Studios don’t need to rely on franchises to make commercially successful films
I was sceptical about Guardians of the Galaxy when I first learnt about it. It seemed a bit too goofy and random to me but it looks like I might need to eat my words. While I’ve not seen it yet – damn you revision! – I’m hearing good things about it. And more importantly for the people who decide which films get made it’s making a tonne of money: almost a $100 million in the US alone.
At least some studio execs will presumably take the fact that the Marvel franchise has churned out another mega million earning success as evidence that they need to make even more franchises.
In in the process of suggesting 10 Lessons From The Surprising Success Of Guardians of the Galaxy, IO9’s Charlie Jane Anders adds an important caveat: Marvel is a studio as well as a franchise.
A good brand is more than just a bigger version of a franchise.
Everybody’s been learning the wrong lesson from Marvel’s success, basically — all of the other studios have been rushing to create “mega-franchises,” with Sony trying to turn just the Spider-Man films into a whole shared universe. But Marvel’s box-office onslaught isn’t just thanks to the fact that these films cross over and the heroes team up sometimes — it’s also just a strong brand, that people trust at this point. A brand that’s not tied to any particular set of characters, or even one set style. Basically, the indispensible Scott Mendelson at Forbes is right when he calls Marvel the new Pixar. And announcing a release date for Guardians 2 at Comic-Con was a genius move — it signaled confidence, and created a lot of extra buzz in the entertainment press.
Remakes, reboots and sequels are missing the point.
Nobody wanted a somewhat generic new action movie called Total Recall or RoboCop, to name just two examples. They wanted movies that felt the way the original films did, back in the day. Too much of the desperation to mine the past of science fiction and fantasy hinges on “name recognition” and plundering basic concepts, and not enough of it actually focuses on why those movies worked in the first place. To use an 80s metaphor, people don’t want New Coke, they want Coke.
At this point Marvel’s success owes nothing to the audience already being familiar with the material. I know some people will have heard of Drax the Destroyer before the film but not many; before the films were announced the comics had only a few thousand readers and zero broader cultural resonance. Like Anders I think that it’s the studio’s track record and the trust that comes with it that draws punters in.
I sort of wish that we paid more attention to which studios were making films. If they thought their reputations would be damaged by say putting all the best bits of a film in the trailer then they might stop doing it!
However, strong studio brands have their drawbacks. While it’s often implied that franchises are stifling creativity, I’m not sure that’s really true. Franchises don’t intrinsically constrain film-makers to that great extent because they can interpret the source material in a multiplicity of ways. For example, compare (or rather contrast) how Batman has been interpreted by Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan.
Branding, however, requires intense quality control as gambles that go wrong can tarnish that brand. As became rather clear when Edgar Wright walked away from his role as director of Ant Man, Marvel does an awful lot of meddling with its filmmakers’ work. So while studio brands may make for commercial success (and a solid string of consistently entertaining films), if you are attracted by the notion of visionary auteurs* then it’s an idea you will have a lot to fear from it.