Authorship and Franchise Identity in the Contemporary Blockbuster
The often breakneck pace of change in Hollywood is clearly attested to in the case of the multiple franchise affairs of J. J. Abrams. When I wrote my Cinema Journal article, “A New Vision: J. J. Abrams, Star Trek, and Promotional Authorship” as one of the first case studies of my doctoral dissertation, the news had just broken out that Abrams was to direct the new Star Wars film and that Roberto Orci was off the director’s chair for the third Star Trek film, Star Trek: Beyond (Justin Lin, 2016). These developments largely bear out the conclusion reached in the article that the Star Trek franchise was being revived as a vision detached from a visionary, in which Abrams was ultimately replaceable, able to both leave the franchise in safe hands and to proceed to its rival without essentially harming it. However, a proper exploration of Abrams’ changing allegiances or the further developments of Star Trek authorship (between Simon Pegg, Justin Lin, and Bryan Fuller on television) would call for at least another article. I would instead like to offer, as a postscript, some further thoughts on the place and function of the director-author in the franchise blockbuster.
One of the core explorations of my PhD project, which examined the use of authorship in promotion across media industries, has been of the deployment of authorship discourses and author figures in the most ostensibly mainstream and commercial of media forms. This is notably the case in television, in which showrunner-auteurs are now very much present beyond their forte of premium cable – classically HBO[i] – and across all channels down to the Big Four.[ii] Martin Flanagan has remarked on the arrival of auteurs in franchise blockbusters, commenting that “it has seemingly become standard practice to engage an art house or independent sector filmmaker to direct a substantially budgeted mainstream release.”[iii] His analysis of Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) traced a crisis of identity in the resultant filmic product, in which Universal’s “recurrent association of the film’s creative essence with […] its auteur director” was a site of conflict and a problem for the underperforming Hulk.
Over a decade has gone by since Flanagan’s analysis, however, and most directors within major franchises of the last five years fall closer to the J. J. Abrams model. Figures like Joss Whedon (The Avengers, 2012, and Age of Ultron, 2015), Zack Snyder (the DC Cinematic Universe films), the Russo brothers (taking over from Whedon as Marvel’s primary directors), David Yates (the Harry Potter franchise) and Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious franchise and now Star Trek), while enjoying some artistic clout, are closer to what Warren Buckland has termed the “classical” auteur, who works and navigates creative tension within the system.[iv] They are industry insiders, often with experience in television rather than art or independent cinema, and more importantly, they are not brought in as transformative visionaries. That is not to say that these directors do not leave their mark on their films; but unlike Lee, or the previous decade’s Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight trilogy, their contributions are framed mostly as faithfully carrying on an extant vision, a franchise identity that has originated elsewhere.
This type of authorship hinges on striking a careful balance between auteurist identity, the style, themes, and personal narratives of the director, and franchise identity. Differing from Buckland’s concept, they do not navigate creative tensions as much as slot their creative identity into ready-made spaces offered by the studios they work for. The relationship is characterised by mutual incorporation between the two creative identities, which is framed – as Abrams has done with Star Trek – in terms of the director forging a personal connection with the material, whether on the basis of fandom or the claiming of appropriate expertise. Whedon, my second case study in the chapter from which “A New Vision” was extracted, demonstrated a distinct conscious enactment of this auteur-for-hire position, discussing at length how The Avengers fit into his storytelling style of ensemble casts and bonds among misfits.[v] Whedon’s signature, articulated in this fashion, continues to be highlighted in the products of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its quirky humorous tone and emphasis on a large array of characters. DC’s own cinematic universe similarly continues to draw on Christopher Nolan’s brand of dark, heavily psychological storytelling. Though on-the-ground creative leadership has changed hands, the Russo brothers and Zack Snyder maintain the Whedonesque and Nolanesque brands respectively, so that both these warring universes – for whom distinction and fan appeal are both crucial – are built upon this authenticity through authorial approval, and distinction through appeal to authorial style.
Looking back to Abrams, it is likely no coincidence that the narrative he espouses in discussing taking over the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas is quite similar to that employed for Star Trek. Once again Abrams talks about wanting to “return” to a “feeling” of the true, pure original, rather than putting his own stamp on the material.[vi] He speaks as a fan, giving Lucas a great deal of kudos and respect, and is careful to make it known that Disney hired him after already passing on Lucas’s plans on their own initiative.[vii] But the rhetoric is once more one of return to a past glory.
Lucas certainly is a very different beast to contend with than Gene Roddenberry: while the Star Trek creator-auteur died relatively early in the franchise’s life, leaving a mythical legacy of high promotional utility, Lucas continued his own work and was largely panned in critical and fan circles for spoiling its initial magic himself. As Bryan Curtis of The New Yorker observed, however, critical response to the new film saw a return to the “feet of the master.”[viii] This is likely not a surprise to Disney, who kept Abrams’s name off the trailers for The Force Awakens but prominently displayed the LucasArts logo throughout. Disney might have rejected Lucas’s professed vision, yet Abrams was brought in not to “reinvent the wheel” – the same assertion that Kevin Feige has made about Joss Whedon’s contribution to The Avengers[ix] – but to carefully shepherd an established brand.
What is interesting here is less that newcomer creators profess loyalty to the originator-author. Rather it is the patterns of interplay formed between the use of authorship in promotion – Abrams, as well as the above mentioned names, do maintain their authorial signature and role as promotional draw – and the maintenance of brand consistency within increasingly vast media franchises. The position of author-for-hire, working on material they did not originate, is perhaps not new, but it is increasingly visible in the context of increasingly visible authorship. In television, comparably, the position of showrunner has scarcely been established as a centre of auteurist discourse, and already changes in showrunner manifest as sensitive flashpoints. Yet the detachment of authorship from creation, and the development of new models for auteurist legitimation, is practically inevitable in a media landscape that sees both ever growing franchise/universes and an increasing interest in and demand for auteur figures where before they were previously absent. J. J. Abrams’s performance of a specifically delineated authorial role for the Star Trek franchise is, we might say, a vision of the future of the relationship between authorship and franchise identity.
[i] Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, “Six Feet Under,” The Essential HBO Reader, ed. Gary R Edgerton and Jeffrey P Jones (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky: 2008), 71-81
[ii] Indeed J. J. Abrams was himself an early network TV auteur in his work on Alias (ABC, 2001-2006) and Lost. (ABC, 2006-2010)
[iii] Martin Flanagan, “’The Hulk, an Ang Lee film’: Notes on the blockbuster auteur,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 2, no. 1 (2004); 19-35, 20.
[iv] Warren Buckland, “The Role of the Auteur in the Age of the Blockbuster: Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks,” Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer (London: Routledge, 2003), 84-98.
[v] Dave Itzkoff, “A Film's Superheroes Include the Director”, New York Times, April 15 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/movies/joss-whedon-directs-theavengers.html.
[vi] Bruce Handy, “The Daring Genesis of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, Vanity Fair, June 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/05/star-wars-the-force-awakens-vanity-fair-cover
[vii] Peter Scrietta, “Interview: J.J. Abrams Talks About Abandoning George Lucas’ Treatments and Lessons of the Star Wars Prequels”, Slashfilm, December 15th, 2015, http://www.slashfilm.com/jj-abrams-interview-star-wars-the-force-awakens/
[viii] Bryan Curtis, “The George Awakens”, The New Yorker, January 4, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-george-awakens.
[ix] Shaunna Murphy, “Exclusive: The Secret Story of How Joss Whedon Assembled ‘The Avengers’ Script”, MTV, July 29, 2014, http://www.mtv.com/news/1882236/joss-whedon-biography-avengers-script/.