With Hollywood designing most major films as franchises, Robert Piluso examines how a screenwriter should craft their story endings to resist, or not resist, the lure of a franchise.
In his 2015 podcast interview with Bret Easton Ellis, about the 50 minute mark, Quentin Tarantino discusses how the ends of film stories in the 1970s reflected, and reinforced, the way audiences in the 1970s viewed the world, life, and the nature of things: terms like “nihilism” and “realism” are used, and, as Tarantino claims, “The realistic endings were the happy endings.”
As we inexorably approach the end of 2017, the time naturally comes to reflect on the nature of conclusions. What do endings mean to us, as writers? What, as screenwriters, are we even permitted to let them mean?
In conventional screenwriting, the Act III territory—that last 20-30 pages—you already know, is about wrapping up plotlines and deciding the fates of all the important characters. Let’s say: one supporting cast good guy dies; the world hangs in peril; a new, crucial alliance forms; plants of info, devices, or people from as early as Act I get paid-off; the secret box opens; the villain meets his or her just comeuppance; ultimately, the hero triumphs; and a new status quo, a better or worse world, begins as someone, or some pair, or some group, moves toward the horizon of a setting or rising sun, and into audience memory.
This was the old world. Yet, alas, that world is over.
In the new world of Hollywood, as you most likely have noticed, most major films are designed, from the green-light, as franchises—whether potential, or intentional. With the exorbitant costs to produce and market a single film, “brand awareness”—that audiences possess a familiarity with the world-of-story/“content” prior to financiers paying for the production of the movie, and greatly well in advance to audiences paying to watch the movie—becomes prerequisite.
Yet this prerequisite seems ultimately a paradox—what would be the need to expend millions upon millions of dollars to promote a movie/world-of-story and create awareness for a story of which an audience already pre-possesses awareness? Just trying to seduce them back? But even if they come back, it’s not the end? We know if we go back, they’ll bring it back—again, and again, and again—thus, we might as well just go back? Is this the intent behind the marketing? To fiscally bend our wills to the inevitability of a franchise’s omnipresence?
But this is where we are. Superhero Shared Universe franchises (Marvel, or DC, or Sony’s Spiderverse-Minus-Spider-Man). Universal’s Jurassic Park/World/Universe. Disney’s Star Wars. Paramount’s Transformers. Universal tried setting off their Horror Universe before even releasing The Mummy. Wait and see if that continues.
There’s something really interesting at work here… The law of diminishing returns. We went the first time because there was novelty there—surprise—newness. And the New, audiences know, is sometimes well worth paying for.
So, how does one conclude one’s screenplay or prose story—written on “spec,” meaning with little-to-no “brand awareness”—in a satisfying way that still leaves financiers desirous to finance a first installment, in the hopes that future revisits to the world-of-story shall be demanded—and paid for—by audiences?
It is as if no one wants to build any world-of-story just to visit that world the one time (two hours), experience that one story the one time, and let that be that. Instead, everyone in green-light power in Hollywood operates from a psychological/financial/strategic impetus called the will-to-franchise.
This principle holds true even at the lowest budget level, where the will-to-franchise has long sustained the least costly genre offerings (i.e. horror franchises).
AUTHORIAL EGO AND “LOVE”
Of course, this will-to-franchise feeds right into authorial ego. With as many hundreds—even thousands—of hours that a screenwriter invests in the ideation and creation of a world-of-story, it’s hard to just leave it alone at the end of 90 or 120 pages.
If you’ve done your job right, you’ve fallen in love. You’ve fallen in love with the environments. You’ve fallen in love with the heroes. You’ve fallen in love with the idea of the story. You’ve even fallen in love with the villain.
And if you let your love rule all—the financiers’ will-to-franchise, conspiring with your own authorial ego—you will never write anything that says or means anything.
Because that’s what endings are: endings are statements of meaning. Endings are philosophy. Endings are world-view.
No matter the genre, characters, size of budget, or special effects, any film that exists as part of an actual or potential franchise world-of-story will only ever present the same world-view to audiences: nothing ever ends; nothing changes; no one grows; no one learns; nothing matters.
In fact, the monopolization of franchise cinema has effectuated a mass hysteria on audiences: nihilistic fatalism.
We know this world-of-story will not end so long as audiences keep financially participating. And if we don’t participate in a particular installment, it never meant anything anyway, for the brand will later be “rebooted” (i.e. Amazing Spider-Man 2 Hours I Will Never Get Back that gave rise to Spider-Man Homecoming, thank the Movie Gods).
HOW SHOULD IT END?
When you as the screenwriter are conceiving your ending (and your beginning, and your middle) with an awareness of the financier’s will-to-franchise, coupled with an awareness of your own authorial ego and love for the world you have made, your storytelling decisions cannot help but be affected, and for the worse.
The minor supporting cast good guy you love so much? The audience loves so much? He doesn’t die. He lives.
The bad guy doesn’t lose? No, he only temporarily loses/dies… until, the sequel (when he gets better).
Death is just one way to signify a closed meaning of a character. I’m not suggesting everyone should die—the life or death of a character, situation, or problem at the end of a story is HOW endings are defined AS endings. At the end of Othello, just because Iago lives (leg wound—that’s it? Really?) does not mean that he will be “back in the sequel”; rather, it’s a philosophical statement from Shakespeare about the nature of evil. And Iago’s survival—especially in consideration of destruction of Desdemona and Othello—means a whole lot because we know Shakespeare COULD have just killed him off, yet chose not to do so.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight offers continual inspiration for storytellers of franchises because it is made in such a way reflecting that Nolan did not know if he would return for a third installment. As in: “Here is my one chance to tell my definitive Batman vs. Joker story. What is everything I want to say?” (Also, Nolan made Batman Begins not knowing if he would return for a second installment.) The point here is that Nolan gave his everything to his art each time, holding nothing back for a sequel that he might never make in the first place. The results resound.
TRAGEDY OR COMEDY?
In Shakespeare’s time, the two genres are defined largely by the nature of the narrative and how dialogue is used to get what response from the audience, but also genre is defined by the nature of endings: put most simply, in a tragedy, “everyone dies,” whereas in a comedy, “everyone gets married.” There are outlier survivors or lonely people, but audiences know what they’re getting. The Romances (from Shakespeare’s later-career) combine the tragedy situations with comedic endings. People don’t really like those. They’re not as famous as the other, earlier, more genre-pure works.
In contemporary storytelling and screenwriting, we, like Shakespeare, can transcend generic limitations and parameters on conclusions to do anything: anyone can live, anyone can die, anything COULD end in any way we want it to end.
And yet, tragically, when the artistic process gets corrupted by that perfect storm of will-to-franchise and authorial ego, the spec does not end in ANY way and says nothing new, nothing different than what Marvel, DC, Star Wars, or Paranormal Activity says about how the world is or works.
IN CONCLUSION, CONSIDER….
…As you are writing your Act III, your motivations extrinsic to the story itself you are telling, the statement of meaning you are making. Do not fall prey to speculative “will-to-franchise” when no brand awareness even yet exists for your unique world-of-story. Do not fall prey to your own authorial love—to defer justice, resolution, or damnation for characters or situations until a later story installment (that can never come).
Rather, most simply and with greatest difficulty, tell the story the best you can. Put everything into it. All your best ideas. In the final stretch, let your characters’ choices be surprising or inevitable, but most of all, real and authentic to the characters making the choices. A higher awareness of your own motivations when writing always benefits the writing in and of itself, and brings it to the next level of quality, and closer to filmic fruition.
And if, in that higher awareness examination of your writing and why you are doing it, you come to the epiphany that the present spec you are writing represents the first installment of a franchise that will last 10 movies, 100 years, and $10 billion in global grosses, then, in that case, you should totally, totally, totally do it and go for it and may the Movie Gods bless you: I’ll be first in line to watch all of them and buy everything associated with it.
If it’s good.