Sunday, July 14, 2013

Star Wars and Innovation

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." -- Henry Ford

People have been complaining more and more in recent years about the lack of creativity on the part of the major motion picture studios and other big media producers. We seem to be getting more and more sequels, prequels, reboots, and transfers of IP from one medium to another, and less original content. The term franchise is now so standard that we don't even think twice about whether movies should exist as a franchise in the first place.

It's easy to point the finger at the big studios not being willing to take risks, or trying to maximize profits by making movies that have brand familiarity in order to make marketing easier and more effective. But I think we all know that we're a large part of the problem due to the way we vote with our wallets. If we keep paying for the same old shit, we'll keep getting the same old shit.

There is a limit to the number of big budget movies that can get released each year due to the time required to launch an effective advertising campaign. So studios will put their safest movies in these slots and throw huge money behind them, until we stop making these movies safe bets. New innovative ideas will keep getting crowded out of an already saturated market until this happens.

The Lone Ranger is a perfect recent example of how the public can effectively kill a cynical franchise attempt if they want to. The final verdict is still out at this point in time, but I think it's almost certain that there won't be a sequel. Spewing any old piece of brandname recognition at the audience in a desperate attempt to make money should not be rewarded by us, and this is how we do it.

On the other hand, the huge failure of John Carter last year is the kind of thing that scares studios away from trying something new (or at least adapting something that is relatively unfamiliar to most of the audience). And so they inevitably go back to churning out more shitty superhero movies because that's the current safe bet.

Or Star Wars.

Star Wars is now 36 years old. We've seen multiple movies, TV shows, computer games, and all manner of merchandising tie-ins. Now that Disney has paid $4 billion for it, there is going to be a shit-ton more in the next few years. They've already announced plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year. There is a Star Wars theme park opening. There will be all sorts of game tie-ins and anything else Disney can think of to make the most of their investment. Disney has a nice new lucrative reason to continue not to innovate any time in the near future.

There's lots to love about the Star Wars universe, but when will people finally have enough and ask for something new? Sure, if someone asks you, "Would you like a new big budget Star Wars movie or game?", anyone who grew up on it will probably say yes. Why wouldn't you want it?

But we need to stop thinking in those terms, and start thinking in terms of the trade off. Do you want a new Star Wars thing so much that you're happy to not get other things? What if, back in 1999, it had been, "Would you like a Star Wars prequel, or this new movie idea called The Matrix?". We would have lost a huge cultural phenomenon all so we could get, "Ani! Meesa too lazy to make new idea!" This is what we're doing every time we keep paying for the same old shit, and we never get to find out what alternatives we missed out on.

It's been 36 years of light sabers, the Force, and barely disguised racial stereotype aliens. It's been a fun ride, but can't we just let this fucking franchise end already? Wouldn't it be nice to have some new memes and cultural references in the next decade or two? There are so many great fictional universes out there to create and explore. Do you really want to be on your deathbed when you're 80 years old and still be wondering what other adventures Yoda got up to?


  1. I think that the key enabler of this policy is centralised advertising channels - those "slots". Those are still mainly TV, billboards and radio (AFAICS). Ads have the potential to take over those to some degree (like FB inserting ads in the feed) but everyone (my impression) acknowledges that targetting is king online, and you shoudl give _individuals_ what they want, not the herd. I think that part of the reason we are seeing AAA games and film studios talking about "redefining AAA" as smaller titles (and it's very exciting that we are) is not because of falling revenues due to financial depression, but as a symptom of those channels beginning to fail.

    Also, and separately: I think there is something special and worthwhile when a universe outlives it's initial sequels. LIke a child universe, it splits off and takes on a life of it's own, and I think it's an creative art form in itself, at a macro level above film or games. And while there will be good or bad offerings, they offer a different set of constraints and freedoms within which some new ideas work, building on shared context, that wouldn't have worked all on their own. So yes, yes I do want to be wondering what's going on in the Star Trek universe when I'm 80, quite possibly in the Marvel universe too (I don't think that's quite sold for me yet), possibly in the Star Wars universe... these are rare candidates indeed, because the accumulated effort behind them is so huge. And I think people love to have something that has spanned their lifetimes, and that's very natural.

    Finally though: it's the way those universes (and series, like the Matrix, Star Wars, LOTR/Hobbit - for me all those are really just series still, at this point) become bigger than their creators and really live in the joint consciousness of fans, that makes them special - and I think we need to recognise that ownership. Fans were denied a good end to the Matrix, but frankly the crowd could have down a better job of the plot (not necessarily the details); similarly the fans could have torn down the new Star Wars films early in production and sent them back. George Lucas lost his tempering influences (such as the actors!) long, long ago. And fans knowing what's coming really doesn't matter - that's the old mentality there, and research has even shown people enjoy things _more_ after "spoilers"! (Citation on request) Universes are owned by fans, not copyright holders, and if they open up the process, universes will thrive.

  2. I agree that if we didn't have almost 100 year copyrights on IP so that fans could become part of the creative process, and big studios were forced to come up with new ideas, that would be good. But we don't have that. Millions of fans made Star Wars what it is today, not Lucas or Disney. But they will hold the exclusive rights to tell stories in that universe until the day we die.