Is original film in crisis? Last night I watched Taken 2 (and regretted it). Later this week I’m off to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, the 15th entry in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. They’re about to release the eighth Fast and Furious film for God’s sake. In a world dominated by franchises, should we fear for the original film?
Franchises are not inherently a bad thing— I’m counting down the days until the new Star Wars, but studio dependence on known moneymakers limits innovation and encourages lazy filmmaking. Consider Transformers: Age of Extinction, a film with all the creative flair of a branch of Costa. In its 165 minute running time (only 25 minutes shy of Gandhi), Michael Bay crams in more American flags, cliché-riddled monologues, and pandering mentions of the Chinese government than you can shake an exploding robotic stick at. The modern incarnation of Transformers was never stunning, but this, its fourth entry, plumbed new depths of banality receiving an 18 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes. And they’re making another.
Sure, hating on Michael Bay is hardly a controversial position, but the expectation that films will spawn sequels and that viewers will be willing to sit through these sequels, regardless of quality, is a problem of which Age of Extinction is but a symptom. Despite the overwhelmingly negative response to it, it was the only 2014 film to earn over one billion dollars worldwide. Is the answer therefore that critics are out of touch and audiences will pay to see ‘bad’ films? The evidence suggests not—rather that people will pay to see ‘bad’ films if they’re part of an established franchise. I’m not dismissing a beloved film here—people hated Age of Extinction, yet it was a resounding success.
Blade Runner, The Shawshank Redemption, and Children of Men all failed to make back their production budgets on first release. Those three have obviously paid off in the long run, but consider the likes of poor Jupiter Ascending, which fell $130 million short of its production budget. In a world with increasingly fickle viewers, an original film represents a massive financial risk for big studios. If I were an executive at Paramount, I’d make another Transformers movie.
Despite the overbearing and potentially damaging hegemony of the franchise film, the original film is still afloat. In the last three years, out of 25 Best Picture Oscar nominees, only Mad Max: Fury Road is part of a pre-existing movie franchise. Originals and continuations exist as two sides of the same coin—without the financial security of a big franchise release, a studio cannot afford to gamble on an original project. It is true that box office dominance has remained elusive in recent years with superheroes riding strong, but with a Best Picture gong for Moonlight, and the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk coming later this year, it is a definite exaggeration to say original film is in crisis.