Last Thursday, David Zaslav, CEO and President of Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), said his company plans to “focus on franchises.” “We haven’t had a Superman movie in 13 years. We haven’t done a Harry Potter in 15 years. The DC movies and the Harry Potter movies have given Warner Bros. a majority of the profits for the last 25 years,” Zaslav said at a meeting The Hollywood Reporter. He also mentioned that the studio is willing to look into producing a new Harry Potter film if controversial series writer JK Rowling comes on board. Zaslav’s comments make it clear that with the franchise model, the studios have recognized finances and profits as a higher priority than filmmaking itself. And this could have greater implications for cinema as an art and form of expression.
One of the most successful films of this year was that of Tom Cruise Top Gun: Maverick. Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Spider-Man: No Way Home were two of the most anticipated and most discussed films of the past year. Although franchises have been a mainstay in Hollywood for several decades, MCU arguably played a role in making franchises the dominant model of filmmaking in Hollywood. And Disney — the company that owns Marvel — is building not just the MCU, but other of its other movie franchises, such as Marvel war of stars and Indiana Jones. But a look at the business model of franchises under capitalism shows how stories become salable products – leading to storytelling itself being used for profit rather than art.
In recent months, VFX artists have complained that working conditions at Marvel are hurting them. Arguably the biggest contributor to the MCU’s visual exuberance, VFX artists remain constrained with little time, money, and creative energy due to Marvel’s factory model of filmmaking. Occasional instances where well-known filmmakers were signed with the company due to creative differences and then asked to leave the company also point to this changing approach to filmmaking. As The Swaddle previously noted, “Marvel is the result of what happens when capitalism meets cinema: it’s tasty, repetitive, safe and never subversive or risky, as art is sometimes required to be…in an effort to be at its zenith To stay within the cultural moment, the studio produces more, but also offers less.”
Associated with The Swaddle:
Why Martin Scorsese’s criticism of the Marvel franchise remains relevant
The other key aspect of franchise filmmaking is nostalgia and recognition. Take last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home for example. The film enjoyed massive box office success solely due to guest appearances and references from the previous sets of Spider-Man films. Critics noted that the film’s plot had many loopholes and problems and seemed contrived to meet the requirements of a deal between Disney and Sony. Despite such a weak story, fans loved the film simply because it was Spider-Man. Many critics, too, have largely overlooked all of the film’s glaring flaws in favor of nostalgia.
There’s a chicken-and-egg problem to contend with: Did the studios create the demand, or is it audience demand that’s forcing the studios? Some evidence points to the former. Franchised films not only interfere with filmmaking as a craft, but also create problems for independent releases. Vince Mancini, Senior Film and Culture Writer UproxxIn 2018, she wrote, “Last year (ie 2017) you had to go all the way down the North American box office to #13 to find a non-sequel, non-franchise, non-remake movie on the list of the year’s top-grossing films. In terms of all-time box office earnings, only two of the top 10 and three of the top 20 fall into this category.”
This is achieved in part by the sheer ability of a big-budget blockbuster to buy more screens, leaving smaller independent films and sometimes even mid-budget projects stuck. Earlier this year, Disney reportedly locked down virtually every screen in several theaters for showing Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness. Expanding on this phenomenon, Mancini explains, “The truth is, they[film studios]just don’t seem to do it to need them (new ideas) so much. You certainly don’t invest in them. The business has shifted to brands and franchises and the extent to which this has happened would shock anyone who is not in the business professionally.”
Franchise companies remain money-minting machines for media corporations, even if there may not be any active or upcoming projects with them. Through merchandising and intellectual property licensing to a select few other companies, the studios have persuaded consumers of their media not only to pay to watch their films, but also to own memorabilia and other products related to those films. And consumers are encouraged to only purchase products that bear an official company stamp to prove they are a true fan. As an article on the world of Star Wars merch notes, “The hunger for product persisted even during a long dry spell with no new films. The original product line continued to grow, which in turn funded the digitization and remastering of the first three films for re-release in the 1990s.”
Similarly, the Harry Potter franchise that Zaslav is so keen to revive generates more than $26 million in annual sales from its themed stores across the UK alone. Toys and other official merchandise have brought the franchise $7.3 billion — nearly the same amount as the collective worldwide gross of all eight films in the series. These stores and toys ensured that audiences remembered the character and the lore long after the original film series had left theaters – laying the groundwork for possible reboots or spin-offs. Merchandising may now be the more profitable – and therefore paramount – industry than filmmaking itself.
The success of No way home led to Disney and Sony resuming negotiations to explore a new deal for Spider-Man – who has been erased from all memories in the film’s universe – to continue appearing in the MCU, which may force the writers to consider a to come up with an even more elaborate plot explain how the character is suddenly remembered again. But if the success of No way home is a hint that that bit of explanation really doesn’t matter as long as enough cameos and callbacks are part of the film. So it can be said that franchise filmmaking has changed the priorities that a filmmaker can have when conceiving a story to be told. In the franchise, the story can also come at the very end.
But aside from deteriorating working conditions, eating up space in theaters, and changing the order of priorities in the filmmaking process, perhaps the biggest impact franchises have had on filmmaking has been that even filmmakers who are opposed to the idea of it do now. Three years ago, veteran filmmaker Martin Scorsese stirred up a hornet’s nest when he said the MCU films were “closer to theme parks than movies,” adding, “Ultimately, I don’t think they’re cinema,” Scorsese’s comments angered loyal Marvel and Disney fans; There was a massive backlash and Scorsese was seen as too stuck in his definition of cinema. As time has gone by, however, there’s mounting evidence that Scorsese’s comments about franchise filmmaking — and comparing it to theme parks — were pretty accurate.
Director James Cameron has also recently struck at franchise superhero films. The Canadian filmmaker has been a constant, vocal critic of superhero movies, most recently stating that “the way DC and Marvel movies are made is not the way movies are made.” Ironically, his comments came from during the press tour The way of the watera sequel to avatar, his visual magnum opus and highest grossing film. Indeed, the era of franchise films has only just begun.