How Netflix has killed the sequel blockbuster

The present-day adage is that there are no original thoughts anymore. That is, if something has been done or created today, there was probably a template for it earlier.

I tend to agree, although not to the extent that many do. Variations on a theme can still be original and, especially in art forms, there is a constant evolution of what has come before.

But it seems that movie audiences are screaming for more originality. Many recent so-called blockbusters have been sequels, ranging from Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and many more.

And they are bombing.

Audiences are rejecting the blockbuster sequel in favor of Netflix.

Even a sure thing like Independence Day: Resurgence had a disappointing opening over the weekend. (Note: There are always exceptions that prove the rule. Finding Dory is doing well.)

It would be easy – and probably correct – to pile on the movie studios who have become so dependent on the gigantic sequel blockbuster that execs are being fired right and left after those movies failed. (Even Steven Spielberg warned against this a few years ago.)

But that’s always been a fair criticism. Like many businesses, the movie business is a copycat category.

Netflix has taught us to expect more than the generic.

What is interesting to me is that audiences are rejecting these paper-mache films. And I have a theory. You can blame it on Netflix.

Some recent reports have suggested that the original content on Netflix is more popular than many had thought. Netflix, because it is not beholden to advertisers, does not release viewing numbers but its approach seems to be working. Each individual show – or even movie – that Netflix releases on its platform is not geared to appeal to the masses. Netflix’s strategy is to segment its audience so it has something for everyone, but not one thing for everyone.

Netflix has changed what we expect from our entertainment

It knows that few, if any, of its shows will appeal to everyone. The strategy is that if you’re into at least one of its shows because it appeals to your individual taste, you will stay a subscriber or become a new one. In essence, Netflix is producing the middle-cost production that was once the foundation of Hollywood.

Therefore, if Netflix is the dominant viewing platform of this era, then audiences have been taught to seek out things that are less generic. This is why the big TV networks are struggling and the major sequels are losing steam at the cinema.

The trend in the market means that movie studios will have to adjust, as their once-dependable staples no longer fit the appetites of a Netflix-watching audience.

Companies across all sectors are often slow to adapt to changes and it often takes an outsider (like Netflix) to take advantage of changing attitudes.

I think that’s what has happened here. Experts all over are trying to predict what viewing will be like in the next decade or so, but it seems the biggest content providing companies (the studios) are the ones who understand the new audience the least.

The jealousy of George Lucas

Everybody seems to enjoy Star Wars: The Force Awakens, including me.

I also loved A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.

The Return of the Jedi, eh. You can take it or leave it. I was lost on the giant-sized Teddy Bears (the Ewoks) and the grotesque Jabba the Hutt.

As for the recent prequel films, you couldn’t pay me to sit through another ever again.

George Lucas
The dark side has reached George Lucas.

Considering these films, minus The Force Awakens, producer, director and writer extraordinaire George Lucas hasn’t exactly hit a home run for quite a while, has he?

Which was why I was perplexed over his jealous rant on Disney and the new Star Wars episode to Charlie Rose.

The words of George Lucas reek of jealousy.

Granted, Lucas has since apologized for calling Disney “white slavers” and for chastising the new film for being “too retro”and not about “story.” But stinging words like these can’t be forgotten.

George Lucas himself wasn’t the shining light of creative power after Jedi with the re-released versions of the classics that were speckled with unnecessary digitized creatures to the over-done work of the prequels.

In the end, Lucas sold his rights to the franchise over to Disney for billions of dollars, and it’s probably a good thing he did.

Ultimately, what irked me so much about Lucas’ diatribe was his inability to recognize his brand and his past blunders.

For Star Wars fans, George Lucas is an enigma, even though most of the movies he made were not all that great. He is the creator of fascinating worlds brimming with morality tales, mythology, and faith. The uber fans see Lucas as the hub for all of this creative brilliance — all the more reason to act better.

Yoda said it best: “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” It surely seems like George Lucas is having a hard time letting go of what he is most afraid of losing. His precepts are all amuck and he could use a healthy dose of the “force”to get back to reality once again.

The Force Awakens and its brand equity

From a brand perspective, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is just about perfect. It leverages its brand equity while connecting to a refreshed cast of characters to replace Han, Leia and Luke.

The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens is about the past and the future.

As for the quality of the movie, I’ll leave that up to others although I found it to be no The Empire Strikes Back. But it wasn’t The Phantom Menace either, thank God. Put its quality square in the middle of the series.

What fascinated me as a brand guy was how well The Force Awakens straddled the need to leverage the brand equity of the most cherished episodes of the series with the other need to open the series up to new characters and new audiences.

I’ll do my best to not spoil The Force Awakens here, but I can’t promise I won’t suggest a few things. I’ll need to point out a few examples to correlate how director JJ Abrams managed to bridge the two purposes.

The past and the future of The Force Awakens.

Yes, Han, Leia and Luke are in the movie, although Han Solo of the three dominates The Force Awakens. Luke and Leia were always the soul of the series, but Han was its true audience surrogate. (And, it must be said, Harrison Ford was its breakout star.)

Han plays a central role in The Force Awakens in what has been the main theme of the Star Wars series, which is about family connections and how the past plays out in the future. Leia and, possibly, Luke play a role in that as well. But by including Han in the mixture, Abrams found the leverage to vault the new series into one about Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren.

The new group isn’t completely a copy of the original centerpieces (which included Darth Vader) but the symmetry feels right. Rey, played by impressive newcomer Daisy Ridley, has taken the central role and her family lineage is still a mystery much like Luke’s was in the original movie.

In the world of brand, it’s not easy making the transition from one brand to another while maintaining the equity. Making it fresh and new for a new audience is tricky business.

The Force Awakens turns the trick nicely and the next chapter will should further evolve the themes and meanings for today’s audience.

The soul of Pixar is boundless

Pixar is one of the world’s most emotional brands.

Anyone who knows me can testify I am a curmudgeon.

There are movies, actors, foods, books, football teams — really, just about anything you can think of — that I will let my aversions be known. It’s why writing these blogs each day comes so naturally.

It’s also why when something special crosses my path, I can’t help but write on it.

Pixar is one of those special brands.

Pixar’s animated films have heart.

My dog Teddy wakes me up every night. That’s nothing new. He does that every night. He is an aging old boy needing a bathroom break every few hours.

Inside Out is another perfect example of the brand of Pixar.

I have a hard time falling back to sleep when I get up with Teddy as both family and business fill my mind. To pass the time, I normally throw on a movie. Last night, I found myself watching Pixar’s latest release, Inside Out.

Think about that. I”m a sixty year-old, cynical man. Yet, I willingly put on a Pixar movie.

Isn’t that strange?

Not really. Every Pixar film I have seen has soul. The stories are vibrant. They have characters with merit and struggles and desires, and, what’s more, the films are as must for adults as they are children.

Pixar’s brand is monumental. 

As I am constantly purveying markets, I’ve come to expect few brands as the champions of their respective industries. Apple and Amazon are two of those powerhouses. Starbucks is too. Walmart.

So too is Pixar.

All I need do is see the animated desk lamp at the onset of a PIxar film and a rush comes. I am filled with emotions like excitement and wonder, innocence and joy, and most of all, bittersweet sadness. I have come to expect these feelings. No other film company, not even PIxar’s parent company, Disney, can entice a viewer the way Pixar does.

Last night, as my eyes misted over with tears while watching Inside Out, love came flowing through me. Once I came to, I shook my head in wonderment and knowingly realized that Pixar had done it again.

Fantastic Four is just plain awful

I’m not one to mince my words. Ever. When it comes to the most heated of conversations, I’ll have an opinion, even if others might not want to hear it.

Now, I get it, I am a bit of a curmudgeon by nature, but that is a necessity of being successful in my business. Branding requires brutal honesty in the face of adversity.

This being said, here is a healthy dose of realism:

Just about every superhero film I’ve seen is an embarrassing testament to our modern times.

Granted, I’ve honed in on this topic in the past, but with the release of the abysmal  Fantastic Four, I felt I had an opportunity to add to my diatribe.

I was an idiot to go see this film.
I was an idiot to go see this film.

If you have been following the media outlets about Fantastic Four, you know there is a big blame game happening. The director, Josh Trank, doesn’t want to take ownership of the film (this is an edited version he was not happy with) while the 20th Century Fox is dropping hints that the mistake was in letting him direct it to begin with.

While the director and studio battle might be a problematic issue, the bigger problem is our role in all of this.

We have allowed these films to be made. 

For every moderately decent superhero movie that’s been released, there seems to be five train wrecks. None of the Fantastic Four films has ever been good. Honestly, it’s about a rock man and his three weirdo friends. I don’t need any kind of scientific backstory to help me connect with them.

We’ve given bad (and some good) versions of flying men with capes, men who dress as bats and talk like the Randy Savage, dudes in spandex that shoot webs from their wrists, and angry green men in purple pants way too much of our attention.

My hope is that Fantastic Four is an omen for studios, directors and screenwriters. But most of all, I hope Fantastic Four is an omen for audiences because the studios will keep making superhero movies as long as we keep going to them.

They make money. (Well, not FF.)

Every weekend, I try to spend time with my grandchildren. They are the greatest wonder I could have asked for in my growing age. In them, I can see how quickly time speeds by and how I have wasted a lot of it. My own children have grown so fast and I am now as I remembered my parents to be.

When time is as precious as it is, wouldn’t it be best spent endorsing those things that are most worthy of it?

I think so.

So here is my promise: Superhero cinema, you will no longer be getting any of my time.

Will you join me?