Franchise has become a dirty word. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has avoided them altogether, somehow only ever exposing themselves to new works by new voices done for art’s sake entirely, but on the whole, there seems to be a consensus that the business of storytelling is about rinse and repeat, regurgitate and recycle. Some part of our romantic artistic soul wants to believe that stories are told because they have to be rather than because they have to be… for money.
I’ve already discussed why I don’t think an artist has to be completely divorced from money in order to create imaginative, wonderful works. Most of the famous paintings and sculptures hanging up in galleries today were commissioned by wealthy benefactors, kings, or religious institutions. Most of the great films had a bean counter pulling the strings at some point. Even the novel isn’t immune to the temptations of money; and hell, isn’t following an author’s works kind of like being pulled into a sort of franchise?
So in the general sense, I don’t think franchises are objectively wrong. But I do think it’s interesting the way our brains are wired when it comes to addressing this topic. On the one hand, most of us are tired of the same reboots, rehashes, and sequel-itis that plagues movie theaters, and yet if box office receipts are any indication, we’re still going to see these films to which we ostensibly object.
I had an experience the other day that perfectly illustrates this divide between the two halves of our collective brains. I was reading a speech by Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson that he presented to retailers, and it’s a pretty blistering screed against the current state of the industry, essentially arguing for storytelling for storytelling’s sake, rather than for marketing’s sake.
He was frustrated that the two big companies, Marvel and DC, had fallen back on variant covers, gimmick crossover events, and reboots rather than what earned them their fame and fortune to begin with: great, original characters and fiendishly fresh and exciting stories. He also argued that smaller comic book companies who exist solely to crank out licensed comics of franchises that previously existed in other mediums (X-Files, Buffy, GI Joe, and Star Wars, for instance) were essentially a bunch of hacks.
In other words, it’s exactly what critics are saying in other industries, whether it’s cinema in the wake of blockbuster franchises or in literary circles with mainstream genre novels.
They’re all saying that franchises make the art of storytelling look like a scam. It’s all about selling tickets or novels or moving comic books and the best way to do that is to promise large but instead deliver the same story that made a whole helluva lot of money last time around, only with little bits changed here and there.
But as much as you and I might agree with this on principle, then we hear about our favorite television show returning with a new season, or see a trailer for the sequel to that movie we absolutely adored, or in my case, I finish reading the Eric Stephenson screed and click on a link that shows me this:
The monologue running in my head as I transitioned between the two web pages went something like, “You know, he’s got a point. This crass conveyor belt mentality continues to produce mediocrity and distract readers from better, more mature works that are running under the–OMG, is that the mother-effin’ FLASH??!! When does this come out???!!! Why aren’t there episodes for me to watch right fucking now??!!!?!?!”
So how to reconcile these two contradictory thoughts? The trick, I think, is to acknowledge that there’s some gray area at work here. If we take the example of the comics industry, Stephenson was right about variant covers and enormous crossovers that are the storytelling equivalent of Las Vegas slot machines: colorful, flashy, and utterly incomprehensible until something rewarding randomly happens, tempting you to drop in another quarter to see what happens next.
He’s also mostly correct that the big guys are afraid of risk. They have a lot of money tied up in licensing, brand awareness, movie deals, etc. etc. etc. They’re going to keep producing Spider-Man comics well beyond the time that you and I are six feet deep in the ground. But really, they’re doing what any company does. They’re following the easiest path to making lots of money, only mixing things up when absolutely necessary.
I’m using the example of the comics industry, but this could just as easily be applied to any “creative” industry: music, film, novels, etc.
But here’s where the critics who belly-ache about these kinds of things are a little blind. Beneath all the marketing razzle-dazzle, there are still good stories being told in franchise art, because there are people working on those properties that genuinely love them, and are passionate about producing the best material possible with those characters and within that universe.
A screenwriter that comes on to the latest James Bond movie is going to be gung-ho about making the best possible version of that character he can, which is not to say that it will be a transcendent experience. Sure, sometimes it sucks anyway, and yes, sometimes the people at the very top restrict the creative people from doing the best possible job, but nine times out of ten, I don’t feel like the folks in the trenches of these franchises are anything less than 100% behind trying to make the best movie/novel/television show/comic book possible.
The people at the top of the food chain making all the money may not really care whether the product is good or crap so long as it makes a lot of money, but creative people are almost always there because they want to be, and there have been plenty of examples of excellent artistic work being done in franchises; like I’ve said before, art and business don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The other charge that gets leveled at franchises is that mainstream, big business storytelling drowns out smaller, smarter, more skilled work from people who aren’t looking to appeal to the idiotic masses. On the one hand, I can agree that there’s an inherent tragedy in the fact that the Hollywood that used to release mainstream films that ran the gamut of different genres is now almost entirely focused on sequels to movies with lots of CG explosions, but at the same time, there are probably more movies available to the average moviegoer now than ever before with the proliferation of independent cinema, the effects of globalization, and the ease of access to the Internet. In the old days, you were limited by what hit the one or two theaters in your town. Now, you can stream some French film no one’s ever heard about directly to your television.
And when it comes to comics or novels, the same is true as well. Obviously, the success of things like The Walking Dead or Saga are clear indicators that there is a market for people who want to read comic books that don’t have people in loud costumes and capes beating each other up. Could you say the same fifteen or twenty years ago? Not really.
And if the Internet has done nothing else, it has certainly democratized writing. The proof is that you’re reading this blog from a guy who has not moved tens of millions of copies of novels (yet, anyway!).
And finally, the most important thing to consider about franchises is that clearly there is an audience that still wants to revisit these characters and these situations and see these stories continue. If there was nothing left to mine, no stories left to tell, the audience probably would have figured it out eventually and started to disperse, and the companies would move on to something that was more likely to be profitable.
There will always be franchises, because there will always be people who want to know what happens next. Or they had such a good time exploring a particular piece of art, that they want to relive that experience, chase that high of their first initial exposure.
Let me give you an example. I don’t know why I still follow Batman. I’ve been reading the comic book for probably a little over two decades, I’ve seen all the animated shows, played the video games, watched all the movies religiously. I first became exposed to the character from the old Adam West television show. Then I started reading the comics… and they were WAY different. Then it was the cartoons. I got sucked into this vortex of wildly different interpretations of this character and the depth and the density of the material that existed about him only enticed me to keep digging, to keep exploring and try to rationalize all these paradoxical incarnations.
But really, at this stage in my life, after digging for this long and realizing that the paradoxes were not the grand design of a genius creator, but instead a bunch of different artists steering the character into something they liked better, what more could there possibly be to get out of this character? Why do I keep coming back, again and again? What new thing could anyone bring to this character and his world that hasn’t already been done better at some point before?
Hell if I know.
On the one hand, I think the reason that we return to franchises is because they are comforting and familiar. Sometimes we want to be challenged, and sometimes we want to read about a billionaire who dresses up as a bat and punches clowns in their stupid, criminal faces. And sometimes in the process of reading about clowns getting punched in the face, we are still challenged, and that is truly an amazing feeling. It’s like going out for ice cream and in between bites having an epiphany about your place in the world.
Maybe you can’t relate to that particular fetish of mine. But I know you’ve got an addiction, too. Maybe it’s for war movies (how many times do you have to watch the Nazis get their butts kicked?); maybe it’s for sports (how many times do you have to watch your home team score a touchdown?); maybe it’s a series of mystery novels (how many times do you have to read about Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple or Poirot solve a case?); maybe it’s a particular music group (how many times do you have to listen to the Beastie Boys?).
The point is that we are all slaves to certain levels of familiarity. And while I wish I was the kind of guy that could go cold turkey on the Caped Crusader, the truth is that in between challenging myself with films and novels that I don’t know whether I’m going to love or hate, it’s pretty great to read a Batman story and be fairly certain that it’s going to be right up my Crime Alley.
So, yeah, marketing sucks, and when it comes to storytelling, which is so precious to us, the hand of the guy trying to take money from your pocket should be as invisible as possible. When you start to realize that someone’s only telling you about the new Flash series to distract you from his friend, who’s got your wallet almost completely out of your back pocket, it ruins the all-important illusion that we love these things because they’re good and meaningful and artistic and not because they just happen to make a helluva lotta money.
Of course, what happens when we do finally tire of a franchise, and how do we reconcile this contradictory impulse we all have for closure in storytelling, knowing damn well that this self-replicating story with a beginning and lots of middles will probably never end?
Those questions will have to wait… for the sequel.