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Has Brand Allegiance Killed Hollywood Creativity?

With Batman V Superman predictably raking in the cash, what chance for originality in today's Hollywood?

Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)




In 1987 a pair of franchise sequels dominated the global box office. On July 17th, the behemoth Jaws: The Revenge smashed opening weekend records as Jaws fans flocked in their millions to catch the latest installment of their beloved franchise. A week later, Superman IV became the highest grossing Superman movie in its opening weekend alone! It didn't matter that critics had slated both movies. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called Jaws: The Revenge "not simply a bad movie, but also a stupid and incompetent one." On a Spectrum 48k bulletin board, a user named AmityBill called it "The latest movie to prove critics don't know shit - it's the best shark movie ever! Ever!", while many fans accused critics of being paid off by the producers of the Piranha franchise. The Washington Post's Desson Howe called Superman IV "More sluggish than a funeral barge," but the fans showed him, what? Audiences ignored the critics, returning for multiple viewings and prompting the rapid greenlighting of fifth installments in both series.


Of course, the above is all nonsense. Burned by the awful previous entries in both franchises, audiences were content to sit out both releases. The 1987 box office totals list Jaws: The Revenge at a lowly 54th place, with Superman IV even further behind at 69. In 1987, the sequels to two of Hollywood's most successful blockbusters were beaten at the box office by auteur driven movies like the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona, Oliver Stone's Wall Street and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The adult comedies Moonstruck and Good Morning Vietnam had disastrous opening weekends, taking a mere $127,599 and $194,308 respectively, but positive reviews and word of mouth ultimately led to both movies ending up in that year's top five, grossing $80,640,528 and $123,922,370 respectively.

It would almost seem as though cinema-goers cared about the quality of the movies they forked out cash to see back in 1987. Crazy, right? This was still an era in which word of mouth could make or break a movie, a time when the opinion of a professional critic addressing an audience of millions in print or on TV or radio held some sway, a lost age when "Who made it?", "Who's in it?" and "What's it about?" were more important to the public than "What's it based on?" or "What's it a sequel to?". But most of all, it was a time when audiences, and more importantly Hollywood execs, were willing to take a chance on an unknown quantity over blind allegiance to a property that's burned them in the past.


Sadly, it seems that age is gone for good. Critics still matter - they can still persuade a few cinemagoers to take a chance on a new indie movie they may have overlooked - but when it comes to blockbuster franchises, their negative reviews have relatively no influence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the current case of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Despite being a sequel to a movie (Man of Steel) not much better than the third installments of Jaws or the '80s Superman series, and receiving a pasting from the majority of critics, it's set to become one of the highest grossing movies of all time. It seems every few months now a new movie makes its way onto the all-time top 10 list of highest grossing movies (mostly due to ignoring inflation, mind you, but that's a rant for another day). Audiences and critics were generally in agreement in trashing Jurassic Park 3 (unfairly, in this writer's opinion) yet that didn't stop last year's Jurassic World crushing every other movie but one under its giant feet. George Lucas' Star Wars prequels are widely considered cinematic disasters, but did this hinder the performance of The Force Awakens? In the past, it was always assumed that sequels would provide diminishing returns - as the quality shrank, so did the audience - but now we're seeing the opposite. Each installment of the Fast & Furious series now makes significantly more profit than the last, as more and more people climb aboard the geek culture bandwagon.

What happened between 1987 and today was the rise of the blindly loyal fanboy (a rather sexist label if you ask me, given how many females now embrace geek culture), a generation of movie 'fans' who apply the elements of sports fandom (ironic, given most of them hate sports) to the fields of arts and entertainment. They follow corporate brands the way most people follow soccer teams - their players can do no wrong, and it's always the referees' (read critics) fault. They seem unable or unwilling to accept objective problems in movies, even when they're in clear violation of the source material, which makes you wonder if these 'fans' have any real familiarity with their professed obsession - a Batman t-shirt has replaced a Ramones t-shirt as the go to fashion item for those wishing to join a geek bandwagon without putting too much effort in.


These are the sort of people who book pre-release tickets for multiple showings; they've made their minds up that it's going to be the 'best movie ever' and nobody's going to change their opinion. Even if they believe the movie's a stinker, they've invested too much time, energy and often anger to admit it. They'll jump on twitter and facebook to loudly tell the world to ignore the critics and "make up your own mind", ironic given how they've allowed a massive corporation to convince them of a film's worth in the first place. (Just to be clear, you should always ignore negative reviews, but please pay attention to positive ones).

Hollywood understandably loves these people. Cinema is one of the few industries that can sell its customers an untested product, and with pre-release ticket sales reaching new heights, many customers are willing to invest in a product multiple times before they actually get to decide if it's really for them. What chance do original concepts have in Hollywood now? No Hollywood studio is going to fund a $200 million movie with a completely original script when they could spend the money more wisely on a sequel or reboot that's going to recoup a sizeable portion of its budget in pre-release ticket sales. It's a business model that makes sense, one you can expect to see hang around for a long time.

As long as brand names continue to carry more significance for a sizeable portion of cinema-goers than the quality of the movies, "What's this a sequel to?" and "What's this based on?" are questions we're going to be asking a lot in the foreseeable future.


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