How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Epic (Marveliad Ep. VI)

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This page covers Episode VI of “The Marveliad", which started with: Cinematic Universes Aren't New; They're the Oldest Stories on Earth

EPISODE VI: DESTINY ARRIVES ALL THE SAME

Given the inordinate success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other epics, it’s interesting to consider why it took until the 2000s for the concept to return to the forefront. In particular, it is odd the industry didn’t pivot to cinematic universes after the outsized success of the Star Wars movies. 1977’s A New Hope sold more than 200MM tickets in the United States on release, the most of any film since 1939 (when Americans went to the theater 40+ times a year versus the modern average of four to five). In the 42 years since, the closest another film has come to this record is 1997’s Titanic with 130MM tickets, 2009’s Avatar and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame peaked at 100MM – even though the US population has grown nearly 50%. And three years after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back generated nearly as staggering a haul – had built an empire of merchandise and ancillary content, such as books, comics and a holiday TV special.

Similarly, it is curious that it took three decades after the film rights to The Lord of the Rings, the best-selling book series of all time, for a live-action Middle Earth to be considered. Even in the late ‘90s, according to Peter Jackson, only one studio, New Line, was willing to make more than one movie for all three books. In other words, studio execs believed that making a successful adaptation of Lord of the Rings required rejecting the epic scope of Tolkien’s universe. The trilogy ultimately grossed $3B worldwide, with the final entry taking its year’s box office crown, in addition to Best Picture at the Academy Awards and tying for the most Oscars ever won by a single film. Demand for more Middle Earth was so great that New Line subsequently greenlit The Hobbit, this time adapting one smaller book into three long films. The prequel trilogy also grossed $3B. In 2017, it was announced that Amazon was working on a five-season TV series set in Middle Earth (rumors suggest Amazon spent more on the rights to these five seasons than the first three films cost to produce).

Institutional Culture and Constraints

The first explanation is institutional. Studio executives retained a suspicion that classic science fiction, fantasy and comic book IP had a limited (if devoted) audience. Faced with the high costs to produce these films, especially if executed in a manner consistent with the source material and fan expectations, they passed on many of the concepts that would ultimately become blockbusters. Even when produced, there was a preference to simplify stories and modify details. The goal was to make the product more palatable to ‘mass audiences,’ which had the effect of alienating core fans, and keep budgets down. At a time when one big flop could bring down a studio head, the notion of a vast web of films, produced in agonizing fidelity to some pulp paperback or comic, seemed ludicrous.

Some of this resistance was rooted in the enduring prestige associated with ‘quality’ films. Many studio executives and filmmakers believed - and still believe - the most legitimate expression of their medium was psychological realism and social commentary. These films had often been commercially as well as artistically successful in the preceding decades. In 1967, the top ten box office hits included The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, Valley of the Dolls, and To Sir with Love. In 1969, the list included Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Goodbye, Columbus. To an executive who came of age during those years, movies of this caliber were not just an ideal. They were a realistic career ambition and often delivered meaningful profits. Accordingly, genre and popcorn movies were often seen as lesser, perhaps even a ‘necessary evil.’ This is the nature of a gatekeeper industry. Those in power typically achieved their influence by making the type of content that was already prestigious and successful, and these titles weren’t genre or pulp franchises.

Even after Jaws and Star Wars, studios were slow to comprehensively commercialize. When a film-maker wanted to follow up a hit with a sequel, as Stallone did with Rocky or Lucas with Star Wars, a second film was greenlit to take advantage of momentum. But when a filmmaker did not want to work on a follow-up, like Spielberg with Jaws and ET, the sequel was never made, or made many years later (and often by someone else). A four or five-year gap cadence was not uncommon. In most cases, genre franchises were not managed carefully, with the aim of growing fan affinity through improved execution. Very few were designed to build to a crescendo. They were usually milked for cash, often with steadily weaker scripts and talent.

As more time passed, this institutional culture was transformed as the institutions themselves were – an evolution forced by the fundamental financial frailty of ‘cinema.’ Studio margins were typically thin, balance sheets small, and per film profits unpredictable. A single failure could be crippling. 1969’s Hello Dolly!, which starred Barbara Streisand at her peak and won three Academy Awards, lost $10MM (roughly $70MM in 2019 dollars). That was enough to destabilize Fox. Once the studio had repaired its finances, Fox diversified its way into resorts, soft-drink bottling and film theaters. After its own bout with disaster, Columbia Pictures was purchased by Coca-Cola, which later sold it to manufacturing giant Sony. By the 2000s, every studio was part of a much larger media enterprise, which meant that its ability (or rather, its parent’s ability) to monetize a franchise hit had grown tremendously. A studio in the early ‘70s could barely finance a tentpole. (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. had to team up to fund The Towering Inferno). Not only is this easy for a modern-day $200B corporation, but it can now recoup this investment across everything from theme parks, consumer products, broadcast and cable television networks, and consumer hardware and/or telecoms service. No longer a ‘necessary evil,’ franchises are the institutional focus of today’s studios.

Further proof of this ongoing transformation is the establishment of an entirely new executive function, epitomized by Marvel Studio’s Kevin Feige. A direct descendent of the role pioneered by J. R. R. Tolkien, Stan Lee and George Lucas, Feige is a 'maestro' responsible for making sure all of the branches of the super-story work together. He must look years ahead, planning an arc that will run through dozens of projects, while maintaining a continuity that will survive the scrutiny of the 'nit-pickiest' fan. It requires a delicate touch. Too tightly integrated and the individual films will suffer from a lack of creative independence and ingenuity. Too loosely coupled and the audience will not be compelled to seek out connected movies or TV shows. It is a job that no one imagined ten years ago. In retrospect, this seems strange: how could you not have someone managing your biggest money-earners? It is now the most powerful executive position in entertainment. Kevin Feige is the master of this art and everybody wants someone like him.

While Disney is the master of epic universes today, it’s worth highlighting that this capability was acquired, not built internally. At the time Disney acquired the MCU, Marvel Studios had already released two films, was in production on another two entries and pre-production on two more (including the mega-crossover The Avengers). To kick off its epic universe, the company had needed to push themselves to the brink of bankruptcy. Had Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk failed, the MCU would have, too.

The Return of Orality

The Internet has restored key features of the oral epic experience. Even in their earliest forms, Usenet (bulletin boards) and IRC brought together isolated fans from around the world to debate over the details of science fiction and fantasy worlds. Much like the ancient Greeks or Indians sitting around the fire, these online communities treated the worlds of Star Trek or Superman as real. Their history and geography was as legitimate a subject for discussion and reverence as the real world (hence the Star Wars canon thing).

The Web and mobile phones accelerated this trend, with social media and podcasts, all feverishly speculating on the meaning and direction of their favorite stories. Fan-fiction sites provide a way for anybody to be that bard adding a new chapter to the epic. And an important feature of oral culture, the epigram (an apropos citation of a classical or Biblical verse) has been reborn as the ‘meme,’ visual quotations set to new purpose. All of these ‘oral’ innovations make the stories we consumed privately once again public, universal and 24/7/365. And they’ve doubtlessly enabled hits such as Game of Thrones to hit ever-higher peaks.

One effect was to reveal the true scale of a ‘nerd culture’ that had been fragmented in five-person games of Dungeons & Dragons or obscure fan conventions. Science fiction readers had been gathering in small numbers in big cities since the 1930s, but in the 1980s, Comic-cons began to grow in number and popularity. The largest, San Diego, reached 150,000 by the 2000s (only limited by their capacity). Media execs eventually realized that there were a lot more nerds than they had thought. Soon, unveiling teasers at Comic-cons become a key date of a roll-out calendar.

The VFX Revolution

The growth in the visual effects industry and an overall reduction in costs per effect is another key factor. Star Wars would have been impossible without George Lucas’ ingenious technical inventions. Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman adaptation was a ground-breaking moment for comic books, but was limited to modest practical effects. In 2008, 400 of Iron Man shots had digital visual effects. By 2018, 96% of Avenger’s Infinity War’s 3,000 shots featured them. This may explain why epics flourished in print long before they hit film. It took time for visuals to be capable of matching imagination. In this sense, superhero films aren’t invading the box office; it’s just their time.

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Advances in SFX also solved key logistical and operational limitations to building a long-running, high-output and expansive universe. By shifting most on-scene locations to digital soundstages, an actor could easily shoot cameos and guest starring parts in multiple films over the span of a day, all tucked into the shooting schedule of their own dedicated film and in the very same location. (This is why Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t realize she was in Spider-Man: Homecoming). If these actors had to travel to faraway sets according to the schedules of every individual film, the ‘shared’ aspect of cinematic universes would be far less common and consequential.

The End of the Star System

Also important is the overall market shift from the ‘star system’ to one focused on franchises (superheroes or not). From the end of Golden Age Hollywood’s contract system to the 2000s, the power of popular actors continued to increase. Salaries grew astronomically because the primary selling point of a film was the superstar and there were a limited number of them. The attraction was Tom Cruise not Top Gun. What mattered most was a studio’s ability to continually attract, retain and compensate this talent.

As the box office reliance on stars declined through the early 2000s, studios developed vehicles not for talent but IP. Obviously, the quality and fit of individual performances still matters. But the recasting of the MCU’s Hulk from Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo (reportedly due to Norton being too difficult to work with) and War Machine from Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle (due to Howard demanding a raise after the success of Iron Man) is instructive. Similarly, it’s been reported that Marvel’s top choice for Doctor Strange was Joaquin Phoenix, who declined the role due to its multi-film requirement. Benedict Cumberbatch was ultimately cast, locked in for six movies. Phoenix later agreed to a one-film deal to play DC’s Joker.

Over time, these films have even become vehicles for talent to establish their star power. Unknowns such as Chris Hemsworth would commit to multi-film deals, which would consume their schedule for years, even on small salaries, to raise their profile and box office track record. Some of the biggest stars on earth ended up taking these deals. A year after his appearance in Iron Man, Samuel L. Jackson signed a nine-picture deal in which he would serve as the foundational, connective tissue across individual MCU franchises. This contract, still in effect a decade later, was critical to the MCU’s ambitions.

Universe-style franchises didn’t just gain flexibility in terms of talent, they could even swap characters from one movie to another. Captain America: Civil War, which starred Captain America and Iron Man, was originally written without the latter character due to ongoing negotiations with Robert Downey Jr., whose multi-film contract had expired. After Disney and Sony negotiated a rights deal for Spider-Man, the film was also rewritten to give Spider-Man the role originally planned for Black Panther. Similarly, Feige’s long-term MCU roadmap has likely been drastically altered because of Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, which owned the film rights to Marvel Comics’ X-Men and Fantastic Four. The star of the MCU isn’t Iron Man or Robert Downey Jr., but the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.

A Global Market

In 2008, the United States represented 35% of the worldwide box office. In the decade since, the global box office has grown from 28B to 41B, with the US representing only 16% of this $14B growth. Two-thirds of this growth has come from China, which has grown from $900MM to $9B. When Hollywood focuses on the ‘international box office,’ they really mean China. The ‘rest of the word’ may hold 45% of the box office, but it’s split across dozens of countries, many of which require specialized marketing campaigns and distribution strategies.

But this is where epics come in. As the form had proven for millennia, there’s no story with greater appeal (or comprehensibility) across cultures, income, education and tastes than the classic epic. Fantastic scenes with captivating special effects work on audiences everywhere. The 2009 epic Avatar was instructive. Though the film was entirely in English and featured an almost exclusively Western cast, it became the highest grossing movie in nearly 35 markets, including East Africa, Qatar, Serbia, China, Jamaica, and the UK.

So now that the epic is “back”, what does its future hold? And who will wear the crown?

To find out why, see the final entry in “The Marveliad": The Epic's Future and Cultural Backlash (Marveliad: Eps. VII + VIII)

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The Disappearance, Return and Dominance of the Epic (Marveliad: Eps. III, IV + V)

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The Epic's Future and Cultural Backlash (Marveliad: Eps. VII + VIII)