The Multiverse at the Multiplex
The teaser trailer just came out for a new Ghostbusters movie. It's not exactly a remake; maybe it's a reboot, with the main difference being that this time the Ghostbusters are chicks (and the writing, judging from the trailer, is awful).
But it's much more than that. This film is planned, not just as an extension of the Ghostbusters franchise, but as the beginning of a new Ghostbusters "extended universe." Sony has created a new sub-company called Ghost Corps for the purpose of producing Ghostbusters films, with as many as four potentially being in production. And they won't just be reboots and sequels. It will be a "legitimate shared universe" that will be "the catch-all umbrella for a world of supernatural FX [special-effects] comedies." There is talk about producing films from this "universe" at a rate of one per year.
All of that is dependent on the first rebooted film doing well at the box office. How that's likely to work out, you can judge for yourself.
Let's just say that there's room for skepticism. But this is the whole mania these days for the big movie studios. It's not enough to have a single successful film or even a franchise full of sequels. You have to have a whole darned "universe."
This is a new approach to story-telling, one driven by certain technological and economic imperatives, but with surprisingly broad cultural implications.
The Ghostbusters universe might not get off the ground, but there are at least 12 cinematic universes in development, and it's possible that we won't live to see the last Star Wars film. Actually, 12 universes may be under-counting, because while that list includes the Marvel, DC, and X-Men superhero universes as well as Star Wars and a few others, it leaves out Star Trek (which has a new television series coming and more feature films), Harry Potter (which extends itself beyond the original film series with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first J.K. Rowling story about American wizards), and of course the one that arguably launched this wave: the Tolkien universe. Yes, they've already made The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but there's a lot more J.R.R. Tolkien material out there, and it's only a matter of time.
Tolkien pioneered the idea of creating a whole world, with its own creatures and history and mythology and rules of magic, and perhaps most famously its own languages, of which he created more than a dozen. Now it has gotten so far out of hand that there is guy who makes a living creating fictional languages for movies and television shows. For a single book or film, it might be enough to coin a few gobbledygook words and impute them to some alien language. But when you have to explore a whole universe across a series of films (and television shows, and books, and whatnot), then you need the order and consistency of inventing a whole language.
Stan Lee came at the same idea from a less highbrow direction in the 1960s, pioneering the approach of connecting the various Marvel comic book superheroes in a "shared" universe with interlocking story lines. But what's happening right now goes beyond mere superhero crossover stories. The report on the Ghostbusters universe talks about the "tonal variety" among the various films. Referring to the varied styles of the directors and producers of each of these projects, it concludes that "this shared universe will allow Feig to do his thing, Reitman and the Russos and Drew Pearce to do their thing, and for them to cross over when they must." In the old days, it was considered important to maintain a similarity in style and tone and genre among the films in a franchise. You had to stick close to the formula that made it popular in the first place. Now variety is considered the key to expanding the franchise into a universe.
John Podhoretz identifies this new trend in his review of the latest Marvel film, Deadpool. He starts with the economics of the shared cinematic universe.
One can no longer look at the Marvel movies as individual pictures; and indeed, Disney doesn't. The studio got into a huge fight with the fan-beloved writer-director Joss Whedon when he was making Avengers 2: [Age of] Ultron because it insisted Whedon insert characters and plot points that would be of use to Marvel in Avenger-related movies not yet made (or even written). He didn't want to mess up his plotlines, but messed-up they got, because no matter how much money Whedon made for them with the first Avengers, Disney/Marvel is looking down the line.... It has 15 Marvel pictures lined up through the end of this decade.
But here is the really crucial observation.
Audiences flocked to Deadpool because it was both something familiar and something new—a Marvel comic book movie that's flat-out filthy.... It's a movie you can't take your 9-year-old to see, and that's the point. The notion of making a superhero picture children cannot see was the experimental aspect of Deadpool in a commercial sense.... One can imagine a similar experiment with Star Wars: something hyperviolent, maybe, or even a full-scale romantic melodrama that's light on the action—Nicholas Sparks in a galaxy far, far away. This is a new way of thinking about and making movies.
This is what takes the "universe" beyond the sequels and prequels of a mere franchise. We are no longer just returning to the same characters or the same type of stories. The idea is to present a range of new characters exploring whole different genres, but within the shared setting of a distinctive fictional universe.
When they made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was considered something of a leap of faith for the studios to take one long novel and produce it as three films. By the time they made The Hobbit, they took a much smaller Tolkien book, less than a third the length, and made it into three films of its own. If they could go back and do it again, I'm pretty sure the producers would have made Lord of the Rings into nine movies instead of three.
We saw this about the same time with the Harry Potter films, where the seventh and final installment of J.K. Rowling's book series was split into two movies. There is some value here for the fans, because the films don't have to cut out as many plot points. There is some artistic value, because the filmmakers get to tell a big story at a slower pace, with the events more fully imagined. But there is also an obvious economic value. When you've got a successful series, you always want to drag out an extra film and get the extra revenue. Why make one blockbuster when you can make two or three?
The concept of the shared universe tries to take this idea and draw it out further, to make a successful franchise into the basis for a much larger number of films telling a much wider variety of stories.
There are some deep economic and technological imperatives driving this. Fundamentally, I suspect it is the impact of big-screen, high-definition TVs and online video streaming. Back in the day, we used to say that television was like watching a movie through a window. Now, it is often a superior experience. You can stay in your own home, sit on your own couch, eat your own snacks, and not worry about getting a babysitter for the kids or having your feet stick to the floor because some teenager spilled his Coke all over it. And you can pause the movie at any time if you need to go to the bathroom or argue over a plot point. You can watch the movie again with the director's commentary track turned on. And so on.
This is bad for the big movie studios, but it's an opportunity for other media more suited to take advantage of people's desire to view entertainment on their own not-so-small screens. So part of what's happening is that stories that used to get made on the big screen are being made for television. We crossed a line a few years back when HBO spent $8 million to make a single episode of "Game of Thrones"—cinematic money for a cinematic experience. So this is an indication that some of the movie-watching experience is migrating to the small screen.
We still do see smaller movies getting made for the big screen and winning awards, such as this this year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Spotlight. But that film has grossed $40 million domestically on a $20 million budget—a number that is not going to keep the lights on at a major studio.
What you see the movie studios doing, to survive in this new era, is to provide an experience you still can't get on the small screen. They need films with stunning visuals and cutting-edge special effects, projected in 3-D or on the truly gigantic IMAX screen. This pushes them toward big blockbusters. But it also pushes them to be risk-averse. If you're sinking $200 million into an epic that needs to gross somewhere north of $500 million, you want to make sure it's going to perform.
One way to do that is to start with a proven idea. Hence Hollywood's longstanding interest in sequels and prequels, remakes, re-boots, and spin-offs, and in ruining your favorite book. They already know audiences like the idea, and they have the benefit of decades of advance publicity and a built-in community of fans. They can still mess it up, and how. But you start with a lot of advantages.
The shared universe takes this idea one step farther and broader. A shared universe relies, not on specific characters or plots or even a particular genre. It relies on a common setting and locations, a distinctive style of clothing and houses and speech and machines, and shared rules about the way the fictional universe works, all of which viewers find familiar and have already proven that they want to revisit.
In most cases, this shared "universe" is more than just a shared set of particulars. It is a universe in the all-encompassing metaphysical sense—not that a work of fiction actually creates a real parallel universe, but in the sense that it conveys a distinctive view of the universe. What ties a "share universe" together is a shared "sense of life," a common view of the basic nature of the world. Consider, as two opposite ends of the spectrum, the earnest idealism of the Star Trek universe (in most of its manifestations), versus the brutal cynicism of the "Game of Thrones" universe. That's what ties each universe together, much more than its fictional technology or fictional languages.
All works of art create their own "universe" in this sense. They create a sense of the world "as it might be and ought to be," in Aristotle's formulation. They create a vision of the world that reflects fundamental assumptions about who we are and how things work. The difference is that these new fictional universes also vary the specifics of speech, dress, manners, and technology in a way that makes them perceptually, visually distinctive—and copyrightable.
That's why this approach favors science fiction and fantasy premises. The "universe" can't be the ordinary world as it is, because anybody can make a movie set in that universe. The real world is out there on any old street corner waiting to be filmed. A cinematic universe has to have things that exist only for those with copyright permission: a universe with Jedi Knights(TM) and The Force(TM) or with the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry(TM) and Voldemort(TM) and Avada Kedavra(TM). You get the idea.
This provides additional economic benefits outside the box office. If a story is big enough to stock an entire universe full of characters and settings, it is easier to turn it into a whole universe of ancillary products: spin-off TV shows, "expanded universe" books licensed out to lesser-known authors, and endless merchandising, all the way down to those R2-D2 salt and pepper shakers. (I made that up, but I knew I'd find them.)
But the primary way a universe decreases the studio's risk is by broadening the viewers' loyalty. You can tell a new story with new characters (and new actors, who won't be total divas like the original stars of the franchise), but you still have a pre-established audience of viewers who are personally committed to the "universe" in which it is set.
Consider the economic power of a traditional franchise. If they make a disappointing James Bond film—which has happened pretty often—they count on the assumption that you'll keep coming back because you like the character and the various trappings of the franchise. Now imagine the makers of the James Bond films saying, "Enough about 007, here's a story about 006." (And yes, that will probably happen at some point.) But it would still be the James Bond "universe" because it has M and SPECTRE, and the Bond-style villains, the Bond-style girls, the clothes, the gadgets, the catchphrases, the supporting characters, and the (theoretically) witty one-liners.
While broadening the viewer's loyalty, the use of a shared universe can also intensify it, as fans seek to discover and commit to memory every little detail and plotline of that universe, to know it chapter and verse. The religious reference seems appropriate here. After all, to keep the details of their own universes straight, the producers usually compile a "bible" and decide what is "canon"—terms taken from religion. And their fans absorb it with much the same quasi-religious devotion as the Ancient Greeks absorbed the tales of their mythology.
And that suggests the most interesting implications of this new approach to story-telling.
Let's start with the fact that it's not really new. There was a time when most artists and story-tellers used to draw from a "shared universe." There were in fact two shared literary and artistic universes: the Bible—the original Bible, with a capital "B"—and Classical mythology and literature, which is what we used to call the "canon." If you look at the art of the Renaissance, for example, those two shared universes account for virtually every great work: its subject matter was either drawn from the Bible (Michelangelo's David) or from the Classical world (Botticelli's "Birth of Venus").
There are some rough tradeoffs in switching out these old universes for the new ones. For one thing, it causes us to ignore the real "canon," the precious cultural inheritance of the West, in favor of something shallower and more ephemeral. I've long complained that on the rare occasions when Hollywood wants to make a movie about the siege of Troy or the battle at Thermopylae or the life of Themistocles, boy do they play fast and loose with the story lines. Violate the "canon" of the Star Wars universe, and you'll be in big trouble. (Just ask that fallen prophet, George Lucas.) Trash the actual canon and nobody cares. And when it comes to the Bible, Hollywood likes to relegate that to a somewhat despised niche that doesn't usually get the top talent—when they're not trying to offer an "edgy" version that reimagines a lesbian Jesus.
The new universes aren't often an adequate substitute. The old Bible and the original canon contained big themes and addressed fundamental truths. The gospel according to Ghostbusters? Not so much. As products of lowbrow popular culture, they tend to allow for more limited and superficial themes.
There is something wonderful in the burst of imagination involved in creating these modern literary and cinematic universes. The canon of any one of the major franchises has to match, in quantity if not in quality, the entire corpus of Greek mythology. But it is important to remember that any such canon has its limits and restrictions, and with all of these cinematic universes imitating one another and competing with one another, they are in danger of rehashing the same themes over and over again in minor variants.
Big, mainstream entertainment can get just as frozen within its new artistic conventions as it once was in the old. The two universes, the Biblical and the Classical, were for a long time so dominant that it was something of a radical innovation to produce art based in the real universe of the present day. At the rate things are going, that might end up being just as radical an idea in the multiplex.