Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Keys to a Successful Film Franchise: Key # 2 - Characters

With Hollywood franchise crazy, I felt I'd lay down the five things that all good film franchises need to do in order for them to be successful.  In other words the Five Keys to a Successful Film Franchise.  I started this series the other day illustrating Key Number One - Concept, by using my five favorite film franchises of all-time:  Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Star Wars, and The Thin Man.  I will also be using these franchises to illustrate the other Keys as well.  While I wont always be praising these franchises and will often use individual films in the franchises to show how not to do a film in a franchise, at the end of the day not only do I love majority of the films in these five franchises, I think in terms to adhering to the Five Keys to Making a Successful Film Franchise, they have been the most successful at implementing them.  With that all said, on to today and Key Number Two, which is Characters.


2.  Characters
The second most important key to a successful film franchise is also the most prominent reason as to why filmgoers continue to revisit their favorite film franchises, the characters.

Character is the thing that is what goes that step further past concept and separates a film franchise from every other detective series or sci-fi epic.  Try to imagine The Thin Man movies without boozy Nick and Nora as your always witty guides?  Or try to imagine Indiana Jones without Indy himself?  These franchises would not be as much fun, nor would they be the same.

Character is the thing that attracts me to the James Bond movies over Mission Impossible.  The same can be said for why I prefer the Star Wars and Harry Potter movies over most other similar fantasy/sci-fi franchises, because I love and adore the characters and would probably watch them doing the most mundane and menial tasks.  With that said, once you introduce a character and implant them in the cultural consciousness, the character becomes an entity unto themselves and every viewer has their own opinion as to what makes that character their character.

The thing that filmmakers must be mindful of when making multiple films from a set of characters, is that viewers will call them out if they ever have the characters do anything out of character.  I remember watching the fifth movie in The Thin Man series, The Thin Man Goes Home, and there is one scene where Nick gets mad at Nora for snooping around behind his back.  The rest of the movie Nick is in character, but it's this one scene that makes that particular entry in the series one of the weakest.  In all of the other films in the series, Nick never gets mad at Nora for her snooping on her own behind Nick's back, they would always counter it with clever rapier wit, demeaning one another, rather than getting angry.  This is a case and point where these characters weren't like themselves, and it reflected on the film itself, to where it's not necessarily a movie in The Thin Man series I'm real eager to ever revisit.  The same can be said for very-un-007-like moments in films such as The Man With the Golden Gun.  All of this to say, is that creating a character worth revisiting is not easy.  What makes creating characters so difficult?

Well, for starters, there are two types of franchise characters (in fact there are two types of franchises in general).  The thing with franchises is that there are the neverending franchises, where there is never an ending for the characters and they're always just going off on another adventure or case.  Of course, then there are the finite franchises, where there are clear beginnings and endings.   

Bond, Indy, and The Thin Man are neverending franchises.  The challenge with a franchise like those is in creating characters that might change slightly based upon the age they're represented as -- young or old -- but that their core personality never changes.  We want to see James Bond jumping from woman to woman, it's who he is, we don't ever want him to wise up.  The same can be said for Indiana Jones.  As for Nick and Nora, we want them to always be that same witty couple who love and berate each other so much, that they never actually say, "I love you."

Of course, when you're dealing with franchise characters like those in Star Wars or Harry Potter, where they are in finite franchises, you want to see those characters actually grow and change from film to film.  We want to see Luke Skywalker go from being a simple farmboy to a wise warrior.  We want to see Harry Potter go from the abused orphan to being the Chosen One to save the entire wizarding world.

Bottom line, franchise characters are difficult.  If you're going to create a neverending character, then that character has to be interesting and different enough from those we know in our everyday life to want to continue visiting them.  Most importantly though, we don't want them to change.  Neverending characters are like comfort food.  While the environments around them might change, their personalities never change and they always remain that person we fell in love with at the core.  As for finite characters, we want to see growth through tragedy and triumph.  Yes, we want finite characters to also be interesting and different, but the main thing we want to see is that change, and it's the thing that both the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises have quite possibly excelled at the best.  Now, is it possible for the two types of characters to bleed over into one franchise?  Yes.

Typically in a neverending franchise, the sidekicks, love interests, and bad guys, are finite characters that change, grow, live, or die.  In a finite franchise, typically supporting characters can be neverending, like the ghosts in Harry Potter, or the prime example of C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars, those two are the same characters throughout all six films and every TV show, video game, comic book, and novel.

Ultimately, while concept is the thing that typically attracts us to a film franchise, it is the characters that make us want to continue to revisit these worlds time and time again.  Which brings me to the next Key to a Successful Franchise and wraps up Key Number Two.


Come back in a few days for Key Number Three - Worlds!

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