If you pay attention to Hollywood today, you have probably noticed that western civilization is in the latter stages of spiritual and intellectual degeneration. You will also have noticed, by the by, that most of Hollywood’s output these days consists of (a) franchise movies, (b) movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts, such as books, comics, other movies, theme park rides, and decades-old Disney cartoons, and (c) franchise movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts like books, comics, etc. The percentage of such derivative works in Hollywood’s modern oeuvre has been estimated to be as high as 99 percent, but it might be as low as 96 percent.
So Hollywood is not terribly original these days. But the reliance on franchise is not a phenomenon isolated in Hollywood. The adventuresome reader seeking out a new book by a new author must be careful – careful that he doesn’t end up picking book 3.25 in an eleven-book series, finale coming out next spring. (By the way, decimal books: a thing.) (Decimal movies, too.) It is possible, with sequels and spin-offs and a faithful public, to make an entire career of one story. A standalone book is an increasingly rare bird.
Movie studios favor the franchise for the same reason that book publishers do: money. It must be admitted that this is a sensible reason, particularly in the case of movie studios. When you’re pouring out money in the tens of millions for a single film, you want a sure thing. How do you know people will like your newest project? Well – they liked the last one, didn’t they? It is a well-worn axiom that the sequel is never quite as good, but that does not prevent the sequel from inheriting the audience of its predecessor.
That truth brings us to another significant fact: People do not seem to easily tire of the franchise. Publishers and studios are looking for a profit, and audiences give it to them. Diminishing quality ultimately ends in diminishing financial returns, perhaps even in the death of the franchise – but along that road a great deal of money is given up to mediocre and even poor installments. Franchises depend on the powerful attraction of effective stories. You never want your favorite story to end, and the characters who have inspired more emotion than half of the real people you know – it is hard to let them go. The desire for the story to go on, the curious attachment to non-existent people, sustains the franchise.
And yet maybe it all is a little too much. Beyond the bankruptcy of individual franchises, we have been trained to a certain insouciance regarding the endless sprawl of connected films. Of course they’re making a sequel. There is, too, a downgrading of regard for those who seem too inclined to revisit old triumphs; Pixar toppled from the creative heights when it discovered the sequel, and no one counts on Pixar’s annual offering being one of the film highlights of the year anymore. This, then, is what I would like to know: Does the paying public want more standalones and more variety, or are we content with franchises as long as they are well-maintained?