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Who Owns a Franchise? The Slippery Slope of Content Creation and Consumption

Who you gonna call?  Well, if you’re one subset of a certain franchise, it’ll be the hilarious ladies lining up for their blockbuster release of the new Ghostbusters film.  If you’re another subset, then you’ll be calling said ladies some pretty terrible things, because Ghostbusters are obviously men, because women just aren’t funny, right?  The whole point of Ghostbusters is that they actually have nuclear accelerated phalluses that they wave about maniacally, throwing plasma everywhere and caring not a whit for the fallout.  Obviously, women can’t handle this kind of elevated humor, because men are just so much better at it.  It’s not that they don’t want to see them in the uniform, of course, just not with all the talky.  Like this.  That’s fine because women can pretend to be Ghostbusters (Ghostbustiers, perhaps?), but they have no right being Ghostbusters.  After all, that’s not how the franchise began, and you can’t change the nature of its identity without consulting the fans. After all, they’re the ones consuming it. You can’t just foist things they don’t want to see into the continuity. That would mean that if they don’t see, it they can’t be its fan anymore.

So, that brings me round to my point: Studios don’t try to make movies anymore. Everything must be a franchise with at least a trilogy in the offing on any property.  Fifteen years ago this was unheard of. You built one title and if the returns made certain marks, you’d run to crank out a sequel before the audience cooled to the IP. (Unless you’re Universal with Jaws – still not sure how there are four of them.) But ever since Peter Jackson managed to convince New Line Cinema to take the chance on building a trilogy before they even knew if there was an audience, nothing has remained the same.  Obviously, this risk was well rewarded, and with the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and their cumulative storytelling model becoming widespread, this has now emboldened the money folks to build empires with any title they can get their hands on.  This has led to a bit of a wild scramble for marketable properties, with the big mine of nostalgia being tapped for anything that was ravenously loved by a hardcore group of fans at any one time.  This is why we have new installments of TMNT, Transformers, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and even Jem.  For the studios, this seems like a slam dunk, as these IPs already have an established fanbase, so less risk that way.  Iron Man was a C-lister at best before Robert Downey Jr. turned him into the character that launched a universe, so execs are grabbing at anything that was liked even a little bit, like Universal with Battleship and the Milton Bradley board games Universe.

Before I get too far down the tangential path, let’s look at what this means for fans of such franchises. This “Golden Age” of geekery has been wonderful for the world of entertainment. We’re getting very interesting stories that examine our world through the lens of capes and cowls, but with it we’re getting the dark side of the nerds: elitism.  The idea that because you loved something before it went to the masses, you can claim ownership of that knowledge, you become the Gatekeeper of the entity, and unless the Keymaster is super hot, you’re not letting them in. [Yes, I’m aware that Tully was the Keymaster and that it was yet another sexual organ gag (Keys go into locks, for those trailing.), but I had to pull a protonic reversal to make the metaphor jive.)]  This has always seemed like the silliest of poppycock to me, as there’s no property that you’ve ever seen that no one had guided you to in some way.  Even if you managed to catch the first episode of Firefly, you heard about it from advertisements or cast members or, if you’re old enough, a blurb in TV Guide.  Something brought you to a show or movie series that you’d never seen before, why not allow everyone the same chance?  Instead of bludgeoning someone over the head with your intimate knowledge, why not set them down their own path to discovery of why it’s so great?  The worst that can happen is that you may get more content because now more people are putting their dollars into it so more can come from it.

But that’s the catch, isn’t it?  The wider the appeal, maybe the more they’ll have to dilute or change what you loved about the series in the first place. Maybe they’ll focus more on the dashing captain than the plucky engineer, or maybe your favorite will get killed off because it makes for a better story than them tossing their catchphrase over and over.  Maybe they’ll gender swap all the roles. Maybe they’ll undo thirty years of continuity, because your beloved franchise got bought for mega dollars and they want to pave a whole new storyline of official canon. (I miss you, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  But not you, Waru. You can go.)  Stories have to include more audience factors to become more popular. Maybe some folks who aren’t represented in popular entertainment as much (women, races other than Caucasian) should get bigger roles, so that people who identify with those characters have something as awesome as Iron Man or Superman to look up to instead of being the villain or damsel in distress.  If you’re that upset by not seeing yourself represented on the screen in something that you love, how do you suppose the folks who rarely are feel?

Now that we’ve explored a bit of the ins and outs of franchise fandom, it’s on to think about whose voice is more important: the creators of a property or its fans?  Without creators, there’s no IP to jump on, without investors, people will never hear of the brilliance the creator dreamed up, and without fans there’s no one wanting to drive the cycle again.  Now, with the developments of crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, the whole cycle is getting a little blurry, where the fans themselves can be the investors and make their beloved properties sprout more goodness.  This can be a good thing, taking the “will it sell” aspect out of the loop, because the people behind the campaigns obviously answer that question, but this can also produce undue pressure on the creators, as well, as noted famously in Joss Whedon’s comments on the fan effort to buy the rights to Firefly from Fox.  You’ll notice that I didn’t include the investors in which voice is important, because most of the time if they allow themselves to get out of the way like the mega deal between Sony and Marvel with Spiderman, then the other folks can really get what they’re looking for.  Another great example is the Deadpool movie that we got because we were really, really good and ate our whole supper (even the Brussels sprouts) and brushed our teeth and everything and showed up when the leaked footage dropped.  In that case, the creators were stuck behind the investors, and the fans stood up to say, “Yeah, you’ll make your frakking money.”

We, as fans, all have things we want to see happen to our favorite characters and universes. I’m personally hopeful not only for the new Star Trek series and movie but that maybe Fox will see an opportunity to do with the Fantastic Four what Sony did with Spiderman. Maybe the House of M can give the characters the chance to shine, but because they’d be coming in so late, it might mean new stories between them and the current roster of Marvel stars, so new and different (or newly different, or all new all different…) stories between an elder Stark and a younger Reed Richards that would place them in different relationships than the comics.  This would likely send some folks over the edge, but for those of us who look to experience these characters in re-imagined circumstances, it could unlock a whole new world of possibilities.

Where does that leave us?  Well, the answer from my perspective will usually be “give it a shot.”  No one knew if Paul Dini and Bruce Timm would do justice to the Batman, and yet The Animated Series has become a powerful and essential part of the lore, so much so that Harley Quinn has now become DC’s Deadpool and has become a fan favorite and investor darling (because Margot Robbie in those shorts has them seeing dollar signs).  There’s always going to be risk from creators, there are always going to be investors pleading for accessibility, and hardcore fans will always be arguing over the minutia, but who should really be in charge and calling the shots?  It really has to be a blend of all three; the people with the cash need to let the creators do their thing and the audience has to show up.  When it works (Deadpool, Spidey), it can be everything that fans will clamor for, but, sometimes, we have to be willing to take the chance that a big change could revitalize something we’ve loved and turn it into something even more amazing.

In just a little while, we’ll all get the chance to see four women whip the big guns and push ghosts into the gaping maw of the traps.

GhostbustersShooting 411
It’s never NOT been about sex. Look at the faces.

I for one am excited to see what this new direction looks like for the franchise, I’m encouraged by the fact that Bill Murray (who Akroyd’s been after for decades to do a new flick) has given his blessing to this new take.  It will be different.  It will be weird.  It’ll be Ghostbusters.

We’re ready to entertain YOU.

Erik Cheski, Fanbase Press Contributor



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