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Genre Goes to the Movies

Each year at around this time, we’re inundated with so-called ‘event’ movies. It’s summertime in the US, a season when movie studios release their tentpole films, the one’s they’ve sunk huge amounts of cash into in the hope of being one of the top-grossing films of the year. It’s almost impossible to separate the economics of these films from their artistic merits. Films of the scale of X-Men First Class simply couldn’t exist if they weren’t approached from a business perspective first and foremost. The economic reality is that most of the major movie studios today are parts of much larger transnational corporations, meaning that their annual allocation of funds depends on how much they were able to make in the previous twelve months. So the pressure really is on for these studios to come up with profitable films.

Box office takings have become a measure of success to such a degree that most movie fansites have regular updates on weekend figures and projections as to how certain films will do. Box Office Mojo is a site dedicated to nothing else but box office takings and meticulously charts the international financial success of films. It’s instructional to take a look at the highest grossing films of the last ten years worldwide.

  • 2001 – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • 2002 – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • 2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • 2004: Shrek 2
  • 2005: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • 2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
  • 2007: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
  • 2008: The Dark Knight
  • 2009: Avatar
  • 2010: Toy Story 3
  • 2011 (so far): Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

So the lesson that movie studios take from this is that if they want to make money, serious money then the way to it is by releasing sequels to popular films that are based on something already popular. Or to be James Cameron. The ‘franchise’ film has become a genre unto itself with its own tropes and expectations. But the question is how organically this has happened. Are we watching these films because we genuinely like them, or are we watching them because they’re simply what’s on offer? Are we suckers?

Most film buffs and movie fans love to complain. We complain that Hollywood only releases re-makes and re-boots and sequels, and when we watch them we complain even more. Yet we’re constantly going to see them. Trailers make us excited. How is it that a film like Transformers 3 is almost sure to be a huge hit despite the fact that everyone hated part 2?

We usually have someone trot out that idea that complaining is part of the fun. Isn’t that part of the package, the ability to analyse the film to death and opine about all the wrong decisions the filmmakers made? I personally think it’s more about optimism. We go to the movies, especially movies like this, to escape. We’re looking for a moment to step out of our lives and into something else and we hope that the experience will be a good one. So when we see a trailer for Transformers 3, despite the fact that we hated Transformers 2, it looks escapist enough and possibly fun enough that we’re willing to take the risk (please note this is just an example, I will in no way shape or form ever be watching Transformers 3)

It seems that there’s a big disconnect between what movie audiences say and what they do. But the ‘franchise’ genre has cleverly capitalised on that disconnect by allowing audiences to have a reason to attend a film that is almost certainly of poor quality. Tapping into things like nostalgia and widespread cultural awareness piques curiosity in a way that drives people into cinemas.

A good example of the ‘franchise’ genre is that of the new Star Trek movie that was directed by JJ Abrams (I know this is the second post in a row that’s seen me talk about Star Trek, I’m not that guy, don’t worry). The new Trek tapped into nostalgia (only referencing the ’60s incarnation) and cultural awareness (Kirk and Spock are icons) to the point that there wasn’t much explaining for the filmmakers to do. Other major ‘franchise’ tropes that were observed were the telling of the story in a slightly different (sexy/gritty) way, redesigns of sets and costumes that emphasise retro chic and a definitive ending for part 1 with a door wide open for back-to-back sequels.

The franchise as genre is here to stay, at least until people start turning away from it. But they haven’t for at least a decade now, and the only question is what nostalgic TV show or movie series with high cultural awareness will be plundered next?

Written by Mark Harding

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