Among so many heinous problems trickling down on our heads from the top of the film industry is that of intellectual property. It’s not that adaptations are new, but that the ability to make a living by creating anything else has only recently been destroyed. IP obsession has killed the mid-budget movie, it’s killed the movie star, and it’s coming for the rest of the industry. This is as much a problem for audiences as for filmmakers (at any level), and it all comes from the same place: Unchecked greed, and the familiarity with which we accept it.
Tidy, consistent, sustainable profits—the kind of thing generated by movie studios that once offered a diverse slate of reasonably budgeted adult dramas, teen-date rom-coms, family films, and fence-swinging art movies—are a thing of the past for those in charge of the industry. Other forces from the entertainment world are certainly at play, specifically the rise of prestige TV as a destination for what the movies have abandoned. But the pivot to the IP Era feels simple, because it feels familiar. It’s because tidy, consistent, sustainable profits aren’t enough. There must be growth. There must be domination. There must be Shared Universes.
This attitude goes beyond being risk-averse. Risk aversion isn’t new. Single-minded speculation, trying to alchemize IP into gold, is.
The management decisions keeping workers from their fair pay—as described by Writers Guild of America board member John Rogers in a thread about the current strike—are the same ones milking old IP for all it’s worth: “The new robber barons of Hollywood are on a suicide run.” This shift is tech-bro economics, Wall Street-fellating “vulture capitalism” here to feast on the industry, not further it.
“All we needed was five million dollars a year in revenues, and we would have made money for everyone,” said Jeremy Neuner. “That’s enough to earn a living and buy a house and put your kids through school. But no one wanted something that just made a healthy living. They all wanted to find the next Zuckerberg.” That’s not someone mourning manageably-budgeted original movies like Michael Clayton, but rather a competitor of WeWork, whose business fell apart thanks to the unrealistic investment ideals of venture capitalists. But replace “Zuckerberg” with “MCU” and you can understand what happened to movies.
Sure, an executive could gamble on a few million dollars on an “idea” from a “writer.” They could also flip the big Binder O’ Properties to a random page, do a rail of coke off of it and spend $100 million to reboot whatever’s underneath. A new Ghostbusters? Another go at the Dark Universe? Let’s do it! Monopolies, even monopolies built on unsustainable properties—on the slums of Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues, in board game terms—have the potential to be more than profitable. They can define decades of strategy. Investors like that. It feels stable yet exciting, predictable yet potentially limitless.
“We’re going to focus on franchises,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav assured investors. “We haven’t had a Superman movie in 13 years. We haven’t done a Harry Potter in 15 years.”
It doesn’t matter if viewers are burned out or if the franchise is inextricably linked to a raging asshole. There’s recognizable media out there just asking to be exploited into an empire, one that could grow and grow and grow. If it eventually burns like Rome—say, if you’re former Disney CEO Bob Chapek and your streaming business continues to bleed money despite releasing bad franchise movies directly onto it—then you can simply fiddle your little heart out, floating away on your golden parachute. Naturally, studio leadership favors this approach, which in turn sets the precedent for the only kinds of movies their companies finance, market and stuff into theaters.
We, the country’s moviegoing public, have already been trained to understand this.
Pretty consistently, folks go to the movies when they recognize something and stay home when they don’t. Looking at the past 10 years of box office Top 10s, it’s far faster to note which movies aren’t based on a pre-existing property: Frozen, Gravity, Inside Out, Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, Sing, Onward and Tenet.
That’s it. Eight movies out of 100.
Two of them even let you see a person.
But in the IP Era, people are merely a liability. Movies seeking this modern kind of success—as many sequels, spin-offs and merchandise tie-ins as possible—only need humans in front of the camera when they function as an extension of IP. Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum were brought back for the latest Jurassic World cash-grab to excite us as embodied reminders of a better movie. They’re not actors anymore. They’re mascots.
When you realize that that’s all AAA actors are being cast as, it becomes obvious why the biggest blockbusters have recently boiled down to ensembles standing around reskinned warehouses and parking lots. As Jake Ures writes, “when acting has been reduced to stewarding IP,” you don’t want people getting invested in the stars. Rather, “it’s better for investors if they function as empty vessels for stories much bigger than them, ones that can be endlessly iterated long after they’re out of the picture.”
Ah, endless iteration. It’s like investor dirty talk. And we’re being made more and more comfortable with the technology and techniques enabling it. We were all (rightly) disgusted at the digital necromancy used in Rogue One to Weekend at Bernie’s the corpse of Peter Cushing. There was less hubbub when Carrie Fisher was assembled piecemeal in The Rise of Skywalker, and even less when Ghostbusters: Afterlife conjured up Harold Ramis, possibly because the latter movie doesn’t really exist.
Performers have long feared being themselves turned into IP. Jet Li famously skipped out on The Matrix sequels so his moves wouldn’t be digitized in some Warner Bros. library, to be used to whatever future end by a company that no longer needed his martial artistry. This, by the way, is the plot of Space Jam: A New Legacy, as LeBron James attempts to avoid the same fate…threatened by the in-universe Warner Bros. Really, this idea is so normalized as to be the bad guy’s plan in a kid’s movie. Netflix is trying to own the rights to its actors’ simulated voices “by all technologies and processes now known or hereafter developed, throughout the universe and in perpetuity.” It’s not about creating something, it’s about owning something, forever.
And that’s the success model. Increasingly, it’s the only model. Because now we crave it, beaten into submission by the sheer onslaught of “Remember that?” requels, legacy sequels and reboots released since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens helped establish the monoculture model of filmmaking. Audiences didn’t do this to pop culture. It was the corporate powers that invested in and encouraged their most ravenous demographic, turning “audiences” into “fandoms.” We’ve had slop shoveled onto our pop culture prison cafeteria trays for decades, and the prison-industrial multiplex expects us to give our compliments to the chef for another meal of empty-calorie Easter eggs.
It would be something if those behind these exhausted series were given artistic freedom to subvert expectations or play with these properties. But another facet in how this trend manifests is in its pandering, simplistic, safe filmmaking, aimed at siphoning the memories and wallets of arrested adults.
You don’t need jokes, or plots, or images. Just referential, cover band filmmaking. Make a movie about visiting all the old stars of another movie. Make a movie about getting sucked back into an old movie’s world. Make a movie where the events of another movie…happen again?! These structures abound, followed by Pavlovian post-credit scenes that, with their Glup Shittos and Blorkos, jangle in front of us like so many Mickey Mouse keychains. Photoreal “live-action” remakes spin their uncanny wheels, creativity cowering in the face of raw computational power. There are few clearer examples of how a Silicon Valley mindset has infected how we look at movies than Disney adults equating new developments in a technocapitalist arms race with artistry. People didn’t always cape for tech demos.
A few savvy operators continue trying to game the IP Era, backdooring in personal and competent filmmaking that just happens to be dressed in marketable spandex or flowing Jedi robes. Peter Pan & Wendy is perhaps the most recent of these to see an artist try something, a reminder that our best filmmakers are being snapped up by studios to make this dreck just so they can feed their families.
There was a time a filmmaker like David Lowery could succeed in coming out on top of his deal with the IP devil: Pete’s Dragon is a warm little miracle, a true-blue Lowery film that happens to be using a familiar property to secure the bag. But Pan makes it clear that even the smoothest stepper in the “one for them, one for me” dance is finding it harder and harder to get to that second song—and that their moves in general are increasingly hampered by heavier and heavier brand baggage.
And it’s not just award-winning indie filmmakers, gobbled up by the machine, who are struggling with this increasingly difficult task. If you’re on a shoestring budget and want to—need to, really—associate your film with something familiar to audiences? Well, you could capitalize on pseudo-franchises like Amityville, which remain accessible because of a complicated inability to be copyrighted. You could also start throwing the grist of public domain into your terrible mill, as long as Disney doesn’t lobby to change the law (again). Just make sure you get your hands on a name that people know, even if it’s free, and remember to orient it towards nostalgic adults.
With the MCU and its pretenders on one end of the financial spectrum, The Banana Splits Movie and Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey are perfect case studies for the opposite side. The budgets might be different, but the business model is the same: Dig up characters half-remembered from childhood while reminding us that, now, it’s definitely for adults. Nothing says “brilliant and edgy” like turning children’s characters into slasher villains.
These projects, the cinematic equivalent of those t-shirts where the Looney Tunes have Glocks, feel extra pathetic because it’s clear how desperate the IP Era has made everyone involved—and how clearly it rewards those that play the game. Blood and Honey made bank, encouraging the production of an R-rated series positioning Christopher Robin as “a disillusioned New Yorker navigating his quarter-life crisis with the help of the weird talking animals who live beyond a drug-induced portal outside his derelict apartment complex, the Hundred Acres.” Yeesh. I wonder if Christopher Robin is disillusioned because he once thought that there was a place in this blighted world for creative thought.
But of course filmmakers are going there, marketing whatever half-subversive take they can to the Comic-Con crowd that’s become the mainstream audience. They’re not snickering. They’re surviving. Because before the bubble finally bursts—when younger generations realize that the only media marketed at them concerns characters they have no relationship with—things will get worse. This predictable template, its undiscerning audience and those still trying to scrape by in the industry will be exploited as deeply as possible, on the off chance that injecting the GDP of Sierra Leone into new Lord of the Rings movies will work this time.
Maybe it will work. But when you listen to Neuner, the guy whose business got steamrolled by WeWork before it WeCrashed, you remember that it doesn’t really matter either way. “When you get involved in the startup world,” he says, “you meet all these amazing entrepreneurs with fantastic ideas, and, over time, you watch them get pushed by V.C.s to take too much money, and make bad choices, and grow as fast as possible. And then they blow up. And, eventually, you start to realize: no matter what happens, the V.C.s still end up rich.” The robber barons continue their suicide run, even if it’s only originality paying the fatal price. The IP Era will drag on as long as this venture capital philosophy poisons Hollywood. Keeping your money far away from their franchises is the only antidote.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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