Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Favreau Jumps the "Iron Man" Ship; I Rant About Franchises

Amid all the sturm and drang of yesterday's Golden Globes nomination announcements, almost lost in the shuffle was the confirmation that Jon Favreau will not be returning to direct "Iron Man 3." Instead, he'll be over at Disney for "The Magic Kingdom." Some Marvel fanboys are taking it hard, of course, but I think it's perfectly understandable why he made the choice.

I liked "Iron Man 2" better than most, but it was a disappointment on every front, and from the gossip about what was going on with the production, the biggest culprit was that the filmmakers rushed the production film to meet the May 2010 release date. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to be at the helm of a project like that, a massive summer film barreling forward under its own inertia with no way to apply the brakes and no time to do any more than try to hide the picture's fundamental flaws. In my original review back in May, I wished that the filmmakers could have taken another year with the sequel to hammer out some of the story problems. Unfortunately, "Iron Man 2" had to be a 2010 release because it had to be in position to set up "Thor" and "Avengers." I guessed pretty well from the start that this whole "Avengers" plan with the interlocking film universes was going to impact badly on the individual films in the Marvel franchise, and "Iron Man 2" really bore the brunt of it. It's no wonder that Favreau doesn't want to go through that again.

The tightly scheduled, assembly line approach to these big tentpole movies seems so counterproductive, but there's much more that goes into a movie these days than just making the movie. The marketing plans have to be laid out months, and sometimes years in advance. The buzz on "TRON Legacy" was going before the film was even greenlit. And then there are the merchandising tie-ins that have to be coordinated, distribution deals with various media outlets that have to be set up, not to mention the drama that goes on over simply choosing release dates. Prime holiday weekends are staked out by the studios at least two years prior to a film actually reaching theaters. Warner Brothers set the June 17th, 2011 release date for "Green Lantern" back in February of 2009. The movie didn't begin filming until a month later, and a sequel is already being geared up. From the recently released trailer, I'm worried that Warner Brothers is rushing their newest potential franchise. And this is totally idle speculation, but I really hope the stress of the experience wasn't a factor in the "Green Lantern" star's split-up with his wife, that was made public yesterday. And this is a film where there haven't been any reports of major production troubles.

If anything goes wrong, it is nearly impossible to slow down the production of a studio franchise film and unthinkable to start over. Delays can mean disturbing all the contracts and deals that have been put into place around a film, or forcing renegotiations and adjustments, which can be costly. This doesn't mean that it's never done - "Harry Potter" famously pushed back the sixth installment over half a year to the wails and lamentations of its fans, and then split the finale in half - but the pressure to meet these deadlines can be toxic. We've all heard the horror stories of films being shot with unfinished scripts or no scripts at all. Corners get cut and quality is often secondary to expediency. In the worst cases, unnecessary risks may be taken. Read up on what happened to that poor extra on the set of "Transformers 3" if you really want to get your blood boiling. And the worst part is, more often than not all the rushing pays off. "Transformers 2" was nearly unwatchable, but made more money than anything last year except "Avatar." Nobody slows down in the name of quality anymore because the way the current movie distribution system has been set up, quality is often totally unnecessary to rake in box office receipts as long as the right marketing is in place.

On the other hand, this may be changing. The summer of 2010 was a disappointment by all accounts, with major tentpoles crashing left and right. Quality may not have any effect on how well a certain film performs, but it does affect how well their sequels perform. The "Saw" and "Shrek" franchises saw declines over successive, poorly regarded sequels. A big drop in a franchise film's take may often reflect the audience's reaction to the installment that came immediately prior. Many of this year's would-be franchise starters like "Prince of Persia" and "The Last Airbender," positioned on the oh-so-important Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, probably broke even, but sequels would be very risky considering how badly the first films were received. With the studios so dependent on franchises these days, they have to keep up audience goodwill or face the consequences. It'll be interesting to see what happens with "Transformers 3" in a few months, since the previous one has become so universally reviled. And Marvel has given themselves so little wiggle room on their slate, the failure of any of their upcoming movies could upset their whole master plan.

As for Jon Favreau, I wish him well. Disney doesn't seem to be as stricken by sequel-itis as some of the other major studios (yet), and Favreau can be counted on for good kids' pictures like "Elf" and "Zathura." I have my doubts about a Disneyland movie, but they're nothing compared to what I think about Marvel's future prospects.

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