Scroll

Why a cure for Hollywood franchise fever is never going to be found

Rather than just a single film, viewers are tempted to consume many in a series.

The latest remake of The Mummy has hit the big screen in Australia. Dating back to the 1930s, The Mummy franchise is far older than the other venerable blockbusters (such as Star Wars or Jaws). Its plotline has been recycled every few decades, from Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr’s portrayals in the 1930s and 1940s to the 1999 hit starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Universal Pictures envisions this latest iteration of The Mummy as the first in a “Dark Universe” multi-film franchise, which will include characters such as Frankenstein’s monster, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in The Mummy (1999). Image credit: Universal Pictures.
Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in The Mummy (1999). Image credit: Universal Pictures.

Universal’s move is the latest foray by a major studio into building up a “shared universe” that incorporates a slew of multiple film releases tagged with the usual commercial products and accoutrements.

In the late 2000s, film studios, particularly Marvel Studios, realised that they could tap into the potential for creating stories that laid out a trail of breadcrumbs. Rather than just a single film, viewers would be tempted to consume many in a series.

Coupled with the merchandising successes that the Star Wars franchise had enjoyed since the 1980s, Marvel realised it had stumbled on a goldmine. Marvel was quickly bought up by Disney in 2009, resulting in the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a hyper-commercialised endeavour that, spanning decades and involving billions of dollars, represents the apex of big budget filmmaking. The studio has produced 15 films film to date, including Iron Man, Captain America and The Avengers, with at least nine more planned.

The Mummy has been being rebooted since films were in black and white. Image credit: Universal Pictures.
The Mummy has been being rebooted since films were in black and white. Image credit: Universal Pictures.

Marvel’s comic book film franchise is now a multi-media offering, with tie-ins being the norm rather than the exception. Tapping into a form of brand loyalty, the it appeals to viewers on an emotive level, where the content of these films extends beyond the big screen. The hyper-commercialisation of Marvel’s bloated, CGI-laden releases begins months before the release of their films. For example, LEGO tie-in sets from Marvel’s upcoming films are already available for purchase in stores.

Buoyed by the successes of Marvel, every major production studio is now jumping on the shared universe bandwagon. Beyond Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars franchises, we have Warner Brothers’ DC Comics and Monsters franchises. Paramount is already planning a spinoff from their latest Transformers film and have laid out preliminary details for a “Transformers Cinematic Universe”, with reportedly 14 stories under consideration. Warner Brothers also has another massive franchise underway with the Fantastic Beasts films drawing on the world of Harry Potter.

Play
Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

Even smaller budget films are embracing the idea of shared universes. M Night Shaymalan’s recent surprise hit Split has connections to his earlier film Unbreakable. Conjuring director James Wan’s latest horror film efforts are pitched as “part of the Conjuring universe”. There are even rumours that new adaptations of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and IT might tap into this shared universe zeitgeist.

With a legacy spanning decades that is arguably older than Marvel and DC, it remains to be seen if Universal can replicate these franchises’ successes. Indeed, the marketing campaign for Universal’s Dark Universe taps into nostalgia for black and white film monsters and Hammer Horror.

Play
Dark Universe Monsters Legacy (2017).

Arguably there are two important factors that underpin the success of these franchises: big budget film franchises are both recession as well as critic proof, important considerations in a post-GFC world that has witnessed the rise of online “film critics” on aggregate sites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

Post recession, the price of entry to the cinema (the price of a smashed avocado breakfast or less) has sustained movies as a form of popular entertainment. It is arguably in this climate that the idea for the Marvel cinematic universe first began, after the release of John Favreau’s Iron Man in 2008. Indeed, the film industry has long been regarded as “recession proof”.

Big budget franchises also have a track record of being critic-proof. The Transformers film franchises have consistently poor ratings but are commercial successes. DC Comics’ offerings have not fared much better, with releases such as Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad receiving low ratings among critics, but nevertheless commercial success. The Mummy, despite savage criticism and a lacklustre performance in the US, is doing well overseas.

And a few have been both critical and commercial successes. At the time of writing, DC’s latest offering, Wonder Woman, does appear to have bucked this trend both at the box office and in the ratings department.

Play
The Mummy (2017).

In the past, films were considered risky businesses. Film production, at least from the perspective of the blockbuster, has traditionally been a very expensive enterprise. A shared universe approach to filmmaking enmeshes viewers to such an extent that repeated successes, at least from a financial perspective, are almost assured. This contributes to a presumptuous and repetitive form of filmic storytelling.

Instead of vehicles for telling audiences compelling stories, shared universe franchises represent an ultimate form of commercialisation that begins with the hook of purchasing a movie ticket, expanding into merchandising, DVD sales and repeat trips to the movies.

Despite my cynicism, I am also reminded that major production studios are, after all, money making enterprises driven by a bottom line. This was true in 1932, and it still rings true today.

Colin Yeo, PhD Candidate, English and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.