Is it possible to enjoy movies being released as part of the various studio-controlled mega-franchises and still be profoundly concerned about where we are as a film culture right now?
If so, I think that's a good description of where I am at the moment. The news broke over the weekend that Venom is back in development at Sony, with Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach in charge of this title. That's an important detail. You'll notice that the main Spider-Man film, set to be directed by Jon Watts, is being produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige. You could look at the two teams as the difference between the major and the minor leagues, with Pascal and Feige in the primary spot. They're the ones handling the main part of the franchise. Arad and Tolmach are the b-team, and the films they're in charge of will be smaller scale, lower-budget, and less of an immediate risk.
That doesn't have to be a bad thing. There's room for experimentation. They can try different things. It's all in the approach. Venom is a character I really don't like at all, but in the last few years, they've come up with some fun new variations on the idea that have actually started to change my mind. I look at Venom, and all I see is the emblem of everything I don't like about comic books in the '90s, but for many fans, those comics were their gateway into Spider-Man, and they love them dearly. There have been plenty of previous attempts to turn Venom into a stand-alone film property, dating back at least to the year 2000, when New Line had the rights. At that point, they would have had to come up with an origin that had nothing to do with Spider-Man, since New Line had no rights to Spider-Man. That always seemed like a crazy rights package to me. What value is there for Venom if you can't connect it to Spider-Man?
Avi Arad always thinks of these properties in terms of what can be sold to the public. He wants to give Venom fans at least three variations on the character in one films, knowing that the more times you change the look of a character in a film, the more toys you can produce based on the film. And again… that's not a slam so much as it is an observation. Arad comes at things from one direction, while Kevin Feige comes at them from a different direction. It's smart of Sony to partition out the Spider-Man properties. Not only does it ensure that the films will have different voices, but it also means that neither side becomes indispensable to Sony. Out of the last three or four stories I've published here, I've been talking about big Sony franchises in all but one of them, and that's because Sony is having to get deadly serious about this right now. They can't afford to have any one producer in charge of the properties that matter most, a la the EON team on James Bond. Sony can't really muscle EON out of the decision-making process, and that means Sony can't really control the fate of James Bond. Someone else has veto power.
With the Jon Watts movie, Marvel is a key creative partner. Pascal has Sony's best interests at heart, while Feige's concerns are about the broader Marvel movie universe. The decisions they're making about Spider-Man are collaborative, and it's an exciting time for Spider-Man fans. I'm hearing such good things about the way the character is used in Captain America: Civil War, and I genuinely hope they knock it out of the park with the solo movie. I want to love Spider-Man. He's one of Marvel's very best characters. If they get it right and set a template, then they could have a great run and try some of the bigger-picture ideas they'd had earlier.
The truth is that it doesn't matter if I like Venom. The studio has to develop a stand-alone Venom film because that's the way it works right now. You've got to milk every possible penny from the peripheral characters because that's what you're expected to do. It would be irresponsible for them not to develop a Venom movie. And just because they're talking about Venom again doesn't mean this is the same project that's been announced before. My guess is that they'll have to start from scratch. They probably want to start over anyway. I've seen a lot of speculation about what the approach to the film will be, but not a lot of reportage. I haven't heard anything about Dante Harper's take on the material, but people seem to be assuming right away that Sony's going to make an R-rated “dark comic” version because of the success of Deadpool. Maybe. I certainly wouldn't put it past anyone in Hollywood to be that crass. But I think Sony's also had problems with being reactive to other studios successes, and I'm not sure i buy that they'd make a knee-jerk decision on Venom after all the money they've already spent trying to figure out how to make the movie.
What's interesting about Sony is realizing how each studio seems to be in the midst of deciding what they are right now, and one by one, they're becoming IP management companies and little else. Disney is the model that every other studio would love to emulate, and Universal has come out swinging in the last few years, finally figuring out how to sell the types of movies that Donna Langley likes to make. Fox is enjoying a great year so far thanks to the phenomenal success of Deadpool, and it will be interesting to see what message they take from that film. The truth is, though, that what looks like success on a massive level is actually a trap, and it could end up being disastrous to the overall health of the industry.
Variety published a piece at the end of the week about how Hollywood is leaning too heavily on tentpoles, and the collapse they see coming is something that scares me as someone who values a wide variety of kinds of films. If studios move to a model that is almost entirely reliant on giant franchise movies, it's going to shut lots of interesting voices out of the system completely because they're just not interested in those types of stories.
Part of what people missed in the conversation that erupted when I made some off-the-cuff comments about Justice League and how much money it needs to make to be considered a “hit” is just how high the bar is now for success on these mega-movies. It's amazing that we live in an age now where films routinely cost more than $100 million to produce, and where even $200 million doesn't seem unusual. So little is written about the true economics of studio filmmaking that people have a weird idea of what success is and what failure is for some of these movies. It's true that the machinery can help push these films into the stratosphere, but it's just as easy to make Fantastic Four or Pan as it is to make Deadpool, and there are real questions to be asked about how much of this stuff people are really enjoying as opposed to just passively absorbing because it's all that is available. Warner's three biggest movies this year are Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, and all three of those movies need to work to make sure that the studio wraps the year up in the black. More than that, they need to work so that future films in the same series have a foundation to build on, and the studio can't afford for them to miss.
Think about this… Disney and Universal together accounted for a full 70% of all profits generated by movies last year. That's breathtaking. Paramount right now is probably the most vulnerable of the major studios, and there have been rumblings for at least a year about a potential sale or merger for the studio. We're going to end up with two or three megaconglomerates at this rate, and the homogenous nature of our pop culture will only become worse.
Let's say Batman v Superman turns out to be a monster hit. Let's say it catches a wave and makes absurd money. That's great, and if a tentpole is going to do the job it was originally designed to do, that leaves some breathing room for smaller films like The Nice Guys, which is one of my most anticipated films of the year. But what if The Nice Guys underperforms? What if it comes out and makes something like $120 million total? Or even less? The actual quality of the film won't matter. The studio is going to have to answer to stockholders, and it's going to become increasingly hard to justify something isn't built on an existing property. There are plenty of producers who have deals with Warner Bros. right now who are holding their breath and praying for BvS to do huge business so that the executives who are in charge right now stay in charge and greenlight the films they've been developing. If the film doesn't do well and there is a shake-up at the executive level, that could set not just the DC films back, but all sorts of other movies as well. That's the gamble when you're putting several hundred millions of dollars into play on one project. The returns can be massive, but the initial gamble is massive as well. If a tentpole works, will the studios put that money into some smaller films that take artistic chances, or will everything end up allocated for chasing the big money and only the big money?
In a world without The Hunger Games, Lionsgate is suddenly left scrambling for something that has a genuine hold over pop culture. New Line has a strange image problem developing now that Joseph Gordon Levitt left Sandman in much the same way that Cary Fukunaga did once Stephen King's It moved from Warner to New Line. They're totally unrelated deals, of course, and maybe it's just a coincidence. But in both cases, development took a turn after moving from Warner to New Line that led a major creative partner on the project to walk away. Both of those have been in development for a while, too, and for there to be fundamental disagreements this far into things creates the perception that New Line is part of whatever that problem is. True or false, these are the messages that are sent, and now more than ever, the slightest ripple can turn into a major image problem.
I want to believe that success will lead to studios being adventurous, but what we're seeing on an industry-wide basis is a contraction, not an expansion, and for the first time since I've started writing about the business, I don't know what to expect. I find it increasingly difficult to be purely optimistic when we're being sent very different signs with the choices that are being made.
There was a time when I wished for a world where Star Wars and Marvel and DC were everywhere, but now that we're here, I'm afraid of what it's doing to the industry as a whole. This much expectation being placed on a handful of films ratchets up the tension for everyone, and it leads to people overreacting to any comment that even vaguely challenges the idea of anything but overwhelming success. It's not a healthy atmosphere for anyone, even the winners, because the pressure only gets worse each time.
Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice opens March 25, 2016.
Captain America: Civil War opens May 6, 2016.