Franchise films now dominate cinemas – and toy stores
The stock market tanks. Personal bankruptcies are on the rise.
Yet Hollywood is doing better than ever – this summer's release schedule will probably be the most profitable in history.
It's not an unfamiliar pattern. Ever since the Great Depression, people have flocked to the movies when times are tough to forget their troubles. But this summer's blockbuster hits also underline certain trends that have come to dominate contemporary popular culture.
First of all, marketing rules. An entertaining story with popular stars is often no longer enough. Nowadays a mass-entertainment product needs a hook to cut through the clutter. And brand-name recognition has become the name of the game.
Most of the major releases this summer are spin-offs of existing franchises – either sequels (The Sum of All Fears, Star Wars: Episode II, Men in Black II, Spy Kids 2, Stuart Little 2 and so on) and remakes (Mr. Deeds) or feature-film versions of TV shows (Scooby-Doo, The Power Puff Girls and Hey Arnold) and comic strips (Spider-Man). The number of “franchise films” released this summer is extraordinary even by Hollywood's standards.
A typical example is the current hit Austin Powers in Goldmember, which is on track to rake in more bucks than its two predecessors. The lead character, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Mike Myers (Wayne's World), is a humorous cross between the two British superspies James Bond and Harry Palmer (The Ipcress File), and its complicated plot is a clever send-up of the kinds of predicaments these 1960s movie heroes used to find themselves in. Most of the laughs depend on similar pop-culture references. It's pure, shallow escapism.
The film's best sequence is the celebrity-filled opening that makes fun of the Austin Powers franchise itself. From there on, it's downhill. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) and co-writers Myers and Michael McCullers recycle the colorful characters from the previous Powers movies with little imagination.
Austin's main nemesis is still the pinkie-waving Dr. Evil (Myers), who's assisted by his rebellious son Scott (Seth Green) and the midget-sized clone Mini-Me (Verne J. Troyers).
The suave Basil Exposition (Michael York) also returns as Austin's spy agency boss, and Myers does his shtick as the Japanese wrestler with the Scottish accent until it's no longer funny.
The new characters, who propel what passes for a story, are somewhat more inventive. Austin must save the life of his swinger father Nigel (Michael Caine, star of The Ipcress File) who always neglected him. This legendary 1960s spy is menaced by the freckled, Dutch, criminal mastermind, Goldmember (Myers), a roller-skating caricature of the most famous James Bond villain, Goldfinger. Austin's ally in this mission is the tough, two-fisted Foxxy Cleopatra (Beyonce Knowles), who looks like she stepped out of a 1970s blaxploitation film (Coffy, Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones).
The movie unfolds like a series of thinly strung together Saturday Night Live sketches. Whenever the film-makers run out of comic ideas, they try to plug in the gaps with bathroom humor characterized by gross-out gags and dialogue too raucous even for late-night TV. It's hard to believe the movie's rating is PG-13. Even five years ago it would have gotten an R. However, many parents don't seem too mind, judging from the large number of kids under 12 at the screening I attended.
Goldmember is the kind of easy-to-market product that 21st-century audiences seem to crave. Understandably, many film buffs are unhappy with this trend. For a brief period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, it's perceived that Hollywood allowed a generation of filmmakers to flourish who used mass entertainment to make personal statements (Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and others). This era is considered to have been killed by the franchise “event” films of George Lucas (Star Wars) Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones) and James Cameron (Terminator). For that mindset, the summer of 2002 is the final nail in the coffin.
But issues other than box office versus artistic freedom are in play. The saturation of the movie market by these franchise/event films marks a further evolution in the relationship of movies to the larger culture.
These brand-name films are also designed to spin off other products. (For example, Warner Bros. only gave the go-ahead to Scooby-Doo when it learned that it could net more than $30 million in profits from stuffed animals and coloring books alone.) Merchandising tie-ins have become one of the primary engines driving Hollywood production.
Lucas often speaks of recreating the archetypes of ancient mythology in his movies. But now these archetypes must be able to connect with contemporary audiences on a wider range of platforms than just movies.
A whole generation of filmgoers is growing up expecting to find tokens of favorite films reproduced in other outlets. When kids walk into a toy store, they assume they will be able to by Star Wars “light sabers” or Spider-Man backpacks. In video arcades they want to play games modeled on Jurassic Park. A movie that doesn't generate these spin-offs may be unsatisfying to them.
It's easy to condemn this trend as consumerism carried to excess, but not all the news is bad: Not every franchise film is like Goldmember. Hollywood is also producing more family-friendly films than a decade ago. It's just a different marketing niche.
In any case, the success of this summer's brand-name films indicates that we're entering a “brave, new world” of some sort. For better or for worse, the only thing certain is that some of the old cultural rules no longer apply.
John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.