It’s the time of year when just about every film magazine, website and YouTube channel is setting out its list of Must See Films for the next twelve months.
I’ve always thought there was something a bit presumptuous about the tone of those previews. When did it become compulsory to see an approved list of movies? I have visions of being pulled over by the Film Police for having failed to observe the list of 10 Superhero Movies You Must See in 2015.
“I’m sorry, officer. It was Fantastic Four. I’d been working long hours, it was hard to get a babysitter and … well, the reviews were at best lukewarm. Let me off the ticket and I promise to get the Blu-ray.”
But perhaps my problem with these lists is that they remind me of the cynical efficiency with which genre movies are planned and marketed – way before they are finished and, in some cases, even before anyone has concerned themselves with minor details like scripts. People in Hollywood often seem to have a much better idea of what films we’ll be seeing over the coming months, or years, than we do. And while it can be fun to look ahead at the almost bewildering array of entertainment that is in store for us, I can’t help feeling some of the fun is being driven out of the genre.
Not so many years ago, no one had heard films described as “franchises”, like fast food brands. But now the term is used commonly, even approvingly, by viewers (or should that be consumers?) as well as the industry. For a film studio, a successful film is all well and good, but the real money is in producing a successful franchise.
The result is that cycles of films are planned and scheduled several years in advance. Disney has been the sharpest player at all this. When its early Marvel Studios releases paid off, it set to work planning a slate of films that would come in “waves”, with its various individual superhero franchises intersecting for the occasional Avengers title.
When Disney paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm, it was clear the studio knew what it wanted from the deal. It wanted Star Wars product, starting with the Episode VII fans had dreamed of and continuing every year, with numbered sequels alternating with films based around individual characters.
Back in the 20th century, the business of producing movie sequels was pretty simple. If a film was a hit, you found a way to follow it up. Dracula might have turned to dust, but you could have him revived. The killer shark might have been blown up, but you could dream up another one – and another. The screenwriter Paul Dehn was instructed to end Beneath the Planet of the Apes with the destruction of the Earth and no possibility of any characters surviving. Then, when the film was a hit, he was told to devise a sequel.
Since nobody knew when the box office revenue stream would run dry, people didn’t think more than one film ahead – until George Lucas was presumptuous enough to assume that The Empire Strikes Back might make a lot of money and could therefore end with a cliffhanger.
Those days of the one-at-a-time sequel look positively innocent now. Today, we can expect one Star Wars film a year until 2019, two DCs a year until 2020, and up to three Marvels annually until the same date.
I don’t want to decry all these films, because they can be very enjoyable. Marvel has certainly kept up a pretty good hit rate so far. But with the production lines running at that speed, it’s hard to see how the genre fan is expected to see much else.
Great genre movies, from Forbidden Planet to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and from Star Wars to Inception, were unlike anything else of their era. They were not part of a strategy drawn up years in advance to keep exploiting a known market. Landmark films like those may continue to crop up in the coming years – but generally, classics don’t emerge from a business plan.