Resistance Is Futile? The Studio Assimilation of the Indie World

Some of the more interesting buzz in the film world this week has been about the casting of Jurassic World, the long-awaited last-ditch attempt to save the Jurassic Park franchise. To me (and a lot of people, it seems), one of the most intriguing aspects of the project has been the hiring of Colin Trevorrow, the director of the terrific Safety Not Guaranteed, to helm it. It’s the latest example of a studio turning to an up-and-coming young talent to handle a major franchise film, a list that has recently included the likes of Duncan Jones (Warcraft), Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), and Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-man). However, in discussing this with a friend* I began to think about the topic of indie filmmakers being assimilated into the studio franchise system, and the causes, dangers and benefits of the film industry turning Sundance into a minor league farm system. More after the jump:

The last time I really thought about this was around a year ago, when Disney bought Star Wars and the Internet exploded with discussions of “Who’s gonna direct it?!?!?” And many people were throwing out high-profile names like Guillermo del Toro and Rian Johnson and Neill Blomkamp, which really befuddled me and still does. Because, as cool as it would be to see those filmmakers play with the Star Wars universe, the honest truth is that anyone could direct Star Wars. Especially for the main episodes, it’s not a franchise that demands a really distinctive, unique vision in order to work. And more to the point, why would you want to see those guys waste their time on a franchise that’s such a known quantity when they’re making their own original work? I’d rather get movies like Looper or Pan’s Labyrinth or District 9, and if I want to watch Star Wars I’ll watch the movies we already have.

And yet, for every franchise reboot or directorial vacancy the fan wish lists always include the same high-profile filmmakers. It’s not too hard to understand why though; you have a known-quantity in the franchise that fans can speculate about, and then you have known quantities in the filmmakers whose styles and voices can be applied to that speculation about the franchise overall. It’s basically a perfect storm of geek anticipation, and helps feed enthusiasm for the franchise. But the big question isn’t why fans get excited about up-and-comers joining their favorite franchises, but why these young filmmakers decide to jump in the deep end like this at all?

One of the common explanations for such big-budget leaps is that filmmakers hope to get a blockbuster success behind them so that they get the sort of pull necessary to make the movies they really want to make. One of the more recent (and disappointing) versions of this is Bryan Singer, who made his name with a terrific trio of small-scale character-driven thrillers (Public Access, Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil), and then made the leap to X-men because, according to his frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie:

“…he said, ‘Look, it’s all about positioning. I can’t make this movie I really wanna make’ – that he’d been talking about since he was a kid – ‘I can’t make that movie until I make this movie. This movie will give me the opportunity to do that.’”

But of course, since X-men, Singer’s career has been dominated by studio tentpoles, with the one digression- 2008’s Valkyrie– turning out to be a bland studio period thriller, rather than the sort of dark, daring work of Singer’s earlier years. Singer’s career path so far shows the pitfalls of submitting to the wills of the studios, rather than staying on the periphery and doing things on one’s own terms.

Another possible explanation could be what Drew McWeeny once described as The Age of Fanfiction. Almost two years ago, McWeeny commented on the fact that Hollywood seems to be chasing the same sort of lazy “Wow” factor that online fanfiction carries, by making movies specifically designed to appeal to the established geekdoms. And what’s worse, it seems that many filmmakers are more than willing to engage in this Fanfiction filmmaking, by attaching themselves to franchises they loved as children rather than pay homage to them with their own original takes on the same concepts. They, much like the rest of the industry, seem interested in indulging their own nostalgia instead of using it as fuel for their own ideas. It’s an unfortunate development, that stifles a lot of potential progress. And while this can certainly lead to a lot of passionate, enthusiastic takes on some of our great franchises (McWeeny’s article acknowledges the Bobbin/Segel/Stoller The Muppets as a good example of this), it also robs us of the opportunity to see completely new and fresh takes on the ideas at play.

But, speaking as an aspiring writer, I think that, more than anything else, the biggest reason for this submission to the studio machinery is simply that by taking an established franchise gig, it gives these filmmakers a shortcut to their next movie. Having struggled with writer’s block for some time now, I know that it can be amazingly difficult to conceive of a new, original idea (I’ve written one or two franchise spec scripts myself to try and break my writer’s block). And if you’ve just spent (as many first-time indie directors have) years of your life trying to make your first original idea, I’m sure it’s intimidating as hell trying to get into the headspace of creating a whole new idea. So when a movie studio comes along with a franchise project- one built off of previous movies or comic books or what-have-you, probably with a script draft in hand- it must seem like a very enticing option to be able to jump into an already-conceived project, where you don’t have to build anything from scratch. And hopefully it’s a franchise you have a personal interest in, and hopefully it’s a situation where your input and ideas are integrated into the final product instead of being ignored, but above all it’s a way to get right back in the saddle and get your next movie into production, and get to play with the big boy toys to boot.

Thankfully there are some young guns, like Rian Johnson and Neill Blomkamp, who have said that they intend to pursue their own original stories for as long as possible, and have been successful in doing so. And of course, regardless of the reasons a filmmaker might take a given project, there’s no guarantee one way or the other if it will be good. And I’m still excited to see what guys like Colin Trevorrow will do with these tentpole properties. But overall it’s still disappointing when I see fresh voices succumbing to the siren song of the franchise film. It’s that sort of disappointment that drives me to keep pursuing original ideas, rather than just fuck around with adaptation or remake pitches. Because if I’m gonna hold established filmmakers to that sort of standard, then I should definitely hold myself to that standard as well.

*A special thanks to my friend Mitchell H for getting the ball rolling on this rant for me


One Comment on “Resistance Is Futile? The Studio Assimilation of the Indie World”

  1. […] of the topics that I’ve broached before on this blog is the question of filmmakers sticking to their own original ideas versus contributing […]

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