Cinema's New Age - The Serial
In a previous blog I noted how there were far more reboots, remakes, and sequels than original properties touted as the big releases of the coming year. It is without question that we find ourselves in a new age of cinema, where the Serial is king. All the remakes, and the reboots are not being made just because Hollywood has lost it's creativity or for fear of trying something new. It's because now, when a studio starts work on a new property the goal has become "how can we turn this one film, into 5 films?", "how can we work this into an ongoing series?"
In the nerdwriter1's excellent video essay he postulates that the nature of the serial can be a benefit to us, the audience. He notes that the on-going nature allows serialised franchises to be responsive to their audience.
Indeed he notes the example of The Force Awakens putting a focus on practical effects as a response to audiences' criticism of the use of mass cgi in the prequels. Indeed, in the behind-the-scenes reel released between the initial teaser trailer, and the full-length trailer the opening spiel was "Real sets, practical effects; you've been here but you don't know this story. Nothing's changed really. Well, everything's changed but nothing's changed."
These few words accomplish many things extremely efficiently. Those first 4 words, and the final sentence serve to immediately distance this film from the prequels that came before it, and in doing so provide a pretty damning indictment of the prequel trilogy. The message is clear: "we agree with you, the fans". The middle sentence then speaks to the format of serialisation. It reminds the viewing audience that they already love the setting of the film, but that they'll get more of it.
In just a few short sentences Disney managed to allay fans' worst fears and in a final stroke of genius this message was delivered not by J.J. Abrams, or Kathleen Kennedy but by Mark Hamill. By having the actor who played arguably the most beloved character in the entirety of the Star Wars mythos deliver these words the message become more reassuring, and more trustworthy.
The Force Awakens is not the first time that Star Wars has responded like this however. It been made known since the prequel trilogy was completed that the despised character of Jar Jar Binks was initially set to have a much larger role through the whole trilogy. George Lucas can be quoted saying "Jar Jar is the key to all of this" during production; yet episodes 2 and 3 barely featured the character. So, the nerdwriter1 is correct that serialisation can have a positive effect on an ongoing story arc. However, this responsiveness can also have a negative effect.
If Star Wars is the great example of responsiveness done right, D.C. Comics is the example of how not to do it. D.C. could be characterised as being over-responsive and almost panicky. Following their release of their Superman reboot Man of Steel, D.C. were desperate to get in on the serial game and create an "expanded universe" of interconnected films. Their first film following this was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you think the title is a mouthful, the film is even more overstuffed as D.C. looked to play catch-up with rivals Marvel who already had a well established serialised strategy. Man of Steel and BvS were themselves styled as a result of the positive response that the Dark Knight trilogy had been met with for it's grittier, more realistic tone. They would have been shocked therefore when response to Man of Steel was luke-warm, and the response to BvS was downright abysmal. This coincided with Marvel's critically acclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy being released; a film that was very lighthearted and was hailed as having a great soundtrack of pop/rock songs. D.C. panicked.
Their next film, Suicide Squad, was already in production and looked all-set to follow in the darker tones of it's predecessors. The film underwent massive reshoots and studio mandated changes. The result was an incoherent mess of a film. Both the tone, and the story was inconsistent and it heavily featured a mass slew of pop/rock hits as D.C. again learned the wrong lessons from Guardians of the Galaxy. We've no way of knowing how good Suicide Squad may have been if it had stuck to it's guns. Chances are it would still have been a poor film, but it would at least have been coherent, consistent.
For me though, there is one major ill with serialised franchises that the nerdwriter1 only briefly touched on. During his video essay he remarks that "the serial is the perfect form for capitalism". But what is good for the makers, is bad for us - the consumers. One major feature of a serialised format is the introduction of sub-plots, but in the effort to make the story a continuum these sub-plots are never resolved. We know, for instance, that in the Marvel franchise Iron-Man and Captain America will always be at loggerheads, constantly butting heads and never resolving their differences because the story must go on. Equally, watching a Marvel movie without having seen all the others in the franchise, even ones that are not direct preceding films, can make you feel like you may be missing key parts of the story because of references you don't understand and here lies the biggest problem.
Serialisation works so well for television because as long as we have the channel or streaming service it is aired on, we know we'll be able to view the entirety of the series from beginning to end; but films are still sold as single viewings. The business model of films is still tied to the idea that a film is it's own entity, a stand-alone story with beginning, middle, and end. But as already discussed, this is no longer true for a serialised franchise.
Each film leads into the next so we never get any true resolution, and at it's worst we pay our money to watch a film, only to get a cliff-hanger at the end. This is forcing audiences to pay out over and over if they want to keep up with the story and unless you are doing well for yourself, most people simply cannot afford to see every movie that even just 1 of these franchises outputs.
There's no question that serialisation can potentially deliver some interesting stories. But, if we as an audience are to be allowed to invest in those stories, then the business model needs to update with it.
Do you agree? Would you be more interested in serials if you were offered a series ticket for instance?