How good capitalism makes for dull cinema
Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the colon
Thomas H. Sheriff
Editors: Molly Blackall and Isabella Pojuner
There are dangerous forces which have crept into our multiplexes of late. On first glance they seem benign: what effect could a couple of little dots ever have on our mighty blockbusters? But they’ve been spreading, infiltrating the biggest films and scaling box office charts. One has even sneaked into this article already.
I’m talking about colons. Unassuming though they are, colons hold positions of great power – for the last five years, the worldwide top-grossing film had a colon in its title, and 2019 will be no different.
That worries me.
Admittedly a punctuation mark on its own is unproblematic (excluding the circumpunct in the title of Wall•E, which is a headache to type). But the rise of the colon is not just about punctuation, it’s about how blockbuster filmmaking has turned from bold innovation towards safe franchising. Today’s biggest films build on what already exists; they dive into worlds we already know. Films are daisy-chained together using recurrent, but non-continuous, characters and storylines. This is the age of the cinematic universe.
The most obvious cinematic universe is Marvel’s; they’ve made a killing from their pool of bankable characters whose various styles and interlinking plotlines have produced hit after hit. Star Wars is another universe populated by ever-more sequels and standalones. Then there are the DC Comics films, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Mission: Impossibles (okay, that one had a colon from the start), the James Bonds, the Fast and Furiouses… With their multiplicities of directors, these cinematic series all follow divergent but interconnected storylines.
It wasn’t always like this. From D.W. Griffith to Cecil B. DeMille; from Steven Spielberg to George Lucas; the biggest films used to be personally-crafted – the product of singular visions. Studios gambled their dollars on pipe dreams of auteur directors, and the results excited and delighted audiences then as they continue to do today. Sure, there were failures, but who remembers those?
The industry evolution from auteur to colon makes a lot of sense. Because, to studios, films are investments. This means that each film has risk and return. Generally, the higher the risk – forking out millions for the first Star Wars, for example – means a higher return, if the risk pays off. But studios have worked out how to have their cake and eat it too: they can pile up returns with none of the risk.
One of the fundamentals of investing, as any first-year economics student will tell you, is diversification. It’s better to invest in multiple diverse (uncorrelated) projects as this will increase your overall return and decrease your risk of loss. Basically: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. In film terms, this would mean studios making lots of different types of movie; on average, since the successes tend to outweigh the odd failure, they’d make lots of money.
But films are too big and expensive to allow this. A studio can only afford a handful of really big films per year, so there aren’t many baskets for the eggs to go in. In mathematical terms, for those who are interested, the Law of Large Numbers does not apply.
This used to leave studios with a choice. They could take risks, hoping to hit on the next Star Wars, or they could keep ploughing the same fields until the produce goes predictably rotten (Jaws: The Revenge, anyone?). But the concept of the cinematic universe solves this conundrum. By learning how to exploit the same universe without turning it stale, studios learned how to milk a cash cow indefinitely. They no longer had to rely on the uncertain visions of eccentric dreamers.
The cinematic universe has all the benefits of a string of sequels: existing audiences and ideas can be reused, meaning the risk of a complete misfire is reduced. But cinematic universes also allow studios to capitalise on the benefits of completely new films. They’re not tied to one continuous story, which allows the series to always seem fresh. They can have several styles in the same universe, so if their comedy doesn’t go too well (Solo: A Star Wars Story), they have their gritty actioner to mop up (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and the series stays alive.
Importantly, they can also attract interesting filmmakers with the tantalising prospect of creative control, whilst keeping that control safely within their universes (Taiki Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok is a perfect example). They can access top talent without having to try anything too new. It’s a well-oiled money-making machine.
Artistically, there’s certainly something to be said for the ambition of these projects. The sheer size of Marvel’s world is astonishing: twenty-two films since 2007, all in some way linked to one another, and coming to a head in the three-hour Endgame. But it’s also a crying shame that those twenty-two films were all, to an extent, the same. Wouldn’t the cinema be a much more exciting place to be if all that cash was given to directors with their own ideas?
Yes, there might be more duds, but I’ll happily take that: a David Lynch Dune every now and then (that is, a nobly terrible effort) in return for the next 2001: A Space Odyssey (yeah okay, there’s a colon, I know), or the next Raiders of the Lost Ark; something genuinely daring that isn’t limited to the art house. The odd gamble does still happen, but it now seems miraculous that a film with the size and invention of, say, Inception ever got made.
That’s what a capitalistic film industry does: when you treat films like investments, their actual content becomes irrelevant. It’s all about risk and return – which is nothing new, but studios have recently become very good at dodging the risk. For those of us who love one-of-a-kind spectacles, that’s a sad thought.
Would Peter Jackson be able to make his Lord of the Rings trilogy today (all three were shot as one continuous production, so the studios were triply exposed), splurging vast amounts of cash on a story many deemed to be unadaptable? Maybe – The Lord of the Rings is, after all, one of the most successful novels of all time, and studios would be able to squeeze countless other films out of Middle Earth. But would George Lucas be able to create his own bizarre, idiosyncratic, zeitgeist-moulding galaxy far, far away – from scratch – in 2019? I highly doubt it. Before, it was worth a shot – but why bother now, when you could just make Captain America vs Hulk and watch the crowds pile in?
This savvy investing means that the flow of new ideas has slowed. They’ve been funnelled into a few super-sized creations, stifling the truly creative ventures that might’ve existed otherwise. Film industry capitalism is eating its own tail; its need for continuous monetary growth is preventing it from going anywhere new. It has killed the pop-film iconoclast.
The inventions of the past are now the immovable colons of the present. Eventually, even these universes will dry up, but who can say where we’ll be at that point? For now, buy some overpriced popcorn and settle in for more of the same. I hope you like lightsabers and superheroes.