Monday, August 26, 2013

The Keys to a Successful Film Franchise: Key # 3 - Worlds

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 Keys Number One and Two, Concept and Characters, 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 Three, which is Worlds.

3.  Worlds
The third most important key to a successful film franchise is quite possibly the greatest difference maker between many similar franchises, and that is because the third key is a visual cue that clues the viewer into which franchise they're watching.  I am talking about the worlds in which a film franchise takes place.  You cannot overstate the importance of the world or worlds in which a story transpires, because next to characters, the world, aka the setting, is the thing that keeps us coming back.  We like to revisit Tatooine or Hogwarts.  It feels like home.  However, when creating a world, there are three rules I personally feel franchise films should follow:

1.) The World must be immersive.

2.) The World must work in tandem with the tone of the franchise.

3.) The World must never change.

Immersion is number one because it is the thing that really separates a good franchise from a great one.  If you get the feeling that this is a made-up world where no one else but the characters live, then it feels very small and isolated.  In the cases of franchises like Star Wars or Harry Potter, we cannot suspend disbelief in the fantasy and sci-fi nature of the concept if we are not immersed in the worlds.  Luckily, all five franchises on this list have done a good job with immersion.  Of course, what do I mean by immersion?

Immersion is simply the feeling that this is a living breathing world outside of these characters.  While we only follow these characters, there is a sense that not everyone is a Jedi or a wizard, that not everyone is a sleuth or a secret agent, but that there are people from all different walks of life who actually do boring, mundane things in these worlds like we do in real life.  I'm not saying I want to see someone farming in Star Wars rather than having lightsaber battles, but the understanding that there is more to this world than meets the eye makes the world feel more adventurous, slightly more mysterious, and bigger and simply more immersive all at the same time.  It's the little touches in the world that give the feeling of infinite possibilities.

Take a perfect example in the sixth Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  In between scenes, there is a quick cutaway shot of two kids getting a snack from a wizarding world vending machine where there was a tiny fire-breathing dragon inside who roasted nuts and then dispensed them.  After that we cut to our main characters.  It's little touches like that, and the headless horseman ghost always chasing after his head multiple times in the background of the third Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that make all the difference.  The thing is though, even if you've made the world feel immersive, you have to make sure that the world works in the tone set up for the franchise.

If I am watching any film in The Thin Man franchise, I want to have the feeling that danger is always lurking behind every corner, while everything is funny and glib at the same time.  It's a tough tone to nail, luckily all six films in the franchise did this to varying degrees of success.  The thing that The Thin Man franchise did, is that it made every single supporting character mysterious enough to where you believed that they might have been a killer, but lively enough in personality to where they were funny or witty.  This is just another part of world building.  The world has to represent this tone in the way it's designed and the way it is shot.  The Thin Man achieves this feat by using high contrast lighting, with heavy shadows and shafts of light common in film noir, for the suspense scenes, while having more even lighting, to where we can see everything, for the lighthearted scenes.  It created this world where light and dark are not always proportionate, but was proportionate to the mood that they were trying to sell at that moment.  This applies to James Bond and Indiana Jones as well, where the elements needed to be designed with enough of an imaginative flare to where they look a few shades more cartoonish than our real worlds.  This allows us the opportunity to suspend our disbelief in the adventure and not be constantly saying, "That's impossible."

The third thing about worlds and franchises, is that the worlds should always remain the same.  This point kind of goes hand-in-hand with Key Number Four - Continuity.  We return to these franchises to revisit these characters and to once more journey back to these worlds that we love almost as much as our own homes, if there is a change in that worlds' appearance, it doesn't feel the same.  The Harry Potter franchise has been the biggest offender of this.

The first two films in the franchise were designed by director Chris Columbus with the idea in mind that the time period the film is set in is intentionally vague.  He wanted to give the films this timeless feel, to where they felt as if they could have been made at anytime in the 20th Century, therefore the clothing and the environments were all looks that have existed both today and fifty years ago.  However, when the franchise changed directors with the third film in the franchise, the new director, Alfonso Cuaron, brought a more modern, gothic sensibility to the wizarding world that clashed with the warmer, more timeless environs of the first two films.  The fourth film changed directors again with Mike Newell and the style became even more modern with less of the gothic flourishes, portraying more and more things as if it was really happening in our real world.  Then came director David Yates with the fifth film, he helmed the final four films in the franchise, and he completely forsook any vestiges of the timeless style left over, as well as the gothic style, and went full tilt into making the films feel modern and realistic.  The question is really which style do you prefer the most?  Personally, I've always loved the timeless aesthetic for movies because I think it helps movies to age better, but the problem this constant shift in world presents, from a franchise point of view, is that it alienates audience members based upon which style of Hogwarts and the wizarding world they liked best.

The problem that Harry Potter still runs into is that fans not only gripe about cuts and changes from the book (and believe me that's enough to warrant a whole other post), but they also gripe and complain about the everchanging Hogwarts.  Why?  Because it no longer feels like home.  No one likes to return to something after having been away for years and to see it changed and different.  That is what is at stake here, and it's why keeping the worlds the same throughout a franchise is key, because otherwise you start splintering the fanbase.  Fans will say I like this film in the series, but I hate this one because it didn't feel like the franchise, and vice versa.  Bottom line, establish your world and don't change it.  Stick to it and just grow from there while still maintaining the things that attracted moviegoers in the first place.


With this all said, that's all I've got for Key Number Three.  I hope you enjoyed it! 
Check back in a couple of days for Key Number Four - Continuity!

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