Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An Antifranchise Manifesto


The word franchise seems to be more and more common in discussions about nerd-things, movies in particular, as nerd-things have inexplicably become more mainstream. It used to be that the word franchise, to me, was associated with restaurants. Fast-food restaurants in particular. As a teenager I worked at a franchise of McDonald's owned by an individual businessman. He owned the restaurant and ran it but he was pretty much part of the McDonald's brand, and presumably paying them a licensing fee or something.

The owner was basically using McDonald's name to earn money, but he was also legitimately selling McDonald's products at McDonald's standard of quality.

Yes, it was essentially an easy way to make money with an easily identifiable brand name and maintain a product of a consistent quality, whatever your opinion of that quality is, while running the shop. Certainly the product would never attain your favorite burger place's level of deliciousness, but you could count on it in a pinch to give you a consistently average-to-good product when customers wanted it, and quick.

Now I don't think anyone franchises a McDonald's thinking they're going to be the next Emeril Lagasse, I'm thinking people do it because it is a good business idea. To twist a Disney, they're making burgers to make more money, not the other way around. Customers are fine with this, because usually we buy McDonald's in a hurry, because it's cheap, or occasionally because of rare to occasional cravings. Or for the beanie babies...

Because of this, during my teen and early adult years, the term franchise gave me kind of a cheap feeling, as well as the undeniable link to a corporate overlord. I guess it still does, which is why I'm writing this probably. Really I never would have applied this F-word to anything but a chain restaurant or maybe even store chain. In fact, even then franchise really has not been a staple of my vocabulary.

This was back in the '90s, I was like 16ish, and that was my understanding of franchises which held until recently. Fast forward almost 20 years (wow) and even amongst some of my friends, the word franchise is being used with disturbing regularity (sorry guys) to describe something that I probably would have traditionally referred to as a series.

But unfortunately perhaps franchise is more appropriate, though still loathsome. We got the Terminator franchise...and so on down the line. Just kidding. Ghostbusters, James flipping Bond, X-Men, etc. All can and are referred to as franchise. Arguably, even Star Wars falls in with them, though I always called it a series, but technically that's always been a franchise. But I digress.

In some emails with my friends, I started hearing about how THIS franchise is getting rebooted...again, THAT franchise is getting a sequel, and THIS franchise needs X. It gnawed at my heart and mind a little bit.

Then I started to watch MovieFights on YouTube which simultaneously disgusts and entertains me, and I heard franchise being used a lot. I honestly wouldn't even watch this show if it wasn't for it's connection to Honest Trailers and Andy Signore, because he seems like a really cool dude, and I love when he says "this is tough". On this show, aside from overuse of the words "iconic" and "the most X of all time" the word franchise comes out quite a lot and it's often all that's talked about. I heard very little about things like Ex Machina or thought provoking fare like that, and it's nonstop about which reboot Chris Pratt should take over or the next superhero movie. That's no rip on MovieFights necessarily, because I'm sure they're talking about the movies fans ask about and the films which are being made. Which are primarily franchises, retreads and reboots.

And the stuff on MovieFights and similar YouTube channels is really just the symptom of the problem. Much of what Hollywood makes is a franchise or an attempt to start one, whether it's needed/wanted or not.

Here's a few examples. I'm not using quotes for titles, because I'm lazy and you're big enough to figure it out.

Terminator Genisys was made with the intent to start a new trilogy. Not make one movie to tell a story that was needed, see if it does well, then let's do more. But they made it hoping to make multiple movies after it. Just like Terminator Salvation. It could and should be argued that no movie after T2 was needed, but if there was a need for more, my opinion is that they should have focused solely on the future war and have Skynet as maybe an actual character. But that's not here or there. Keep it an infinity loop, or let us take the senator Connor ending. Any further movies should support the infinity loop, and if you prefer the senator version, then just stop at T2.

Golden Compass, a movie I kinda liked did the same. They were hoping to do a series and cash in like what happened with Harry Potter. Now we have an unfinished trilogy because the franchise start up did not succeed.

The Marvel cinematic universe, once Iron Man was successful, became a franchise. But in my opinion it didn't venture into mediocrity and cement itself as a cheap franchise until Avengers hit or maybe even phase 2. Oh, the build up was fun, I even liked Iron Man 2. There was a story to tell and something to build towards. But thus far every movie in phase 2 has been essentially a potboiler until Avengers 2 or actually, I think maybe everything is just setting up Infinity War, another drawn out 2 parter...

Now the MCU is basically Disney/Marvel just  printing money by throwing a new movie out every so often. And I think that after Avengers there wasn't much need to have follow up stories, at least not what they gave us. I mean, I guessed every single plot point of Winter Soldier! Thor 2 was "huh?" and Iron Man 3 could have been a 2 part episode of Agents of Shield (a show I have zero interest in and would have been cooler to have a Thunderbolts show). In short, after Avengers, there has not really been a real story told and it's all largely a movie to 1) sell toys and 2) keep you interested until the next movie comes out. Thankfully I have not spent more than a cheap rental to see most of these movies.

Was there a story to tell after Avengers? Maybe. But what they gave us feels to me like there really wasn't. Part of this is because there is so much to explore with superheroes, but a two hour or several 2 hour movies make it hard to squeeze in everything that could or should be explored, and still have enough action. Which is why comics work, and probably also why Arrow is an excellent TV show. It can slow the plot down enough to tell a larger story. When you have a chain of episodic films, you have a glorified TV series. This also why Nick and I are writing our stuff as novels. Because we want to explore the superhero mythology in a hopefully deeper way that only a novel will allow. (For the record, we came up with the overall stories in the late 90's before superhero movies were what they are now. We just didn't get it out until technology caught up with us.)

Honestly though, I'm almost tired of superhero and big spectacle movies, which is bad news because I want to write more superhero novels. So I guess I'm also a hypocrite, but in my defense I am trying to do something a little bit different, namely tell superhero stories from a Biblical worldview and with depth. I hope anyway. So if you want more of those, send me more money, buy more books and leave reviews. If you don't want more books like that, send me a crapload of money so I can start my tourism company or learn how to do artwork. I have two really great options for tourism, but I need funding.

Which brings me to Star Wars.

Star Wars. Like I said, it's kind of always been a franchise, it hit the ground running with merchandising. In fact, it sort of did what Jaws did and really took it to the next level with the toys and whatnot. Imagine Spielberg selling shark toys, awesome! Star Wars kind of started the movie franchise mentality in a way. But Star Wars became pretty low key and kinda uncool after Return of the Jedi. So much so that I got sad because I wanted more SW and there wasn't any. There were some comics and books, but they weren't especially good, or available in the small town I lived in by 1987 - 89 when I wanted new Luke Skywalker adventures.

I'm honestly not sure how the Thrawn trilogy even made it to print, because at that time, I don't think anyone really was pining for more Star Wars except for me. But there it was, it basically saved Star Wars from extinction and started the trend of star wars books coming regularly. It kept the fire going until the prequels came out, and many if not all of the novels were more or less sanctioned on some level by George Lucas, to the point where he suggested that Chewbacca get the axe and Jacen Solo become the hero of the New Jedi Order (NJO) over Anakin solo. That's not minor input.

I want to pause and rant about Star Wars a little.

Although there was a regular output of books from 91 - 99, they weren't cohesive overall, and really were hit and miss. Mostly miss. But arguably, in my mind at least, Star wars stayed in the realm of series for the most part, it was kind of a franchise, but not really because there was still some quality, and time to breather before the next thing came along. There was a definite decline in quality after Zahn's books, I recall liking only Anderson's books, the Corellian trilogy and a few singles or others. And some of the ones I liked were just OK anyways. Star Wars teetered on the edge between franchise and series.

That started to change with the prequels and NJO. The NJO took us deeper into franchise territory and was launched as a relatively cohesive 19 book series, and all the past novels were finally put on a timeline, more or less. The NJO was to be mostly paperback with a few hard covers sprinkled in, keeping in line with the majority of the previous books which were largely paperback. There were stories that could be told about the next generation of jedi, sure, but the NJO was not invented just for that, it was to sell more Star Wars books by making them part of a larger series, so you'd have to buy them all to get the whole picture. Whereas before you could pick and choose what you wanted to read.

The prequels landed about the same time with a merchandising vengeance.

But this timeframe is when you could maybe start to see a real reduction in quality too. Not always in the stories themselves, but now we're talking with the end product. The novels were coming to print with typos in them, something I rarely if ever saw before. The prequels were not especially well received. I don't hate them, episode 1 is a fine film until they arrive on Tattooine, and doesn't really get good again until the end, but I watched that movie maybe a dozen times or so and enjoyed it. That probably doesn't help me as a writer trying to sell books, but I'm being truthful. I even liked episode ii, but wanted more clone wars. Episode iii I really enjoyed because there like 5 lightsaber fights in it. I don't know why there is so much hate for the prequels, I enjoyed them even if it was not the story I expected to see. Yeah, they weren't totally as good as the originals, but I think they were decent.

But somewhere at this whole time of the prequels and NJO, the slip into a franchise happened. Star Wars fell to the dark side for me. We got a 4 or 5ish season clone wars tv series. The clone wars movie is a chore to get thru, but the overall series is good, though I could do without the filler episodes. Sadly, the show didn't get a real resolution that I know of, because Disney bought star wars and wanted a rebels tv show. A show taking place in an era that really has been tapped and mined out to the point that the only open spot in the timeline that I can conceive of is Han Solo and Luke making an epic trip to take a dump. I call it "Star Wars:  Refresher Battlefront: Episode I - Rebels Poop Too" Thankfully they at least came up with some new characters for Rebels.

The books hit me especially hard, even before Lucas sold star wars.

We went from the majority of the stories coming out in paperback, expensive enough at $8, or $4 used, to getting nearly every new book coming out in hard cover. Every month saw a new hard cover book. The Legacy of the Force series was bad enough with 3/9 in hard cover, but Fate of the Jedi was I believe all hard cover (and quite thin ones at that) with more than 6 books in the series. And many other stand alones hitting the shelves with hard covers. I rarely if ever saw anything making it to paperback, and when I did, they weren't cheap. Oh, and  typos...

Star Wars had ceased to be the friendly grandpa Bip Palpatine and had reared its Darth Sidious head. I maybe had known for a while that they wanted to earn my money, but it had never been so blatant or unpleasant before. Even so, I do still grab a book I don't have if I find them used or if it's a storyline I am interested in. But I rarely find the new stuff used, either no one's buying them, or they are and aren't getting rid of them.

But this rant isn't over yet. There's more. Episode 7 was announced after star wars (now lowercase to mark the drop in quality) was sold to Disney, and I was skeptical, mainly because, as you can see, I have invested myself in the expanded universe, and that really fulfilled most of my desire for more star wars. It truly did. My skepticism stems from the fact that I suspected they would jettison the books I've enjoyed for decades. My skepticism was confirmed, and they are essentially rejecting the books and starting over.

It's kind of a reboot. And a kick to the gonads.

And that reeks of franchise. So does tapping JJ Abrams to direct. A director more hype than substance, a director who likes to put up a challenging looking puzzle, a satisfying enigma. He teases you maybe a Legend of Zelda, but ends up giving you a cheap, 3D magic eye picture instead. Nothing exemplifies this more than Cloverfield. Months before the movie hit, we were given a really good mystery and tease. I thought it was a cool idea. The companion websites and clues had me wracking my brain, but in the end all we got was a shaky cam with a doofus toothpick monster and Seth Rogen, which ruins any movie I've seen him in and ruined any chance of me watching Green Hornet which I would have seen otherwise.

Abrams' Star Trek wasn't any better, it was an absolute mess that was Trek in name only, but really Trek hasn't been good since DS9 when Jadzia got the axe anyways. But Abrams' Trek was absolutely an illogical mess. Shatner's Shatnerverse novels are far better and actually more fun to read than the Star Trek reboot being fun to watch

THAT is the director for the next star wars movie.

Star wars didn't stop there, no matter how much I wish it had. It came to light that Disney had rejected Lucas' ideas for the new trilogy. On one hand, that's a "...the hell?!" moment, though really given the reception of the prequels (despite my enjoyment of them) I don't know that I blame Disney for that decision, business-wise. (Again a sign they are only after dolla signs) Personally, I think I'd rather take my dozens of star wars books that were pretty much authorized by pre-episode I George Lucas, and even the ones post Ep I over the new continuity of Disney which has outright rejected any of his input.

And really, who can blame me?

Because as part of the new continuity, they are needlessly going back and rehashing ground that was already covered by the expanded universe novels! The next movie (one every year, remember?) after episode 7 isn't episode 8, it's some nonsense about finding the Death Star plans. Really? First, do we really need to see that? Ok, maybe there is a story there, but what are you going to cover that wasn't already covered in Dark Forces with Kyle Katarn or that Nintendo DS game "Lethal Alliance"? Or the few short stories and rpg sourcebooks that already touched on it? That's at least 4 different stories that have been done about getting the Death Star plans, and even when Lethal Alliance hit I thought it wasn't needed. Even throwing those away like yesterday's jam, what are you going to differently on the 5th-ish attempt? Do we really need to see it on a movie screen?

MovieFights recently asked who should play young Han Solo. My answer is, why does anyone need to? Do we need a movie(s) about young Solo? What would such a movie bring to the table that Brian Daley's Han trilogy or AC Crispin's excellent, second Han trilogy didn't already bring? I was already scratching my head at Timothy Zahn's "scoundrels" with Han in it because I'm really not sure it was needed, or that it would even fit into the timeline. Deathtroopers also, why is Han in it? And why are there zombies? Why do we need a young Han Solo movie again?

I will concede the Young Indiana Jones tv series did actually tell a story that was needed, really brought some real history to life and Sean Patrick Flannery was excellent as young Indy, but at this point, we don't need a young Han Solo anything. Or anymore young Indiana Jones prequels. I have exactly all of the Indiana Jones (movies and yes, even novels) and Han solo I could ever want.

And that's where we're at. Star wars went from being a reasonably good quality story, a series I could invest in, to a story being beaten into the ground and rehashed just get money. Which it might have always been.

The refrain of my peers and younger has become "shut up and take my money" when something new and shiny comes around. That's really what it has all become. "Shut up and take my money". OK, "shut up and give us your money." It used to be a major event for me to go to the cinema for a star wars or superhero movie, now there's something of those regularly. It's become cheapened and I'm less inclined to go these days.

It's demonstrative that we as a society want a cheap, mediocre quality experience that hits the right few notes and we are far too willing to give up lots of our money for it, all the while complaining about it. The movies, the merchandising have ceased to become a treat and have truly become a burden to keep up with the stuff.

The chicken mcnuggets we've put on the big mac with bacon and mcrib sauce have given us a stomach ache. Oh, it was cheap. It even tasted alright with the chocolate shake, and fries but once it was consumed, well...that's another story.

People say they're tired of remakes and reboots, sequels we didn't ask for (but you kind did ask by buying tickets) and whatnot, yet we don't invest in independent or new things, like Ex Machina. Or our book. To put my money where my mouth is, I bought and read "TheAbles", an original superhero story by the guy who does Cinemasins. I took a risk, and you know what, I enjoyed it. It's a fun book.

Because new often rips off old, I've also gone back and read some classics or older books, because they were cheap to buy and in many cases free. 20000 Leagues Under the Sea is an excellent read as is Mysterious Island. Edgar Rice Burroughs' books are still entertaining despite the poor results of the John Carter movie that DISNEY made. I enjoyed that movie overall too, despite some poor design and story choices, but it's proof that no customers wanted to invest in something that wasn't a quasi-current franchise.

I'm at a breaking point with franchises of entertainment. Entertainment is a treat, but it has become a chore. It has ceased to be art and has become a product. It's not a juicy lucy from your local burger shop, it's a #2, supersized.

Yes, I have story ideas that will make a series of novels, and probably several different interrelated series in the same universe. If they were movies, or established books, it could technically be a "franchise". But before you, (or I) color me hypocritical, what I have planned is really a series.
You see, a series is a group of stories set in the same universe, and grows into a series because there are more stories to tell. It's a natural progression. Sure, Burroughs' series had some potboilers to earn money and keep interest going, but on the whole, Burroughs was adding to a larger mythos and inventing tropes that are still being used today. He was creating new stuff, not rebooting Tarzan every 3 novels or retreading his origin. When it got stale, he went to Mars or Venus.

Franchise, an annoying word in itself when applied to a series, is when a series of stories jumps that shark infested line in the water and becomes solely about making money or continuing a series just for the sake of doing so or retaining the rights to something. I'm looking at you Fantastic Four and X-Men.

Series is when a creator/author or small group of them tells a story because they need to. It's gnawing them inside, trying to get out. Series is when you are continually building your own world and letting others play in it or watch it.

So I'm here today, finally, to encourage you to stop giving these clowns in Hollywood more money to perpetuate hutt-bloated franchises that should have died a dignified death long ago, not stagnated, rotted and shambled along. Don't go see the Ghostbusters reboot(s). Or star wars, the next marvel movie. Jem, transformers. Or anything else that's part of a franchise, reboot remake or whatever.
Just stop with it, take a deep breath. Stop feeding them, they'll stop making them eventually. Instead I urge you to invest time and money into your local community somehow. Learn a skill. For entertainment, buy a self published book, or at least read one and leave a rating on Amazon or goodreads. Heck, write your own novel or comic. I'd rather pick up something new and original like The Ables than any marvel or dc title out there. Or any media tie in.

I watched and enjoyed the admittedly naughty Kung Fury twice and enjoyed it more than I did Winter Soldier or Thor 2. And that was made by a Swede, a computer and a bunch of supporters.
Us independent artists need your support. Stop supporting the big dogs. They don't invest in independent things. Support us so we can stop the stagnation and bring new things to the table.
Stop the franchises! Support independent art!  

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