Flogging franchises to death and lack of creative courage

Every story told has been told before — it is not the story we look to for originality, but the telling. And the world of pop culture these days has taken on an alarming sameness, an ouroboros continually leading back into itself rather than something innovative that pushes at the boundaries of something new. It’s a troubling trend that’s growing more entrenched: The more people come to expect sameness the more sameness is generated, with decisionmakers sticking with what they know is profitable rather than what they think might be good. The cost for the public is high, and it shouldn’t have to be this way. We’re discerning viewers and we don’t need to be led about by the nose.

One of the ways in which this is most obvious is with franchises, which are being flogged to death rather than peacefully laid to rest. The original Star Wars trilogy, which spawned its fair share of tie-in novels, action figures, and related merchandise, suddenly arose again with prequels and sequels and who really knows what. Producers realized they could keep squeezing money out of the franchise, capturing an entirely new set of viewers while also playing to the loyalties of old diehards who will go to see anything labeled ‘Star Wars’ in the theatre out of a sense of nostalgia, a desire to complete the set. So too with Bond, which has been driven into the ground but still attempts to find itself again every few years. Likewise with film adaptations of major YA books and the tendency to stretch the final books in series out into multiple films. ‘There simply isn’t enough room to tell the story,’ producers say, but people understand their decisions just fine: Why have one Hunger Games movie when you can double the revenue with two. Two films, two sets of tie-in products, directors’ cuts, special editions, and more.

In the world of literature, series have always been immensely popular, especially in the mystery genre, where a handful of authors churn out multiple books annually (in these cases, usually with the help of ghost writers), or sometimes turn out a book every year or so in a slowly evolving series. Young adult also jumped readily on the series bandwagon, with writers and publishers both recognising that a powerful standalone could serve a purpose, but it would be better to have a cluster of books to draw in fans. Authors and publishers alike count upon this, and some spin their series out endlessly across sprawling sets of novels complete, again, with their own tie-ins, in a tangle of profiteering that at times is quite astounding.

Entertainment that grips the consumer, though, is unique. What makes books exciting is not merely the appearance of characters, but seeing writers play with different settings, different people, different events. I don’t go to a film because I want to see twenty carbon copies of the same movie. I don’t watch a television series because it’s exactly like everything else I watch. I want diversity, not just in the sense of representation, but also in the sense of presentation. I want works that aren’t just respun franchises or carbon copies of existing material, works that push the boundaries and explore new methods of telling stories.

I want the bouncing, eclectic narrative structure of Marcus Sedgwick, who explores old stories and tells the same story in many different ways, but through a text that’s distinctive and unique each time. I want fantastic one-offs like Dumplin’ and television that stands out as distinct from its surrounds like Pushing Daisies. What made the original Matrix unique was the innovation of the text, which is what made it such a standout success. Further attempts to leverage the property faltered because viewers were sated. What makes Sens8 work is its very distinctive framing and unique storytelling. Black Mirror innovated traditional television landscapes, daring to pull characters on and off screen at will. Music labeled as ‘avant garde’ or ‘experimental’ these days really seems to be anything that doesn’t fit standards so rigid that it’s difficult to tell the difference between popular songs with a casual listen.

Repeated variations on a theme grow dull, even in the hands of extremely talented creators. While an occasional standout can be worth it, others, not so much. A good fairytale retelling can be remarkable and astounding, a fresh turn on a very old tale. A stale repetition is just dull and formulaic. I’m done seeing studios and publishing houses push the same tired properties down our throats instead of developing new content, and much of this is traceable back to creative fear and an unwillingness to take risks. With stakes increasing in the media world, authorities don’t want to venture out in the name of sponsoring creativity, sticking instead with what they think they will sell.

It reflects a frustrating lack of courage that makes consuming pop culture much less enjoyable. If I want to re-experience old texts I’ll simply watch them again, listen to them again, read them again. I have that capability and so does everyone else. I don’t need a brand new project that’s just drawing upon existing properties — I don’t need yet another Terminator, an offshoot of Harry Potter. I’m done. Those creators should be done. It’s time to move on to other worlds and other characters: It betrays a lack of creative flexibility on the part of the creator, and underscores the fact that executives think audiences are simplistic, with dull tastes and an inability to look outside the familiar. I don’t need to see the familiar to know what I want, and I don’t need to consume media that’s dominated by lack of originality.

Image: Star Wars Weekends 2014, Scott Smith, Flickr