Hollywood has discovered a new trend beyond the sequel: cinematic cosmo world-building. Exhibit A: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Earlier this week, Chinas richest man, Wang Jianlin, handed an assembled Hollywood audience the equivalent of a must do better note during a speech in Los Angeles. Wang, the chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, which is slowly buying up a significant portion of the US film industry, praised studios for its own history of storytelling but cautioned them audiences in his homeland were no longer interested in endless sequels and remakes.
Those sequels might have worked before, but Chinese audiences are more sophisticated now, he told a packed auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. If you want to participate in the growing Chinese marketplace, you must improve movie quality.
Whether Wang is right about Chinese positions is open to question: the worlds second largest box office has, after all, continues to contentedly gobble up sequels to Michael Bays noisy, headache-inducing Transformers saga with no sign of a reduction in appetite in recent years. But it says something when a man from a country that has publicly berated itself for its failure to compete with Hollywood on a creative level is abruptly calling out American studios for their inventive impotency, apparently convinced that video games is up.
Like Neo in The Matrix, one of the last examples of a genuinely original, epic-scale blockbuster with grand franchise potential, movie financiers are facing a dilemma. Take the blue pill continue on their current security first path and they retain the warm convenience blanket of established audiences, guaranteed advance hype and comparatively certain box office returns, yet run the risk of Hollywood eventually feeing itself. Take the red pill hazard it all on new ideas and original material and studios is certainly have a better chance of long-term survival.
But what if Neo had flipped Morpheus the bird and pulled out his own purple pill, a halfway selection comprising the best of both reality and Wonderland? A poor selection if you are Keanu Reeves, who would surely have been rent apart pixel by pixel by an angry Laurence Fishburne perhaps in bullet day for his churlish impudence. But this seems to be exactly the path that Hollywood is pursuing.
Back in the 1980 s, if studios had a franchise as lucrative as the Harry Potter movies on their hands, they would simply have remade it. But in 2016, Warner Bros has given carte blanche to author JK Rowling to deliver new narratives set in the same wizarding world as the one occupied by the son who lived and his chums. The outcome is the proposed five-movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series, the first instalment of which arrives in multiplexes next month.
Reaction from fans so far has been rapturous, and the studio clearly thinks it is on to something here. Variety reports this week that Potter and Beasts producer David Heyman has been set to work on a new movie about Roald Dahls amusingly sadistic chocolatier, Willy Wonka. But rather than being a sequel to the middling Tim Burton/ Johnny Depp movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from ten years ago Dahls follow-up novel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator remains unfilmed the new story is described as a standalone movie focused on Wonkas early adventures. Charlie himself is unlikely to appear, were told, but might turn up in future instalments if the first movie is a hit.
Something similar is going on over at Disney, which is ramping up as many as three Star Wars spin-off movies( if the rumours are true) starring Alden Ehrenreich as the young Han Solo. The studio also has Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, about the gang of Rebel Alliance grunts who steal the plans to the first Death Star, in cinema this December. These movies are generally seen as being part of the trend towards cinematic universe world-building, but they fit the mould of what well call the Hollywood super spinoff just as well. Like the other movies Ive mentioned, they take supporting characters in the case of Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts, scarcely mentioned figures from in-canon history and place them front and centre.
It doesnt always run, as Universal discovered in April when its prequel-of-sorts The Huntsman: Winters War, bombed at the box office following derisive reviews. But any critic worth his salt could have told producers that trying to spin a Snow White movie into new province without the unfortunate apple-munching princess herself on board was always going to be a hard ask. Likewise Disneys Maleficent, the Angelina Jolie-led 2014 origins tale about the horned scoundrel from Snow White. Despite its triumph at the box office, Robert Strombergs directing debut remains a deep grey, insipid movie, the ultimate ill-advised, lazy superstar vehicle.
So is the super spin-off truly any better than the remaking, prequel or sequel? Should we embrace Lionsgates pitch for new films set in the Hunger Games world prior to the epoch of Jennifer Lawrences Katniss and her merry band of smouldering admirers, self-sacrificing techno-nerds and battling cyberpunk rebels, or write it off as too much of a stretching? If the makers of the James Bond movies, Eon Productions, were to fashion a cinematic cosmo based around some of 007 s lesser-known MI6 buddies, would it count as a mark of Hollywoods newfound creative potency? Or is this just a new riff on a well-worn money-making model? Is the purple pill simply a blue one with a paper-thin layer of red veneer?
The success or failure of upcoming films Ive mentioned in this piece Fantastic Beasts and the Star Wars story movies including with regard to will go a long way to deciding if the super spin-off becomes Hollywoods new mode of selection, or whether studios are forced back into older, even lazier patterns. This particular rabbit hole is certainly lead some film-makers to box office and critical glory, but others might find themselves diving headlong into a hornets nest.
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