I’ve started to question the value of franchises.
This may sound strange in many ways.
- You may wonder “what the hell took you so long?” as we try to figure out why Spider-Man movies keep getting remade.
- You may wonder why I care, because I’m bang alongside crazy creativity, cosplay, fanfic – and I haven’t really mentioned this.
- You may wonder if I’m becoming a crotchety old geek. I’m not, I’m still cool and still love being a Pyro in TF2.
So let me explain exactly what started this. It all has to do with Grand Moff Tarkin.
For those of you who don’t recall, yes, that’s the guy played by Peter Cushing in the first Star Wars film. Commander of the Death Star, didn’t take crap from Vader, and looked like he was permanently bitter at life. I figure it’s because the name “Tarkin” sounds like an artificial fabric winter coats are made out of.
Anyway, he got a book. I recall seeing it in a book store and thinking “Really?” It was a mixture of “why would I care” and “what took you folks running the Star Wars franchise so long?” I mean this is the Star Wars franchise.
Then it struck me- I didn’t care AND nothing done around the Star Wars franchise would surprise me. It’s done bloody near everything else. Maybe at some point there’s been the hot teen angst love novel with a buff young sexy Tarkin and the women he loved.*
See? I’m not sure I’m joking there.
That’s when I got thinking about Franchises.
Let’s Look At Franchise
So let’s look at the franchises out there. There’s the big ones like the Marvel Movieverse and Star Wars. There’s more mid-range ones like the never-ending anime of One Piece. Then there’s Doctor Who which I guess counts as a franchise, but is nearly in a class by itself**.
G on, look at a bookstore and ask how much fiction, especially in Geekdom, is a franchise. Warhammer 40K drips angst and darkness on the shelves. D&D fiction has been with us for decades. They’re everywhere – and we’ll gladly mock one while ignoring how we’re reading another.
Franchises are everywhere. We’re used to them. We discus them and use them as cultural reference points. How much of your life, dialogue, or pop culture experience is based around some sizeable franchise?
It’s rather a bit much. Then I began wondering about the effects.
Why Focus On Franchises?
So after seeing Tarkin staring angrily at me from a bookshelf I began asking what this franchise-focus means for our media and culture. I’d also like to credit some of my friends for being sounding boards during my speculations, here, and I tried to catalog my thoughts.
So, it seems that franchise are everywhere. Why? I think it makes sense:
- First of all, franchises are known quantities. They’re comparatively risk-free for media companies, authors, and artists. You can bloody well be sure people will see the next “Star Wars” film even if it’s called “Jar-Jar 2: Electric Boogaloo.”***
- Secondly, they’re known. Recruiting someone to produce for a franchise means leveraging existing knowledge. How many of us right now could probably cobble together a half-decent “Star Trek: The Original Series” story or a James Bond plot?
- Third, they offer synergy. That may be part of the safety thing, but consider how you can just keep extending a franchise in all sorts of ways – toys, games, etc. You can bloody well believe someone speculated on making a “Twilight” visual novel****.
- Fourth, we like familiarity. Humans are often torn between a kind of neophilia and a need for the common.
Money, safety, and convenience. Franchises make sense in a way, even if we really wonder how much Faster and Furiouser Vin Diesel can be.
But as you may guess, I see a downside. This is what’s got me concerned – and what I’d like to bring up for discussion.
Franchises: The Problems
So it sounds like I think there’s a downside to franchises. Now that’s true – but I’m not against them. I even see them having a place. I just feel like they’re more and more present in our media and that that presence is common enough there’s negative side effects both now and in the future.
At the core of my concern is that franchises are limiting. Much as a monoculture in plants or software produces problems, I’m concerned their prominence is becoming (or could be) a negative. Think of it as a concern about pop culture inbreeding; I’m worried our culture is looking a bit like a stereotypical royal family, and we’re in danger of a Joffrey Lannister moment.
Here’s my concerns:
- The prominence of franchises discourages interest in new and innovative properties. When you can fall back on safety, you’re less likely innovate. Well, the world is still changing, so having the same pop culture toolkit isn’t exactly good for us.
- The prominence of franchises, especially large ones, discourages interest in creating new and innovative properties. The money and safety and interest is in the same old same old; so why try something new?
- The prominence of franchises encourages people to create their own – be they appropriate or not – and to pitch them that way. Not all stories need to result in twenty spinoff novels; sometimes one, two, or three is enough. How many people aren’t even trying?
- The synergy of franchises can crowd out new ideas. If we think in term of franchises, then we have to pitch every new book or idea as “Star Wars with Druids” or “Sex and the City in the 1800’s” or whatever. Franchises become language, and a limited one.
Really, I’m sort of concerned we’re in a franchise spiral, where people work in big properties or try to make the next one. By now I’m getting a bit uncomfortable with all of this and wonder if this kind of synergy and media fusion has gone too far.
It’s not that I’m against them, as said. It’s just feeling overdone and now crowding things out.
So What Do We Do?
. . . uh, that’s where I’m not sure I have an answer. Sorry, this is my complaining moment. Not exactly a solution moment. Maybe that’s to come.
For me, well I usually follow my own bliss anyway. I can’t imagine being a hopeful pro writer, artist, or actor who may have to live off the franchise world. Also my life isn’t dependent on a creative paycheck.
But a few things come to mind:
- We can at least be aware of the effects of this franchise-focus. Go on, take a walk through bookstores and see how many things are franchise. Oh, and do more than fiction – look how many nonfiction books are franchises or “one person” franchises.
- We can change our habits. I’ve taken extra effort to cultivate more experiences and diversity in my media habits, from indie games to oddball anime. That makes you aware of what’s out there.
- If you work in media, start asking how you can beat the system.
- If you coach people like me, get people ready to face this challenge.
I’m not sure what’s next. I’m still thinking this over.
It’s also something that makes me think about a strange dichotomy in we geeks. We are both neophiles but also we’re focused, so we can fall in love with franchises as well. Creatues of wonder, creatures of dedication, we’re an odd lot.
More to speculate on in the future.
What do you think?
* Yes, the words “Sexy Tarkin” are stuck in you head now. Deal.
** Doctor Who isn’t so much a franchise, but an operating system you run stories in.
*** I deeply apologize for that image. Think of Sexy Tarkin instead.
**** Which, if you think about it, with an anime art style, would probably be kinda cool.