There was a time when hype was built up for a great movie experience. All cinephiles can remember that excitement for the motion picture event of the year. There was Jaws in 1975. There was Jurassic Park in 1993. There was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999. The was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001. There was Avatar in 2009.
The world was given glimmers of the promise of truly breathtaking filmmaking leading up to the release of each of these films. People rushed to the cinemas to see something that became more than a movie, it was a global phenomenon, something that changed the way we think about film culturally. Where has that gone?
For studios, it’s no longer about one film anymore. It’s about franchises. Why put all of your eggs into one basket when you can have multiple baskets? And it has drained the creativity and ingenuity out of the Hollywood marketplace.
The tentpole film is dead for the moment. It can always come back. It probably will at some point. But one film is no longer enough for studios right now. It’s the franchise that rules.
The term is called Marvelitis. It started with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characters of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor were each given their own separate films before joining up in a mash-up Avengers film (2012). Then the list of characters expanded and more individual films were made before they all joined up again in a second Avengers film (2015). And more characters will be given their own films and more team-ups will come together, an ever expanding universe. And not only have the films become successful, but there is now a need to see all the films in order to stay up in the continuity of the overall story, and the more entries into the MCU, the more opportunities for merchandising. Ever going. On and on.
And studios are now copying Marvel’s success. The Justice League, the Transformers, the Ghostbusters, the Men in Black, 21 Jump Street, Star Wars. As long as a studio has a hot franchise (or in some cases even not so hot), it can create its own series of films and hook viewers into a continuum storyline in order to suck as much profit as it can out of a franchise’s bone marrow.
The problem then is that nothing of much substance happens in the films. When drastic things happen in the plot, the story is closer to its end. In order to stretch out the story as much as possible, dramatic things have to be delayed, which leads to far less interesting stories. The results are watered down films where not a lot happens.
And the effect on the audience is a dilution of substance. We are not as emotionally engaged anymore because we know certain characters are “safe.” Captain America is not going to die because he is signed on for three more films. And even when characters die, they often come back, further diminishing the effect of death in film. The dramatic stakes are immediately lessened based on the cinematic universe approach.
Audiences will tire of this approach eventually. There are already box office signals that the ruse of milking profit and franchises for all their worth is fading. It will take a few years still, but it will happen. Will the movie event of the year film come back at that point? Perhaps. A true emotive film experience is not built up over a series of watered down movies, but over true emotional change in the life circumstances of characters, full of love and loss and hope and desire. The movie events of year’s past had those qualities in spades in addition to advances in technology and breathtaking thrills. They can’t be back soon enough.