“It’s a motion picture event you won’t want to miss!’
By now, phrases like the above have become something of a cliché in mass media. Entertainment studios today take a larger-scale approach to their marketing, building up an entire “event” around a new blockbuster movie, a season premiere or a shocking new episode.
But notice how they don’t say, “It’s a movie you won’t want to miss!”
That’s because in today’s entertainment world, the event surrounding the movie has become far more important than the movie itself. Advertisers realized that the best way to achieve big box office numbers was to focus more on drumming up a lot of hype to surround a movie than to actually create a great movie.
And moviegoers have followed right along.
The power of the franchise film
The rise of the “motion picture event” has a clear correlation with a loss of creativity in the entertainment industry over the past decade and a half. Compare the top 10 grossing movies of 2000 to those of 2014*:
*All numbers from www.boxofficemojo.com.
In 2000, only one movie in the box office top ten, Mission: Impossible II, was a sequel, and two others, X-Men and Meet the Parents, were the first movies of eventual franchises, though the latter certainly was neither expected nor intended to spawn a trilogy at the time.
A decade and a half later, however, the results are much different.
In 2014, six movies of the box office top 10 were sequels or franchise films. And this actually down from 2013, when eight movies of the box office top 10 were franchise films.
2015 is expected to produce more of the same, with big-time movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Jurassic World, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens all among the movies vying for the year’s top box office draw.
It’s not hard to see why entertainment companies are opting for more sequels and franchises. In the 2000s, we saw Marvel’s original Spiderman trilogy, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the Harry Potter franchise and the Lord of the Rings trilogy all smash box office records.
But with so many of these companies obsessed with latching on to the next big film franchise, room for originality in the moviemaking industry is rapidly shrinking.
Creating an “event”
It’s not enough for entertainment companies to find their big blockbuster franchise — today, the way to find success is to turn the release of a franchise installment into a major cultural event.
Lately, it’s been starting off with still photos. DC’s upcoming Suicide Squad is the biggest recent example of this. A single still photo that may or may not be a legitimate shot of Jared Leto’s Joker generated tens of thousands of retweets, and a simple Google search will reveal tons of debates online about his appearance and even full articles offering insight and review into the possibility of what each individual tattoo on his body meant.
Then, a couple weeks later, a shot of almost the full suicide squad went hugely viral, with more excited speculation about the depictions of each character.
But it’s not what’s in these photos that’s so interesting — it’s what’s not.
There is not, for instance, any semblance of information being revealed about the plot of the movie. There is not any information about how these characters will be portrayed.
What’s most important with the reveal of these photos is drumming up excitement. By publishing these photos depicting new versions of familiar characters, especially one so culturally important as the Joker, they essentially allow their audience to produce the hype for them.
All of this discussion and hype over one or two photos might seem absurd, but it’s again, it’s all about taking the first step to create a cultural “event.” And the internet is an extremely powerful tool for getting the hype started. The huge number of people on the internet wanting to share their predictions and opinions facilitates this whole process, and creates one gigantic snowball effect of hype.
Another trend that’s been interesting to watch evolve even over the past year has been the new use of teaser trailers and advertisements.
Teaser trailers are nothing new in the movie industry — for decades, films have often had two or three different trailers leading up to their release, each giving a progressively larger amount of information about the movie’s plot.
But lately, there’s been a trend of having teaser trailers… for teaser trailers.
Take a look:
Hell, even Super Bowl commercials were getting their own digital teaser trailers this year.
This has become the first step of building the “Motion Picture Event.” A commercial… to get people excited for later commercials.
And it’s brilliant. When a movie franchise has become as large as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars Universe, for example, even the tiniest hint of what’s to come is enough to get initiated fans excited. By strategically building the hype even a year out from the movie’s release with a 20-second teaser trailer for a teaser trailer, these movie companies are sowing the very first seeds of hype in the minds of their audiences. Some of the more excitable fans even create their own video reviews of the teaser trailers to put back into the vlogosphere.
From there, the hype machine continues to operate at increasing levels of power. Trailer releases get countdowns online and in television commercials. Memorabilia and collectibles come out for purchase months before the opening of the movie. Moviemakers and theaters alike push for big midnight release events to draw in die-hards of all ages.
And then the movie finally premieres.
Tropes on tropes
Be honest with yourself. Out of all the biggest blockbuster franchise films to come out in the last five years, how many of them are memorable because of their story and not the hype, action or jokes?
In my review for Avengers: Age of Ultron I talked about the issue of the first two Avengers movies being overly similar. But let’s take a look at another example from the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
In this movie, an arrogant protagonist thinks nothing of how his actions affect other people. His selfishness causes fractures in the relationships with those people who should be closest to him. However, his experiences in a tragic situation and temporary exile from his home cause him to realize his selfishness and rethink his overall attitude and priorities. The “changed” version of this protagonist develops a romantic interest in a woman to whom he never previously would have given a second thought.
But then, trouble arises when someone who the protagonist had once counted as a close ally reveals themselves to be a turncoat. This villain poses a significant threat to the protagonist’s home, but armed with a newfound sense of justice and selflessness, our hero is able to stop the villain’s evil plan and save the day.
Now quick: am I talking about Iron Man or Thor?
Sure, the details filled in around this general outline differentiate the movies enough to justify creating two different franchises. But exactly how much variance is there in the plots of big-time blockbusters these days?
A big part of the reason these movies aren’t able to stand out from each other in terms of their stories is because, in film franchises, you’re almost never building to a conclusion. We know James Bond is never in any actual danger of dying, because then the next movie couldn’t happen. We know Ultron isn’t actually going to succeed in his evil plans, because then what would happen with all this Thanos hinting? We know Kirk isn’t going to die at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, because we know this isn’t the final chapter of the franchise.
[For more on this subject: “Can Modern Blockbusters Still Create Tension?”]
The fact is, unless you’re in the final chapter of a movie franchise, there’s never any reason to worry about the fate of the characters or the success of the villain. And that lack of tension is the defining trait of today’s blockbuster. It’s the biggest reason all of these movies feel so similar. Moviemakers for these big blockbuster series are never able to build complete stories because they’re basically always in the middle of a franchise.
This is why the MOTION PICTURE EVENT is such a huge development for entertainment companies. With so many moviemakers being trapped into crafting stories with no conclusion in sight, there are only so many directions they can take with their plots. But the hype machine a company is able to build up around a franchise produces far more cash than a story arc that spans a single two-hour film.
And in the end, cash is what it’s all about… right?
And so it goes
To be clear, I’m not trying to say that modern blockbusters are inherently inferior forms of art. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the recent Marvel movies, I’m unreasonably amped for the new Star Wars this fall, and ditto for the next Bond flick.
There are inevitably going to be those people whose response is “not every movie has to be intellectually stimulating.” And that’s completely fair. But my concern isn’t so much with how smart a movie is as it is with how unique it is.
Today’s blockbusters are fun, but they’re not giving us any new stories. And so long as franchises and the Motion Picture Event continue to dominate box offices, it’s going to be harder for other standalone films trying new things to get the recognition they deserve by larger moviegoing audiences. In fact, the very idea that all of these “event” films are generally above average may actually be more harmful than if they were all awful.
The Motion Picture Event attracts people to the theater in droves because of the novelty. But novelty value always dies out, and when it does for the blockbuster film franchise, people will want to turn back to great stories.