By Matthias Höckh
“A puzzlingly confused undertaking that never becomes as cool as it thinks it is, Suicide Squad assembles an all-star team of supervillains and then doesn’t know what to do with them.” This quote from Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter was one of the more favorable reviews on Suicide Squad, DC’s latest installment of their movie franchise, and it illustrates Hollywood’s current status.
Many critics and a growing portion of the audiences complain about the dullness and lack of creativity in modern blockbusters, especially the biggest super-hero franchises from Marvel (Avengers) and DC (Batman v Superman). What started as a couple of entertaining movies that helped redefine a whole genre has become a huge monster that is constantly repeating itself.
One reason for the lack of creativity and “artistic value” of the big blockbuster can be identified when looking at these franchises from the perspective of a brand strategist.
Put simply, basically every movie in the big cinematic universes of DC and Marvel (more than thirty movies from those franchises are scheduled for release between 2015 to 2020) follows the same template that revolves around action (with a lot of CGI), a particular sense of humor, and feeble attempts to deepen the relationship between characters and audience by giving small glimpses into the hero’s past.
The latter is not only to appease the more nerdy parts of the audience (fan service) but to set the groundwork for the numerous spin-offs on the individual characters that are planned for the next years. As a consequence, those movies are not seen as pieces of art but as brands.
Due to the requirements the movies have to comply with (comparable to strict brand guidelines), many of the franchises’ movies have lost their ability to tell great stories. There are just too many strings attached.
All this resembles how brands were treated in earlier decades — with static guidelines for every eventuality and a relentless focus on consistency. Both together eventually kill creativity. For movies, the result is clear: predictable plots, a lack of creative and innovative power, and the absence of a “soul” (for a brand, that would often be called its “purpose”).
When looking at the movies from a brand strategist’s perspective, many parallels to traditional brand management emerge:
- Lack of innovation — An initially successful template is used over and over again resulting in (creative) stagnation and endless self-references. This is the result of the idea of “never change a winning team.” And of course, there is some truth to it. However, when brands and enterprises become too self-centered, too static, they miss what’s really going on in the external world. There are numerous examples of how brands failed due to their stubborn adherence to old habits.
- Lack of focus — A movie is not only a movie anymore. It’s a brand extension via theme parks, toys, clothes, games, and spin-offs that requires extensive planning and ultimately influences the movie’s artistic direction (e.g., mandatory screen time for certain characters). As for brands, too big a stretch makes it difficult to focus on a narrative.
- Bureaucracy and lack of creative freedom — Often, directors of huge franchise blockbusters (most recently Suicide Squad) do not have full control over the creative output, as studio managers regularly interfere and determine creative directions. With brands, this often happens when brand management is not entrusted with the responsibility and power to develop the brand.
On the upside: One can almost instantaneously recognize a movie from the Marvel cinematic universe from its look and feel, its plot structure, the development and presentation of characters. (This was basically the biggest goal for brand management until a couple of years ago.)
Admittedly, the movies still generate a ton of money, but a negative trend is evident, both considering the financials and the critical evaluations. Brand management went through this, and learned. It now relies on the definition of a broad framework that describes the intended customer experiences with the brand, instead of micromanaging its formal appearance. Put simply, within that framework creatives get enough space to do inspiring work that is relevant for the brand and for the audience.
This may sound like a small victory, but is a fundamental shift from the old idea of consistency and repetition (which many brands still adhere to). At the same time, the brand stays recognizable, not necessarily by the layout of its ads but by the emotions it evokes or by the way it tells stories. To enforce these principles, brand-focused enterprises like Deutsche Telekom have installed a dedicated brand management organization at the C-level instead of integrating it into PR or marketing.
If studios are treating their movies like brands, they should at least do it right: enable imagination and creativity, be innovative and surprising and thus relevant audiences instead of only repeating the same story over and over again. Sometimes this means being courageous and daring, but the alternative is stagnation until another big franchise comes along that adopts the rules of modern brand management and overtakes the antiquated universes from DC and Marvel.
Matthias Höckh is a brand strategist at MetaDesign Berlin.