Hollywood is now packed with franchises, reboots, sequels and prequels. I believe the reason for this is twofold. One: easy money. Two: human nature. When respect for the former is placed above the latter, the public is subjected to a gluttony of low-caliber filmmaking. Naturally, a studio is going to try and make a profit each year, but they should do so by producing quality products for an audience's hard-earned cash.
In 2012, Hollywood still couldn't get prequels right; The Hobbit was released, sticking out like a hairy foot, an unsavory appendage to the breathtaking Lord of the Rings franchise. However, Hollywood may finally be learning its lesson, most evident with 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Franchises are bankable because there is already a guaranteed audience of people with registered interests. Ever since George Lucas made a billion-dollar decision in 1975, essentially birthing modern film merchandising, franchises have unrivaled potential for profit.
What Do We Want? A Franchise! When Do We Want It? Now!
Unfortunately, studios often push franchises with the subtly of a rowdy protest march. Sequels are simply about moving the story forward, expanding into the unknown territories of the future, where there is space for changeable character arcs. The biggest franchises have been built in this way: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Pirates of the Caribbean.
Reboots are about finding a way to revitalize and modernize old formulas. Given the amount of talent in Hollywood, this isn't all that difficult. Interestingly, there have even been noticeable flops — 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (22 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) for instance — that still reap huge profits from resewing old seeds. This is not a great situation for the consumer or the devoted fan.
"There is something half-hearted about the entire film, as if those behind it were involved not because they wanted to make it, not because they should make it, but just because they could." — Mark Olsen, LA Times
Films designed to start a franchise at breakneck speed often seem so interested in doing so that they forget to make a satisfying film. For me, and many other fans, The Hobbit trilogy was the ultimate expression of this decline. The decision to stretch The Hobbit, which is a pamphlet in comparison to The Lord of The Rings, is demonstrative of a lack of interest in the film's quality.
The Hobbit also suffers because it is a #prequel. Unlike reboots and sequels, prequels are not expansive territory, and either clash with the cannon or fail to build stories that have a sense of urgency or interest. In 2016, Disney dodged these traps with Rogue One, creating a thought-provoking, highly entertaining film that respects, deepens and improves the franchise.
Build Your Franchise One Film At A Time
Rogue One is a brilliant prequel because it is, first and foremost, a well made, original film. It tells a story with emotional depths, its characters are posed with philosophical and moral questions, it is a weighty drama with serious comments and reflections on real-world issues like the relationships between science and weapons manufacturing and politics. It succeeds just as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars have, not because they are fantastical, but because they are heightened allegory that reveal to us truths of our own world and reflections on it.
Sparsely does The Hobbit remember this — a few times in the politics of the dwarves and the elves, the decisions to ride to aid, they begin to mine some depth, but they never surpass Moria. The Hobbit tries to remedy its lack of substance with cameos and franchise references. When the drama is lacking, the easiest way to claw back success is by recycling and reusing old favorites. The way Legolas is sewn into the movie, with suggestive references to the things you know that may as well have been delivered down camera with a wink.
"In the wilds he's known as Strider. His real name you must learn for yourself" — Thranduil
These are great moments of connection to the franchise, but the characters don't know they're important. As such, they can't be relied on to inject drama into a film. When this is all a prequel offers it becomes stale, uninteresting and a little needy.
Rather than continue plumbing old characters, Rogue One tells a story within the world. The characters weren't just waiting around, filling screen time before they have their real story, using only nostalgia or beautiful moments of shared consciousness that come from a united cultural cannon to garner interest. This was the most important story of their lives, and aptly then that so many of them should die at the end of it.
Breaking New Ground And Laying Up The Foundations
The Hobbit overused Gandalf, and not to great effect. There is a perceived difficulty in making us care about a story for a man who, in a few years time, falls:
"Through fire and water, from the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him the Balrog of Morgoth. Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside. Darkness took me and i strayed out of thought and time, the stars revealed no end. And every day was an epoch, a life age on the earth. But it was not the end, I felt life in me again. I've been sent back to my task..." — Gandalf, 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'
He can't realistically have bigger drama 20 years before; it would be an insult to the character to do otherwise. People attach emotional weight and invest in these characters — to make their stories implausibly grand is disrespectful. Gandalf becomes an auxiliary character while the others are interchangeable; it lacks cohesion and definition.
There were little nods littered through Star Wars, more so in Force Awakens than in Rogue One, but they weren't overused to compensate for something lacking. In fact, they were probably more of a sideways look, a promise to the audience that they know what Star Wars is and that's what you're going to get. Seeing the lives lost, the years of bravery and fighting that allow Episode IV to happen makes it more exhilarating, entertaining and gives more weight and importance to what comes after it. Rogue One cleverly avoids the overuse of its bankable characters. The separation from the old plot is helpful in escaping the confines, telling stories alongside the old material is like stepping outside of a house — you can approach the ceiling from an angle and have more space to maneuver.
Watching films now, it often feels like an American reality show — an unending carousel of what-happened-before-the breaks and coming-up-nexts with snatches of content. Along with Rogue One, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a fantastic example of how successful it can be to create a side story. They maintain a looser link to the franchise, both stylistically and in terms of its narrative than typical prequels. It is expanding a fascinating world incidentally as it tells great and diverse stories. Leia's big reveal in the final moments is the perfect knock of the film's noggin against its predecessors' ceiling.
Even more impressive is how Rogue One fills in plot holes from the original series, the often ridiculed and irksome oversight of the easily attacked self-destruct button built in the side of so expensive and powerful a weapon. A New Hope is no longer based on a slightly implausible reach, but on a stirring and intriguing decision on the part of a conscientious objector.
Raising The Stakes: Bigger Doesn't Always Mean Better
One of the problems of writing a good prequel is the stakes. As franchises expand they feel that every film has to somehow "up the stakes." The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a perfect example of this trend. They have been growing upwards from winter soldiers to world avengers to galaxy guardians. The Hobbit needed to raise the stakes, but this was curtailed by the books original invention as a children's book with far less importance to the broader story of Middle Earth. The strapline 'The Definitive Chapter' is indicative of the franchise's desire to become an epic.
The mistake here is that bigger doesn't always mean better. Stakes are relative, and putting the universe on the line doesn't necessarily provide more compelling drama than putting something far smaller, but of equal importance to a character, on the line. Hitchcock didn't need the entire destruction of mankind to have you captivated. By some tragic flaw, the resolution can't be seen and the drama unfolds. The more extreme this flaw, the more of the characters ability to live that it infringes upon, the bigger the drama.
Rogue One recognizes that the time period within the franchise it inhabits will be a less important era with smaller scale conflict. It is a lower-stakes era, if you will, but that does not mean life has any lower stakes for the characters. If you want to raise the stakes higher and there's a ceiling, you need to dig a hole, and Rogue One dug it well. The stakes are high for Jyn Erso, who is fighting to save a decimated and dwindling rebellion from being entirely overwhelmed, dependent on whether one of their own (her own father) has remained loyal despite possible torture.
Use A Trusted Contractor And Leave Them To It
The success of Rogue One boils down to two things. Firstly, that the people they have placed at the helms of these franchises are creative and interesting artists, and secondly, that they are fans of the franchise. The way people like Abrams and Pegg talk about their work is indicative of their commitment to artistry and drama. They are also real nerds who love the franchise and care about it like the fans do. It makes the mainstream film industry a place of entertainment, escapism, togetherness and public forum.
We shouldn't blame Peter Jackson for the failure of The Hobbit. I have no doubt he loves and respects Tolkien's world. However the changing of directors, and the difficulties in production as the project ballooned and bloated demonstrated that the driving force in its creation was the studio. Having one person or team oversee creatively, like Nolan and Abrams, seems like a consistently successful technique, especially when they allow the writers and directors of each film to write their own film before worrying about the wider franchise.
Creativity is about risk. As studios come to trust the people they place at the helms of big projects they should allow them more reign to take more risks, not less. They should allow them to lean less on the crutch of the franchise, whether they're expanding forwards, backwards or sideways.
This results in films like Rogue One, that enhance the franchise, improve mainstream cinema and reward the fans for their loyalty. Hopefully, studios will realize that if they keep trying to build rubbish, and do the builders' job for them, their foundations will rot. We have to ask if whether we're happy with dull, repetitive uninteresting cinema, or whether we chance failure to make a higher standard of film, like Rogue One. If you think there's another sequel that is winning the gamble please tell me in the comments below.