One of the perplexing things to me is how so many Hollywood eggs are placed in so few baskets. It’s a large-scale mass-production industry, but in the quest for bigger and bigger tentpoles, there is a blandness and safety that sands down the edges and makes it all ok. Wouldn’t a better investment be to make 10 bolder and smaller 25 million-dollar films that could develop more talent and audiences than one film that can’t take any chances? Sadly it seems that we’ll be seeing fewer standalone films, more safe and obvious comedies, and more superheroes and series over the next decade or so. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do, so they are playing it very safe.
Tilda Swinton in Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer
The most interesting and exciting films for me in the summer this year are the small indies like Obvious Child, the unsettling Under the Skin, the ambitious allegorical Snowpiercer, or the intriguing sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow. But they’re not the films that most people are seeing in the theatres and most people will see them on smaller screens at home.
So many of the conversations about blockbuster films focus on how newer films do something a bit better than the previous instalment or how they fix some of the problems from earlier versions of the series. The obsession with continuity is fascinating and it’s interesting in that it seems to be important to people. With the most recent Star Trek reboot, it exists in a world that is parallel to the first series of films which has resulted in some convoluted plotting. It’s a franchise or series thing. Just in the same way that you can go in to McDonalds or Starbucks and know what will be on the menu and what to expect, a film series needs to hit certain beats, include characters and situations that we have come to expect. It can be done cleverly and with skill as with the Cornetto Trilogy, or mostly ignored as the James Bond films do.
The unspoken issue at the core of much of this is that time passes and we all grow older. If you want to have an action hero jumping around being believable you need to have younger actors and if you are going to be making a series of films over a decade or two, you’re going to have to replace some actors unless you show them growing older. With the most recent X-Men film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, they brought together most of the actors from two different versions of the films and it was great to see older and younger actors together, but it resulted in a lot of actors standing around not doing much at all. Logistically you want to maximize the use of actors with the constraints of a contract and schedule, so that’s why you’ll have bigger actors appearing two or three scenes in one location. It’s easier to shoot and fast.
Instead of leaving the audience wanting more, we’re given more and more and more. The Bond films would tease with “James Bond will return in…” with the name of the next film. Some characters would return, but there was an almost delightful disregard of continuity with different actors playing characters with absolutely no explanation of why they had changed. Felix Leiter was played by many different actors and it’s fun to see how often they have changed him (but Bond always recognizes him).
Money is at the core of it all and it always has been. It’s a business and the way that the art and the money are balanced is a challenge that is faced constantly. How do you give people what they want and have films that people will pay to see and keep it interesting. If you ask people what they want and give them exactly what they ask for they may not like it because it’s a challenge to describe what you really want. The classic example in the soft drink world is New Coke which was very carefully researched based on the flavour. Apparently one of the goals with New Coke was to win in Pepsi Challenge taste tests. That happened with New Coke, but our relationship with products is complex, and people don’t seem to like change, so the new formula was a failure and 2 1/2 months after it was introduced in North America, the Coca Cola Company had Coca Cola Classic bring back the original formula.
Many film series now have a secondary goal to maximize the investments in the franchise. So if you can get people interested in the earlier and future instalments it means that it’s a better and safer investment. That’s why the casts of so many films are large and the plots can get a bit complex as well. It’s to hit as many of the potential profit-making opportunities as possible. It also plays on the nostagia of older audience members who have seen the earlier versions of the films. It’s a form of selling out, which is also at the core of filmmaking. The question is really what is the price and what compromises need to be made in order to make the film.
In earlier, old-Hollywood films would be remade often based on new casts. Musicals reworked songs and plots constantly. Hitchcock remade a few of his films and many silent films were remade as talkies and then remade in colour. Foreign films are often remade to avoid subtitles and directors from around the world always have gone to Hollywood to make bigger films within the studio system, adding their own flourishes to the larger machine.
Fandom is a huge part of the marketing of films now and the endless advance speculation and teasing of images, posters, trailers, and trailers for trailers begin years before a film comes out. It changes the way that films are made and how they are written. In addition to the goal of making a film with a compelling story, there are other requirements to have secondary characters or plots introduced. This means that actors may commit to potential 6 or 9 films as that character. The contracts are worth millions of dollars, so all those investments must be maximized, so it means that the plots need to incorporate them. Then they have to work in some product placement which adds some more lines to colour within.
This isn’t new and if you look at the history of Hollywood there have been all sorts of similar constraints. With the Motion Picture Production Code, many films were changed to meet the requirements. I recently watched Fritz Lang’s dark film noir, The Woman in the Window which has an appropriately dark ending, which is completely undermined by a coda that Wizard of Oz-style recontextualizes the film as a dream. The modern equivalent is the Marvel coda which establishes the next film in the series, which makes the film that you’ve just seen and paid for into an ad for the next one (which will be better).
But the market is cruel and people are paying to see the sequels and the franchises so we will get more. Not films that we really love, but ones that we accept as being one of a series that we need to keep watching to see them get a bit better each time. It’s sad that more original films that work within the blockbuster paradigm and push things a little bit like The Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim don’t do as well. They’re more interesting to me and more entertaining, but they’re a bit more challenging to watch and play with expectations more (and have slightly stronger roles for female protagonists who aren’t love interests). They do eventually find an audience over a bit more time with people surprised at how much they liked that film that not many people saw. The sad thing is that with those films making less money than the safer, product-placement-heavy, and familiar character-filled films, it means that fewer chances will be taken in the future as the recycling of films and plots continues.