Franchises: the comfort food for our minds
Ron Seifried | On 17, Sep 2014The modern franchise era has become a dumping ground for recognizable stories in the hope that audiences will be comfortable enough with familiar characters and open their wallets or turn on their televisions (at minimum setup the DVR). Hollywood’s penchant for returning to past glories is not a new phenomenon, but today it has reached dizzying heights. It is almost impossible to not hear of a another reboot, sequel or remake in development on any given news day. Studios are clamoring to drag out all of their old properties and dust them off for further exploitation on an unassuming and uneducated younger millennial. In the past, studios would wait over twenty years before even attempting a remake. That time difference is now sometimes reduced to five years. The only reason for Hollywood’s reboot craze is not for an easy and quick profit. The buying audience is complicit in the demand for rehashed old ideas. The public is not actually outraged or weary with the recently announced reboot of I Know What You Did Last Summer, as read on Facebook comment posts. Like sheep being led to slaughter, a large enough mass will pay enough to see the low budget film, enough to greenlight a sequel to the reboot. Franchises are not a new genre. It has been around since the silent movie era of 80 years ago. Rudolph Valentino was America’s #1 heartthrob, a box-office superstar in the 1920’s that starred in one of the earliest first feature-length sequel, Son of the Sheik. Released after his premature death in 1927, the film made mucho dinero and cemented Valentino’s legacy. Before television, audiences went to the movies, during a time when it was not uncommon to sit through several film shorts. Because of the average length of these mini celluloid fables, aka film serials, an ongoing series of plots and character pieces were revisited on a regular basis for paying customers returning to the theaters, sometimes on a weekly basis. It would take the film serial over thirty years to evolve into the weekly television series, where corporate sponsors would replace ticket buyers, but for the 20’s, 30’s & 40’s, the only mode of visual entertainment was at the movies. In the 1920’s, there was Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the Keystone Cops and the trusting German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin. The 1930’s witnessed the arrival of sound and with that came the Our Gang (aka Little Rascals), the Three Musketeers, Tarzan and Flash Gordon. But the franchise movement did not stop at 20 minutes or less. Feature length productions started and the inevitable expansion of film franchises, including Charlie Chan, the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney and the Universal Studio Monsters of Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man and the Mummy.
Familiarity breeds contempt. But it also generates revenue.The 1930’s witnessed one of the worst financial depressions the U.S has seen, but Hollywood was continuously expanding its initial phase of sequel mania. The mentally depressed public was hungry for comfort food, not only on the plate, but as escapism from their dark lives. Hollywood was there to serve up cuisine, stale or not, and audiences were waiting on line for their intellectual morsels. The post World War II era had a booming economy, domestic manufacturing was on the rise, the birth of suburbs and with that local shopping malls and drive-in theaters. It was also an unprecedented time for original storytelling. The film industry had new competition with television, and with that had to create new productions to attract an ever divided audience. The 1950’s and 60’s hardly had any sequels, and the few remakes were of films either 20+ years old or sourced from a different country, Loyal disciples of the French New Wave, Kurosawa and Italian cinema helped reshape Hollywood at the end of the big Studio age. The bold new direction of the film school generation challenged American audiences with compelling and original works of art. Films such as The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider temporarily changed the landscape. The dawn of the Blockbuster era had arrived by the 1970’s, with Jaws and Star Wars leading the way. The film school graduates that helped dismantle the staid, old studio system were becoming the very dictators they once abhorred. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and even Martin Scorsese gave into the temptation to stay relevant in the hyper-active, “greed-is-good” 1980’s by returning past success’s and their built-in audiences.
1990’s and BeyondThe post-911 world witnessed a dramatic shift in the entertainment landscape. American’s were bemoaning the loss of innocence and simpler times. The War on Terror and the Economic Collapse redefined what was politically correct, thereby dictating what should be produced. Hollywood is a reactionary town. Old media conglomerates gave way to the blogosphere, where everybody is getting a chance for their 15 minutes of fame, albeit anonymously. Film and television execs are studying Facebook comments and Twitter feeds like the Torah for the slight modicum of inspiration. They check Amazon reviews and Netflix streaming ratings for properties that their studio owns and can be produced with the latest talentless crop of Disney has-beens. Some bemoan that Hollywood has run out of ideas. But with film and audio equipment more affordable, media distribution readily available and crowd sourcing redefining production values, what happened to the artists that bitched they can do it better? The independent film revival of the 1990’s introduced many promising directors and writers that would lead the new revolution. But even they sold out. Indy darlings Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez have cranked out forgettable sequels, at the same time complaining there is no money or audience for smaller, original films. The myriad of comic-book features has become so saturated in a very short amount of time, that reboots are rushed into production within a couple of years. The Golden Age of Television is so overpopulated with series reboots, spinoffs and crossovers, its difficult to navigate even for the most dedicated couch potato.
As American’s get more obese chomping on their familiar snacks, the brain cells reflect on what is viewable on the screen in front of our eyes. They may comment online that a Problem Child spinoff series is a terrible idea and no one can replace John Ritter. But ratings will prove once again that franchises are a consumable product.
Let’s face it. American’s are frightened. Frightened of war, terrorism, guns, crime, religion, finances, education and our own personal freedom and future., American’s want to crawl back into the womb position to a more simpler time, even it only exists in our imagination. Franchises are the comfort food for our minds.