Hollywood, as you may have noticed, doesn’t seem all that keen on producing new stories anymore. Yesterday, at Disney’s Investor Day, the studio announced details of its upcoming slate, confirming that this trend isn’t going to be reversed any time soon. The overwhelming majority of Disney’s forthcoming titles are sequels, remakes, reboots and adaptations of existing intellectual property.
While unsurprising, this is still a little depressing: it really feels as though the franchise model is beginning to eat itself. Take the bizarre Lightyear, for instance, a Toy Story spin-off starring Chris Evans, about “the young test pilot that became the Space Ranger we all know him to be today”.
This might sound stupid, but don’t worry: in Evans’ words: “just to be clear, this isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy. This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.” Ah yes, the human that the toy is based on.
We can also expect 11 new Star Wars projects, including spin-off series about Obi-Wan Kenobi and Lando Calrissian, despite the fact the Han Solo film was a flop. On the Marvel Studios side, we can look forward to outings from such beloved characters as Moon Knight, Iron Heart (“the creator of the most advanced suit of armour since Iron Man”) and the tree from Guardians of the Galaxy.
From a business model perspective, this all makes perfect sense. The idea is that audiences will be more likely to shell out for the cinema (or, in many cases, a Disney + subscription) if they’re already aware of the “intellectual property” that a film or series is based on. This means new stories are out, and sequels, remakes and reboots are in, along with adaptations of video games, board games, toys, best-selling novels and comic books. Disney has led the way here, with other studios scrambling to catch up. Warner Bros – which owns the rights to Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Lego films and DC Comics – and Universal, which has The Fast and the Furious and the Jurassic World franchise, have both fared pretty well. However, other studios – particularly Sony and Paramount – have struggled to find successful franchises and found themselves at the bottom of the pile.
Even Disney, the master of the franchise, has had its share of outright flops: 2012’s John Carter, based on a series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the author of Tarzan) lost $200 million, while Mars Needs Moms (2011), based on a children’s book about a kid whose mum gets kidnapped by Martians, is considered one of the biggest box office failures of all time. But these are exceptions to the rule: broadly speaking, by sticking to the franchise formula, Disney has all but guaranteed that people will pay to see their films. However much people might lament the loss of films for adults, Disney is giving cinemagoers what they want. The model works.
Besides the financial incentive, there are a number of reasons why this is the case, one of which is that audiences today are more loyal to brands than movie stars, which wasn’t always the case. At one point in recent history, if Tom Hanks or Will Smith starred in a film, it would be pretty unlikely to flop. Having a big name attached to a project wasn’t a failsafe way of ensuring a film’s success (Hollywood has always been a risky business), but it was about as solid an indication as you could get that a film would do well. These days, that’s no longer the case. The movie star model is dead, and people have instead directed their loyalty to brands or franchises.
Another explanation is in the expansion of foreign markets. China recently overtook the US to become the single largest cinema market in the world, and Brazil and Russia are also prime Hollywood targets. Comedies and dramas, which typically require an understanding of more subtle aspects of American life, are understandably less appealing to foreign audiences. The films which tend to do well in these markets are huge, special effects-laden blockbusters with spectacular set-pieces. Some films, like 2016’s video game adaptation Warcraft, have been saved from its disastrous returns in the US by doing well in China.
Lastly, the decline of mid-budget films made for adult audiences has coincided with the “Golden Age of Television”, ushered in by The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It used to be the case that cinema was where interesting, intelligent and well-made visual storytelling happened, with television its less prestigious cousin. This has been largely reversed, with lots of high-profile film actors, directors and writers making the leap to TV, precisely because they can no longer make the kind of films they want to in the Hollywood system.
It’s easy to sound like a film snob when you criticise the franchise model, but elitism is not the issue (before I get dragged in front of the “let people enjoy things” committee, let me clarify that I enjoyed Black Panther and have a soft spot for the Star Wars films). There are still plenty of interesting, low-budget arthouse films being made today, and it’s not like anyone was ever going to be looking at the Disney slate and bemoaning the lack of kitchen-sink realism. The problem is that even frothy, dumb, enjoyable films for adults aren’t being made anymore.
Mid-budget thrillers, action films, dramas and romantic comedies – the kind of films that Disney itself used to make, with its since-abandoned Touchstone imprint – are a dying breed. Die Hard probably wouldn’t get made today, and neither would The Shawshank Redemption, Pretty Women or Forrest Gump. You don’t have to be a Gauloises-smoking Jean Luc Godard stan in a turtle-neck to think that’s a shame.