Twist in the tale: super spin-offs start to replace film remakes and sequels

Hollywood has discovered a new trend beyond the sequel: cinematic universe world-building. Exhibit A: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Earlier this week, Chinas richest man, Wang Jianlin, handed an assembled Hollywood audience the equivalent of a must do better note during a speech in Los Angeles. Wang, the chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, which is slowly buying up large portions of the US film industry, praised studios for their history of storytelling but warned them audiences in his homeland were no longer interested in endless sequels and remakes.

Those sequels might have worked before, but Chinese audiences are more sophisticated now, he told a packed auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. If you want to participate in the growing Chinese market, you must improve film quality.

Whether Wang is right about Chinese attitudes is open to question: the worlds second largest box office has, after all, continued to contentedly gobble up sequels to Michael Bays noisy, headache-inducing Transformers saga with no sign of a reduction in appetite in recent years. But it says something when a man from a country that has publicly chastised itself for its failure to compete with Hollywood on a creative level is suddenly calling out American studios for their inventive impotency, apparently convinced that the game is up.

Like Neo in The Matrix, one of the last examples of a genuinely original, epic-scale blockbuster with grand franchise potential, film financiers are facing a dilemma. Take the blue pill continue on their current safety first path and they retain the warm comfort blanket of established audiences, guaranteed advance hype and relatively certain box office returns, yet run the risk of Hollywood eventually eating itself. Take the red pill risk it all on new ideas and original material and studios will surely have a better chance of long-term survival.

But what if Neo had flipped Morpheus the bird and pulled out his own purple pill, a halfway choice comprising the best of both reality and Wonderland? A poor choice if you are Keanu Reeves, who would surely have been ripped apart pixel by pixel by an angry Laurence Fishburne possibly in bullet time for his churlish impudence. But this seems to be exactly the path that Hollywood is pursuing.

Back in the 1980s, if studios had a franchise as lucrative as the Harry Potter movies on their hands, they would simply have remade it. But in 2016, Warner Bros has given carte blanche to author JK Rowling to deliver new stories set in the same wizarding world as the one inhabited by the boy who lived and his chums. The result is the proposed five-movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series, the first instalment of which arrives in multiplexes next month.

Reaction from fans so far has been rapturous, and the studio clearly thinks it is on to something here. Variety reports this week that Potter and Beasts producer David Heyman has been set to work on a new movie about Roald Dahls amusingly sadistic chocolatier, Willy Wonka. But rather than being a sequel to the middling Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from a decade ago Dahls follow-up novel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator remains unfilmed the new story is described as a standalone movie focused on Wonkas early adventures. Charlie himself is unlikely to appear, were told, but might turn up in future instalments if the first film is a hit.

Something similar is going on over at Disney, which is ramping up as many as three Star Wars spin-off movies (if the rumours are true) starring Alden Ehrenreich as the young Han Solo. The studio also has Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, about the gang of Rebel Alliance grunts who steal the plans to the first Death Star, in cinemas this December. These movies are generally seen as being part of the trend towards cinematic universe world-building, but they fit the mould of what well call the Hollywood super spinoff just as well. Like the other movies Ive mentioned, they take supporting characters in the case of Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts, barely mentioned figures from in-canon history and place them front and centre.

It doesnt always work, as Universal discovered in April when its prequel-of-sorts The Huntsman: Winters War, bombed at the box office following derisive reviews. But any critic worth his salt could have told producers that trying to spin a Snow White movie into new territory without the unfortunate apple-munching princess herself on board was always going to be a hard ask. Likewise Disneys Maleficent, the Angelina Jolie-led 2014 origins tale about the horned villain from Snow White. Despite its triumph at the box office, Robert Strombergs directing debut remains a deeply grey, insipid movie, the ultimate ill-advised, lazy star vehicle.

So is the super spin-off really any better than the remake, prequel or sequel? Should we embrace Lionsgates pitch for new films set in the Hunger Games world prior to the era of Jennifer Lawrences Katniss and her merry band of smouldering admirers, self-sacrificing techno-nerds and battling cyberpunk rebels, or write it off as too much of a stretch? If the makers of the James Bond movies, Eon Productions, were to <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>fashion a cinematic universe based around some of 007s lesser-known MI6 buddies, would it count as a mark of Hollywoods newfound creative potency? Or is this just a new riff on a well-worn money-making model? Is the purple pill just a blue one with a paper-thin layer of red veneer?

The success or failure of upcoming films Ive mentioned in this piece Fantastic Beasts and the Star Wars story movies in particular will go a long way to deciding if the super spin-off becomes Hollywoods new mode of choice, or whether studios are forced back into older, even lazier patterns. This particular rabbit hole will surely lead some film-makers to box office and critical glory, but others might find themselves diving headlong into a hornets nest.

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