Expanded Universes, Exponential Popularity, Global Media

There’s a common complaint that modern film quality is tanking compared to the quality of films released in the past few decades. The cinemas are awash with sequels, universes, prequels, remakes, missing links, and excessive exercises in pandering for the sake of money grubbing. This is, of course, a major generalisation.

General perception says yes, there is an issue in Hollywood, because original IPs are overshadowed to a ridiculous extent by the aforementioned tripe.

But the problem isn’t sequels and so on; it’s the relatively new concept of cinematic universes. Every film based on culturally significant source material apparently requires that a giant cinematic universe be conceptualised and planned to the last detail. Our media loves it; they love the easy-to-market nature of stuff that the audience already understands. Not only is it more profitable to create a sequel or expand an existing property than create a new IP (obviously), but bigger properties also become exponentially easier to market as they grow.

And after they’ve grown past a certain point, they’re unlikely to disappear any time soon, and often end up supporting an industry alone.

Taleb wrote about this in Black Swan, specifically using the example of books. One author is selected randomly, and then that author becomes famous, has their works adapted into film, and so on and so on. They make 99% of the money associated with the profession, while ten thousand other authors make the other 1% with a huge cumulative effort. J.K. Rowling vs the other writers.

Taleb also wrote about inventions that are likely to remain in use in the future if only because they’ve been constants in the past. He used the example of physical books. I would add a corollary; competitors that challenge the existing ‘big dog’ are often quickly shot down. So, (economically) tablets and e-readers are nothing compared to physical books; other young-adult fantasy series are nothing compared to Harry Potter; other cinematic universes are going to have a significant challenge making the same amounts of money as Marvel. The big players are constant.

Adding to the perception is the following fact.

The structure of the source material lends itself to marketing, because at the end of the day it’s a product before it’s even sold: some Marvel universe crap is slated to make millions of dollars before the cast is even decided on. It already has recognisable archetypes and a certain set of expectations that ensure it will make its money back with little trouble because it’s been preceded by several others that have done all the legwork. An original IP has the Sisyphean task of fighting against this new model – in a sense, it’s the old movie industry coming into conflict with this new interconnectivity fetish that Marvel and DC have. (And a few other film studios are leaping enthusiastically onto this bandwagon, where they plan crap out decades ahead, like Universal Studios and Disney.) It’s David and Goliath, and the closest thing to God is the attention span of our culture.

(I’d like to add a note: I’m aware that my placement of the old industry against the cinematic universe concept is a false binary, but I lack anything else to aid my understanding here because I don’t have the time to watch every film released in the past decade. I’m placing a framework over a collection of facts that probably doesn’t contain them all.)

In any case, interconnectivity and branding isn’t enough for these bounty-bovines: there’s some other magical ingredient ‘ruining the industry’.

It’s the foreign market.

Take the recent release of The Mummy. The budget was $125 million dollars. Nice and relatively cheap. The American (domestic) income was $31 million. It was an average film. I have to confess I have not seen it; I watched Half in the Bag and talked to a friend. My conclusion was that the film was a waste of time. But the foreign market inflated this movie’s income by $141 million, making for a total income of $173 million. Eighty-percent of the total income was from overseas. The suits aren’t making the Avengers and the Mummy for you, America; they’re making them for China.

It’s the consequence of global media that it has to appeal to the ultimate average – the entire planet. (The suits don’t think of this stuff as culture or art – only a product.) So products like the Avengers have no choice but to be simple, have no choice but to appeal to the lowest common denominator, have no choice but to exploit the same dull themes repeatedly, until the entire business collapses under its own weight. And you could argue that to a certain extent this gives the products a kind of universal quality – they’re not dealing with culturally specific issues – but that means they’re too simple to inspire anything.

The reflexive statement I could make is that ‘global art can’t be profound, because to be truly globally appealing it has to avoid any cultural values that aren’t shared by most of humanity.’ So every story these films tell is the kind of basic, prototypical story we could potentially have found in the Epic of Gilgamesh or something of a similar age – the most basic, formative tales that humanity can tell. There are no questions left, only archetypes. The product has to lose all originality, all specific cultural ties, for the sake of income.

Of course there must be evidence to disprove that hypothesis, but I’ve not found any, so I can’t yet argue the point. For the time being I have no choice but to blame global attention for the sorry state of popular film.

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