Interesting line of thought came up tonight in the comments 99TelepodProblems' story about the disappointing box office of Tom Cruise's latest genre opus relative to The Fault in Our Stars and Maleficent.
At one point, Nivenus made a couple of points that struck me as really salient (I'm using bold text for emphasis):
1) Like you hypothesize, Tom Cruise isn't the big star he used to be. This isn't entirely his fault - I think the age of the actor-led blockbuster is largely over anyway... However, it's not as if Cruise is completely unbankable - Ghost Protocol did pretty well and I'm betting Mission Impossible 5 will also do good business when it comes out which brings me to the second point...
2) The Wall Street Journal is correct that audiences are more interested in franchises than individual movies. Honestly, this isn't a huge surprise to me. Just look at Pacific Rim - not only did it land pretty softly but the first things the fans wanted to know when they'd finished watching it was whether there'd be another. People aren't looking for new, original content. They're looking for franchises about the things they like.
Today, virtually every major summer movie is part of some sort of franchise, whether it's a sequel to an existing film, a remake or reboot of a long-running character or concept, or an extension of some existing brand or cross-platform concept. As Nivenus observes, tepid responses to non-franchise movies, especially action-based ones, have become the standard: John Carter flopped, Pacific Rim failed to connect with post-Independence Day audiences, at least in North America, and Edge of Tomorrow looks to be an early summer casualty. In a rather sudden development, Warner Bros. decided they weren't taking any chances with Jupiter Ascending and kicked it back to next February. In the meantime, the summer already belongs to the big franchises: Godzilla (reboot/remake), Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reboot/sequel), and X-Men: Days of Future Past (sequel/retroboot). Just ahead are Transformers: Age of Extinction (sequel minus the "star" of the previous films), Dawn of the Planet of The Apes (sequel/reboot/maybe even a prequel to the series that started with the 1968 original), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (just a regular old reboot, consigned to the late summer dump heap). Even "sequels" aren't quite what they used to be, and as Nivenus points out, the presence of big name stars doesn't make much difference in influencing moviegoers' decisions, at least between May and September.
If you were, like me, born in the early '70s, then movie franchises — or what used to charmingly be referred to as "series" — are nothing new. Your earliest movie memories are likely occupied not only by Star Wars, Alien, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which would grow into long-running sagas in their own right, but also sequels to popular movies like Jaws, Rocky, and the latest Roger Moore Bond flick. You may also have memories of watching the Planet of the Apes saga and the "Man With No Name" Trilogy (which wasn't really a trilogy, but oh well) on your parents' living room Trinitron. We tend to think of the proliferation of sequels and spinoffs as a recent development, but as the AV Club pointed out last year in its 1983 pop culture retrospective, in that year alone there were over a dozen sequels in all — some very big, like Return of the Jedi, and some not so much, like Smokey and the Bandit 3 and Curse of the Pink Panther.
Of course, sequels and movie series have been around for ages. The Bond series is over fifty years old, and before that, there were movie series about Tarzan, the Dead End Kids, Charlie Chan, and Andy Hardy. There was even an early cross-platform style franchise, in the case of Universal's monster series. And those are just the English-language examples: In Japan, there are characters like Zaitoichi and Godzilla with dozens of movies to their name.
And sequels haven't always been dominant, either. Even in the '80s and '90s, which we tend to think of as the era of the modern blockbuster and the sequel, the biggest, most popular movies tended to be original films. (By "original," I mean not based on an existing TV show, movie, or video game, though in some cases they may be based on novels or real events.) The Big Chill, Terms of Endearment, Ghostbusters, Romancing The Stone, Back to the Future, Top Gun, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Ghost, Dances With Wolves, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct, Jurassic Park, Speed, Forrest Gump, Toy Story, Apollo 13, Titanic, As Good As It Gets, Saving Private Ryan, There's Something About Mary, The Matrix, American Beauty... Even the most blatantly escapist popcorn flicks, like Independence Day, Twister, The Rock, and Armageddon, were original concepts in the sense that they didn't originate in some other visual medium. Silence and Jurassic Park had, of course, started out as bestselling novels, but that was nothing new — so had the early '70s blockbuster trifecta of The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws, which helped transform the '60s generation of filmmakers into mainstream successes.
So what happened? There were a lot of factors in the '80s and '90s — globalization, the rising costs of movies and movie stars, as well as A-list directors, the consolidation of movie studios and media companies into vertical entities — that I really can't go into great detail discussing here. The end result was that audiences' relationships with movies began to change, and where before viewers might have decided to go see a movie because it had Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks in it, they instead based their decision on universes and brands.
First of all, the "series" evolved into the franchise. People tend to forget that the whole notion of referring to movies as "franchises," like fast food joints or sports teams, started out as a joke. For decades, sequels were seen as cheap and exploitative — in the days before video, the studios would try to crank them out as quickly and inexpensively as possible to capitalize on the success of the original. But with the emergence of Godfather Part II and Empire Strikes Back, sequels evolved into a way of telling complex stories with lots of characters that couldn't be contained in a single two or even three-hour movie. There were still lots of quickie sequels, both cheap and expensive — it's really hard to say that the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon movies constitute "sagas" — but by the late '90s and early 2000s the notion of using movies to tell extended stories, instead of loosely-linked episodes, had caught on in a significant way, with Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies, and the X-Men and Spider-Man series leading the way. And of course, there were the Star Wars prequels, which demonstrated decisively that you didn't need the original cast or characters for a companion movie to be a success — just a shared universe.
And if you don't need the original cast, who needs stars? This is where the franchise really comes into its own. The general consensus since the dawn of the studio era was that the star made a film, even if it was part of a franchise. Bond would never have been Bond without Connery. The Dirty Harry series was a vehicle for Clint Eastwood. The real reason for the huge success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies was Harrison Ford's swagger and charisma. And nobody went to the Terminator movies because of the time-travel plots, but because they wanted to see Schwarzenegger kick ass. But as the franchises got larger and more ambitious, the concepts and the story became the stars. There's no doubt that having Viggo Mortensen in LotR or Maguire playing Spidey made a lot of difference. In a few cases, the casting was absolutely essential, like Depp in the first Pirates, or Downey in the Marvel flicks. But Downey, who's about as old-fashioned a movie star as you can get today, is really the exception to the rule. (And don't forget, when he made the first Iron Man, he came cheap.)
The real turning point came with the arrival of the first Transformers movie in 2007. Transformers was unusual in that it was based, not on a traditional source like a book, comic, or TV show, but a brand — in this case, a line of toys that Hasbro licensed from several Japanese companies in the '80s and repurposed as a single product line, using story elements from the Marvel comic books and animated show. In essence, like the comics and cartoons before it, the movie was a glorified ad for toys, aimed both at nostalgic adults and robot-loving kids. Lots of movies had spawned successful toy lines before, but Transformers eliminated the pretense that there needed to be a preexisting story to sell Optimus Prime figures. It was the movie as merchandising. The human performers, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, were presented as the breakout stars, but in the last few years they've faded into relative ignominy. Optimus and the gang are back later this month, with a new human pal in the form of Mark Wahlberg, who probably won't be back for part five.
Not every summer blockbuster is as severe an example as Transformers, which may turn out to be an extreme case. But the movie does illuminate how the franchise has trumped the star, and also how in turn, the concept or the platform has trumped the idea of the series. The Marvel movies, for example, work in parallel, not serial format. There may be favorites like Iron Man, but audiences are still interested in finding out what's been going on with Cap and Thor since the end of Avengers. (The real problem is figuring out how to incorporate new characters and movies into the matrix.) It's no surprise that Disney is exporting this model to the Star Wars franchise, with "interstitial" movies about Boba Fett and Red Squadron between the trilogy films. And you can be sure that other studios are looking at this comic book-style "mega-event" approach as well. It may get to the point that modern studios develop properties so that they can share a universe, or a summer at least, much in the same way that Marvel's Secret Wars or DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths turned their entire universes into a single narrative, serving to create a uniform brand identity.
Just look at the two movies that kicked poor Edge of Tomorrow to the curb. Maleficent is a prequel/sequel to Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty with elements of a reboot and a remake, but it's also an extension of the Disney Princess brand, which has been essentially retrofitted as a sort of Marvel Universe for pre-teen girls. In addition to referencing the classic cartoons, it's not hard to imagine that it could spawn sequels and crossovers with the other live action Disney reboots. Like Iron Man, it's laying down the roots for a long-lived and complex product line. Similarly, The Fault In Our Stars is also part of a huge brand, created by the author John Green. (This New Yorker profile is a must-read.) It's highly unlikely that the characters will be resurrected as super-empowered quip-borgs in a series of post-Singularity sequels, but again, this little movie is part of a titanic marketing juggernaut that's bound to spawn other movies, even if they aren't a movie franchise so much as an extension of Green's Internet and publishing empire — which, like blockbuster fanbases, is also a thriving community.
Where stars or series used to be the central force in movies, now the brand is king. If you're a rising actor or actress, you probably won't be able to break through with a distinctive role unless you hitch your star to a franchise based on a comic book or YA novel. Ditto if you're a director, though certain filmmakers have been able to create identities out of their work, like Wes Anderson, whose most recent movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a modest blockbuster with $160 million in box office receipt. (Though it's doubtful that he'll be invited by Disney to direct The Life Aquatic With Admiral Ackbar anytime soon.) It's depressing, because it will be harder for the Scorseses and Spielbergs of the future, if there are any, to find their visions if they're too busy making sequels and remakes of things created by their predecessors. But maybe art, like life, will find a way, even if it's only in a Howard the Duck reboot.
The age of the franchise is over. The day of the brandchise has begun.