For all intents and purposes, the Hollywood studio system was the template for commercially successful filmmaking for years to come. It has re-emerged, regenerated in the form of the distributors behind many a franchise, or ‘cinematic universe’ as we are now dubbing it: Marvel Studios, DC Studios and 20th Century Fox. What does this mean for the industry? Well in some cases, it means that the director is being pushed to the background, forced to submit to a narrative model that the studio believes will produce the most revenue.
Now, in the capitalist mainframe of our economical world, this ‘narrative model’ would seem the most plausible avenue to explore. To produce profit is the sole purpose of any commodity exchange, and the distribution of a film is no different: if a trend is successful, you produce it in bulk, in order to obtain the biggest gross profit. But, what is overlooked in cinema is an art form, and the most accessible art form at that. It speaks to the masses and can communicate key values, explore personal issues and allow audiences to escape the difficulties of daily life through the artificial world produced by a director.
What studios seem to be ignoring is that while the financial input must produce an output of some kind, it forgets that its audience demands something that is a little more intellectual, something that challenges us, makes us think. Is this not why we are obsessed with media and each other’s lives on social networks? Because we want to know more, experience differences in living?
And now I turn to three case studies where it appears that personal expression has been forgotten: Ben Affleck with The Batman, Edgar Wright with Ant-Man and Josh Trank with Fantastic Four. Now, I understand that going into these films, no one is expecting to be challenged on their livelihood: nothing is inherently ideological within these superhero franchises. But the case that can be made is how a director, who has a specific vision that he believes an audience will respond to, is forced off a project because it doesn’t adhere to the narrative policy established by whichever franchise it belongs.
I think something is lost in this, and I think what could have been an original project, is ultimately dropped due to the worries of financial loss. But what if this financial loss is due to the turmoil of studio interference? Case in point, Edgar Wright is one of the most popular filmmakers of the moment. His ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ is considered one of the finest displays of contemporary comedy, and his tackling of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a graphic novel originally, demonstrates his knack for transforming source into pleasurable result. His Ant-Man could have been something to challenge us in terms of what we’re used to seeing in these blockbuster franchises: a satirical, almost surrealist take on a character that is, at its core, fairly fantastical in its conception. Instead, Marvel opted for Peyton Reed, who directed an enjoyable film, but one that was only marginally successful in terms of its box office, grossing an estimate of $519 million, compared to more successful instalments such as The Avengers. It also follows the narrative template for all that came before: good guy is reluctant to become hero, does so, fights generic bad guy, gets the girl and the respect of his friends and family.
Now, we’ll never know if Wright would go on to make something spectacular: it may have faced similar problems. But, why not take the chance? Why are studios so intent on keeping to the foundations, not experimenting. Isn’t this what the audience wants? We want to experience different viewpoints, create debate. Social media enables this and has even turned it into a commodity in some respects: Facebook thrives on its ability to allow people to look into other people’s experiences without consequence, to incite questions, formulate arguments. Why should films not do this, especially big budget productions; why can’t they challenge our understanding of atypical narratives?
Josh Trank had seemed to come closest to this reality with his Fantastic Four reboot. But post-production seems to have turned what could have been an interesting project into a flat and repetitive re-tread of ‘end-of-the-world-fight-against-supervillain’ clichés. Why couldn’t this be an exploration of personal defect, of being alienated from society, as it seemed to promise in its build-up? Because studios assume that audiences won’t buy into it, that they want nostalgic narratives based on binaries of good vs. evil and the apocalyptic final confrontation.
But we live in an age where anything that could be possible has almost been reached, technologically, scientifically. We’re no longer amazed by bigger or better: we want smaller, confined, detailed, human. These are the qualities that projects headlined by visionary directors bring.
Instead, directors such as Ben Affleck are side-lined. Sure, Live by Night wasn’t a critical or financial success. But are we forgetting how Affleck directed Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Best Picture winner Argo? How he has been accepted into the history books as a talent who has risen from the ashes of a seemingly doomed career to become one of the most respected talents of contemporary cinema? Studios have forgotten, because finance is everything.
But again, studios need to hear the audience calling. We are asking for risks, we want to be challenged, we want directors who have style, who have consistency. We want directors who, despite minor blips, can create something that isn’t necessarily radical, but spices up the playing board. We are no longer excited, we are left to our technological devices, fixated by screens and ultimately made numb to what makes us human: our ability to inspire. And directors have the greatest chance of achieving this, if they’re only allowed a little leeway to re-engage the motors of the audiences.
I understand, money provides, money enables. But people create, and people communicate. So let the directors do so.