By now it’s firmly established the process by which Hollywood produces cinema in the 21st century. While sequels and franchising are concepts that have existed firmly in American cinema for nearly forty years now, this decade has seen the industry intensifying its number of films based on established works at an almost alarming rate. This week alone sees Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 scheduled for release, The Fate of the Furious dominating the global box-office in its opening weekend (exceeding Star Wars: The Force Awakens’s record already), and Indiana Jones 5 and Star Wars IX having officially announced their release dates, Hollywood has firmly settled itself with a reliable source to generate a lucrative profit with supposed minimal risk.
Admittedly, this comes at a good time when not too long ago, the threat of cinema’s extinction from cultural and financial relevancy loomed its head in the penumbra of this decade’s biggest success of online streaming. While cinema’s demise has been speculated ever since the 1950s, the possibility seemed ever more real in recent years when films such as Emma Watson’s The Colony were infamously reported for generating £47 at the UK box office. What such reports of despairingly underperforming films indicate more than anything is the waning popularity of movies viewed in its original surroundings, with cinema chains frequently attempting gimmicks to try draw in bigger crowds. In truth, with 3/5th of the highest grossing films of all time having released in the past seven years, the film industry has nothing to worry about.
While those annual sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, universes, and intertextualities have been keys to the success of Hollywood today, its prevalence has certainly gathered its fair share of detractors. It’s commonly expected of these people to bemoan the quality, quantity, and frequency with which each franchise film is released. Even European filmmakers like Olivier Assayas and Paolo Sorrentino have begun inserting disgruntled jabs at the modern Hollywood industry without any irony that their own films bank on the established celebrity of actors who participate in those same films. For those who resent the current lifeblood of Hollywood cinema, the truth is that even the most egregious examples, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 or Zoolander 2, are bound to make money with or without the same numbers in attendance. By working with established brands with an equally established demographic, a studio can effectively generate a profitable source of revenue before the film even hits cinemas, through media outlets and merchandizing eager to make their own money off a recognizable name. For example, the recent T2: Trainspotting 2 was largely ignored by the general public despite the prevalence of its marketing campaign, but this didn’t impede the sequel from far surpassing the profits made by the original iconic film.
With so many sources of media, from television to YouTube and Netflix, vying to have the biggest number of viewers, it should come as reassurance to those who felt apprehensive about where cinema would be in a continually expansive market. Franchise filmmaking is the source that is imperative to cinema’s existence as one of the biggest cultural industries in the world. Even with constant speculation for when that foundation will collapse, through a critically and commercially excoriated product, Marvel Studio’s recent Iron Fist has proved a bad product is capable of generating intrigue through its own failure.
So what could possibly be wrong with the world of franchising? Well, while the most common remarks are that sharp writing, edgy subjects, and original storytelling become jeopardised in an aim to produce more sequels, the fact is that the greater concern for creative control in studios such as Disney with their films showcases that the commercial value of a film is equally reliant on its quality as much as its familiarity. The more questionable concern that should be investigated is the desire for familiarity itself from the general public.
Referring to a previous generation in pop culture history is nothing new, a technique that is largely regarded as having kicked off since American Graffiti and Grease in the 1970s. However, with the turn of the century and ever-moving transformation of modern society, it seems that revisiting the past has become a bigger preoccupation, with nostalgia becoming one of the defining sentiments of the 2010s. While it would be ludicrous to say that the recycled and revived approach to film production has a direct effect on the audiences who consume such movies, the increase demand of films that offer something familiar does indicate a culture troubled by ongoing changes in modern society.
Nostalgic films like the examples given earlier derived from an ongoing disillusion and ennui for the political and social altercations that affected the American people during that decade – the failure of Vietnam, Watergate, recessions, oil crises, etc. Right now, the experience is similar yet intensified in its polemic for the contemporary world. While it may be almost a decade since its occurrence, the butterfly effect of the 2008 recession has had the most significant impact on contemporary opinion and culture. The nostalgia that has dominated culture as a therapeutic exercise now threatens to have the adverse effect of abetting the general public to perceive previous generations and decades as a far less complicated and better time of existence. Franchises leave their own impression by conserving their position in the mainstream consciousness, preserving characters and stories that people have fond memories of no matter how much time has moved on.
The problem is far more complex than to simply ask for Hollywood to create more original content. Continuity and revivals are indications that a greater dissatisfaction is occurring beyond the scope of the film industry, and change will only occur when society is ready to stop looking into the past for a better life. With a more palpable urgency and a clearer enemy in 2017, perhaps now is the time that change to Hollywood productions will finally occur, with demands to hear our own stories told. Or maybe independent cinema will take its place as countercultural in the same way Miramax responded to the culture of the 1980s. Either way, here’s to the future.