next installment, but instead the disappointment or confusion in the lackluster story is targeted toward the authors and creators behind the original content, who are often minimally involved once a universe takes off.
“I think as soon as the author writes the words down the page, it’s not theirs anymore. With Stephen King, his version of The Shining is not the version people love, right? He disavows the Stanley Kubrick one, which is one greatest horror movies ever. He goes ‘It’s completely wrong, they got the tone wrong, they got the ideas wrong…’ but he’s the only one who feels that way.”
So universes and franchises can misinterpret original creators, they can leave fans disappointed, and yet they’re the most bankable movies on the market. These hulking box office beasts secrete sequels at an extraordinary rate, and their unchecked power makes them the face of 21st-century film.
But what happens to the little guys? What happens next?