Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reinventing the Reboot (or, How Movie Studios Make the Most of their Intellectual Properties)

A few days ago, I read this article about Warner Bros.' hopes to launch a Justice League movie sometime in 2013. This would be the perfect time for a movie about a gathering of DC's all-star superheroes since Marvel will have released its Avengers the year before, effectively testing the waters for this sort of star-studded comic book affair. Also, Christopher Nolan will have ended his affiliation with the Batman franchise, leaving the character in need of cinematic reinvention.

According to the article, Nolan's Batman films were one of the sticking points preventing the Justice League from moving forward. Warners (understandably) didn't want conflicting versions of DC's flagship hero hitting screens simultaneously, especially when the first two installments of the currently-airing version of Batman grossed nearly $1.4 billion between them. But this unbelievable success of the Batman reboot is why Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov can't afford not to have a Batman-related film on his slate for the foreseeable future.

This marks a distinct departure from how reboots, remakes, and retellings have been treated in the past. Back in the day, if someone made a good, marketable movie based on a previously existing Intellectual Property, it became a franchise. Enter various sequels, prequels, and spin-offs until people became sick of it. Then, that property was considered covered, until some visionary director comes in with a new spin on the property, and it gets rebooted. Nowadays, though, the focus is much more on how to milk as much as possible from the properties owned by the studio rather than making the most effective film adaptations of these properties.

As they say, if you follow the money, you'll get a much better idea of why these films get made than if you follow the artistic merits of the films themselves... No End In Sight for Reboots

We are seeing a similar progression in Spider-Man in the movies. Just 10 years after Sam Raimi launched his blockbuster trilogy (and just 5 years after the last movie in that trilogy), Columbia Pictures is releasing a new take on the webslinger series. When this movie was first announced, my reaction was: Geez, can't they let the franchise breathe a little bit before coming back with a reboot? I mean, I know Spider-Man 3 was generally panned (event though I enjoyed it thoroughly), but Raimi was a pioneer in the comic book movie industry, netting Columbia millions of dollars and paving the way for Marvel to start its own movie studio. Shouldn't they leave his films as a stand-alone trilogy for a while, just to show some respect?

But now I realize: it's not about making the definitive or even the best Spider-Man movies. It's about making the most money off however many Spider-Man movies you can possibly push at a ticket-buying public. Because these aren't comic book fans who give the greenlight to these movies; they're studio executives who (understandably) want to make as much money as possible so they can continue to make movies.

I was looking at the process of making movie adaptations from the wrong perspective: that of the movie itself and the original property. I should be looking at each property not in terms of how it has been adapted in the past, but as a potential for an ever longer string of movie adaptations in the future. Because making countless string of different iterations of the same story sure sounds easier (and safer) than betting the bank on a completely new idea.

The Death of the Definitive Version

When I first saw Ralph Bakshi's incomplete animated film adaptation of Lord of the Rings from 1978, I was (understandably) underwhelmed. The rotoscoping was fun, but the characters looked stupid, the story was underdeveloped, and the whole effect left a lot to be desired. We (as a modern society, an entertainment industry, etc.) can do better. And roughly 23 years later, we did do better. Peter Jackson took charge of a truly epic reimagining of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy that took movie-goers by storm. The attention to detail was painstaking, the cinematography and locations were breathtaking, and the effects were as impressive as we had ever seen. Despite the problems I have with certain interpretations of the story, I can't imagine a better overall filmic interpretation.

There is still plenty of material in the Tolkien universe to mine for movies before we have to think about rebooting the core trilogy. The Hobbit - stretched into two movies - is currently in production, and I wouldn't be opposed if some brave soul wants to attempt to adapt The Silmarillion into a 24-part HBO miniseries. Then there's Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales, and several other works by J.R.R.'s nephew Christopher, who has basically taken up his uncle's mantle when it comes to Middle Earth mythology.

But once all that material is either adapted or rejected, how will New Line Cinema continue to make a profit off the LotR license? You can only make so many video games before the market is saturated. But can you really imagine anyone besides Ian McKellen as Gandalf? Could anyone legitimately top Andy Serkis's mo-cap performance as Gollum? There's making the most of your property, but there is also such a thing as theatrical sacrilege.

And similarly, what's going to happen after Harry Potter 7-2? And will we get seven more Narnia movies? I'm sure we could find a younger, better actor to portray Neo in a remake of the Matrix trilogy. We know we can get five more Twilight movies after Stephanie Meyer rewrites all the books from Edward's perspective... My question is: if constant reboots are invalidating the concept of a "definitive" adaptation, how long before constant remakes will invalidate the concept of a cinematic classic.

What's Next for DC/Warners?

After Robinov explained the hangups involving multiple cinematic representations of Batman, he quickly dismissed the same issue causing a problem for any other DC superheroes. For example, Superman Returns came out concurrently with Smallville, and the Justice League movie will share the same time-space with the Wonder Woman show in development for NBC. This is why I pointed out Batman as DC's flagship character - also, when was the last time a Superman-based show won a primetime Emmy or a Superman-based video game won Game of the Year? Just sayin'...

I kind of like this idea, of encouraging competing versions of a branded intellectual property to exist simultaneously. I can picture DC releasing a Justice League story in multiple forms across multiple sources of media. It would be a survival of the fittest marketplace, with everyone getting a chance to submit their own take on the story, giving consumers a choice to support the one they like best. Bring the decision to the masses, rather than studio heads! Also, more versions mean more viewers, which ultimately leads to higher profits. It's time for a little Democracy in the movie adaptation market!