1. The tent-pole franchise
2. The Oscar bait
The tent-pole are movies like ‘The Avengers’ franchise for Marvel; a big franchise of movies making good money for the studio. The Oscar bait is something like ‘Lincoln’ or ‘No Country for Old Men’ which ticks all the boxes the Academy like in a movie, or to quote Urban dictionary “A film released during the last two months of the year with a big cast and ‘important’ subject matter to attract the attention of the Academy.”
This obviously isn’t true of all films being made - there are still some spectacular Indy films being created by some fantastic filmmakers. What I’m talking about here are the films made by the big studios (Warner, Paramount, Disney, Universal etc).
If we look at the big films that have come out this year we have a huge list of big budget features – ‘Die Hard 5’, ‘Iron Man 3’, ‘Man of Steel’, ‘The Wolverine’, ‘Kick-Ass 2’, ‘Despicable Me 2’, ‘Monsters University’, ‘Fast and Furious 6’, ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’. Notice anything? The list I just delivered is massively populated by sequels. It is becoming scarcer and scarcer to find a movie released by one of the big studios that isn’t a sequel/prequel/spin off. I mean we even had a damn ‘GI: Joe’ sequel! Have you seen the first film? The Rock only just made the second one bearable and even then the film was a confusing, floundering failure.
Evidently there have also been films that weren’t sequels, but most of those were based on other source material, like a book or a comic. Even some more mid-tier films like ‘Spring Breakers’ and ‘Pain & Gain’ are based upon news articles. We’ve had films like the ‘Great Gatsby’, ‘2 Guns’, ‘The Butler’ and the dreadful ‘Lone Ranger’ already this year. Disney is even releasing a film about Walt Disney trying to make a film!
If we also look at some of the films that were heavily tipped to be Oscar winners last year we had films like ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Lincoln’, ‘Argo’, ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Silver Lining’s Playbook’. All fantastic films of course, with some amazing performances. But again, they are all based on other source material. The ideas weren’t original and were all pretty sure fire bets to make a decent bit of cash for the studios.
Is this lack of risk taking hurting our cinematic experience? Is it creating a situation where some potential films, that could have been great, are not being made because the studios are becoming more obsessed with getting as many zeroes as they can at the end of their box office gross?
In the past we’ve had some excellent mid-budget films that have made money because they have had very talented and imaginative creative teams working on them; using the great power of word of mouth to become ever more popular. Look at films like ‘The Big Lebowski’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and of course, ‘Pulp Fiction’. Tarantino’s classic made over 200 million dollars from an 8 million dollar budget! As well as that, it’s become one of the best-loved films of all time.
Over the course of the past year, some studios have taken risks with films like ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘World War Z’. Personally, I liked both of those films and thought they each had a lot of decent aspects (the quality of acting in ‘Pacific Rim’ not being one of them). Far too much of today’s media coverage hones in and focuses on the budget of these films. They are often judged so much by the amount of money they’ve spent to get to this point and how much money they make afterwards, that people seem to forget the bit in the middle; actually watching the film and deciding whether it’s any good or not!
Of course when they do make money WHAM out comes a sequel even when it doesn’t make total sense! If they make a ‘Pacific Rim’ sequel it would totally undermine the ending of the current film, like how ‘Men In Black 2’ totally undermined the ending of the first film by bringing back Agent Kay (this debate is excellently detailed on other internet forums so I won’t get into it here). Of course when the studios get the dollar signs in their eyes there’s no stopping them. There’s even going to be a new spin off from the Harry Potter films, looking at some of Rowling’s Comic Relief books! I’m a huge Potter fan but why won’t Warner let that cash cow Rest in Peace rather than exhuming it!
Of course the big studios are not all bad. I love the fact that so many of my favourite characters from comics, books and television are getting their time on the big screen – many of them in great works like the recent Dark Knight trilogy, Marvel’s Cinematic universe and the now completed Harry Potter series. Perhaps brand new ideas aren’t coming in from our screenwriters anymore but they are often doing an outstanding job of adapting and bringing new perspectives to many of our established characters; projecting them to a wider audience and not always pandering to the wishes of the ‘Fanboy’.
Is it possible that this may not even be wholly the studio’s faults? There is of course the possibility that studios are no longer being presented with anywhere near as many original ideas as they previously were. That studios are forced to go with old properties, not just out of safety, but necessity? Is it no longer the Screenwriter’s job to manifest original ideas? Is his job simply to re-imagine old ones?
I guess for now we will merely have to hope that studios continue to make smart choices about characters that we know and love and produce some of the stellar films we have had over the last couple of years. I also hope that the great minds out there are trying to create the next Jules Winnfield or The Dude so we can have another character to immortalise and cherish.