–written by reysspeeder and conn8d
A disturbing pattern is emerging in entertainment media that is leaving audience members feeling dejected, let down, and betrayed. Particularly where episodic productions are concerned, big-budget properties are increasingly resorting to undermining storytelling principles, like setup and payoff, to shock audiences and drive up public interest instead of building surprise organically within the story.
This series, Subverting Storytelling, is a three-part investigation aimed at documenting the trend. The first part of the series delves into the details of the pattern, thus far including installments of big-budget franchises such as Star Wars and Game of Thrones, and examines the problem revealed by these reactions: that narrative principles are being subverted in the same way across properties. This section of inquiry will continue the series by detailing the possible causes behind this trend, exploring questions such as: ‘why setup and payoff specifically?’ and ‘why now?’
Regarding the ‘why now?’ question, there appears to be one noticeable shift in recent years: the entertainment media landscape is swiftly becoming more consolidated and less diverse than it has ever been in history. One possible cause of this shift could be attributed to late stage capitalism.
Late capitalism is a phrase that came into use via Marxist theorists in the 20th century, and became increasingly relevant following the Second World War. The phrasing of ‘late capitalism’ refers to the attempt to historicize capitalism as a temporal entity, one that experiences a beginning, middle, and end thus termed by Ernest Mandel as (1) freely competitive capitalism, (2) imperialism, and (3) late capitalism (Mandel, 1975; Lowrey, 2017). While these attempts have been disputed, the important takeaway point is that the phrase ‘late capitalism’ refers to the latest, and by default the last, stage of capitalism.
As The Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey documents, the phrase has recently extended beyond academic discourses into a wider public use when it “became a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism,” such as designer clothing brands selling ripped, duct taped, or muddied items for upwards of one thousand dollars (Lowrey, 2017). Since capitalism as a historical economic system hasn’t ended yet, much of what is theorized about late-stage capitalism are researched predictions about what an ending capitalist economy may look like.
One hallmark of the predicted late-capitalism is the rapid consolidation and eventual monopolization of economic products and services, meaning that less and less players control more of the wealth and resources than ever before. In terms of entertainment media, this is already under way most publicly with the rapid growth of the Walt Disney Company.
There are currently fewer entertainment studios than there have ever been in history, a large part because of Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox took the number of head studios from six to only five (Renegade Cut, 2019; Schwartz, 2019). As a result, there are now only five total entertainment studios in the entire world that control what entertainment media get approved, created, and distributed. Jack Lule, author of Globalization and Media, describes the current state of media distribution as an oligopoly (Lule, 2015). An oligopoly, he explains, is similar to a monopoly where a single company controls an entire market but specifies that the control over the product or service is relegated to a few companies rather than a single entity. On the oligopolization of the media market, he writes,
“Around the world, once small, local, and regional media companies—newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television and cable channels, book publishers, movie studios, internet sites, and more—are being bought up by a handful of huge global conglomerates and corporations, who themselves were once small and local. It has all happened incredibly fast, primarily in the last twenty-five years. The result goes by various names—media oligopoly, consolidation, concentration, and convergence”-Jack Lule in “Globalization and Media”
The existence of a media oligopoly has vast implications, not only for the media content that gets produced but also for the norms and expectations people come to associate with their media consumption. According to Lule (2015), the more centralized, and by consequence the more globalized, a transnational media conglomerate becomes, the more generalized their products are pushed to become.
In practical terms, this means that in order to justify their existence as larger-than-life companies, they must actively undermine and delegitimize more localized forms of media such as newspapers, radio stations, television channels, etc (McChesney, 2001). Following the delegitimization of local sites of media production, increasingly consolidated corporations will supplant local and diverse perspectives with a single ‘universal’ and more generalized framework that, when watered down, translates into profit and consumption. Every message is commodified and translated into something that theoretically all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, can consume.
What is significantly unique about the latest trend in subverting the setup/payoff storytelling principles, though, is that these big budget action heavy productions such as Star Wars and Game of Thrones were already assumed to be universal, meaning largely commodified, apolitical, and escapist. Expectations for the productions were based almost entirely assuming that would be the case. What’s unsettling about the latest trend of setup/payoff subversion is that it would appear that the bottom has not yet been reached on what creators can cut in order to save money and maximize profit. Executives are finding new ways to decrease costs and increase profits that were not foreseen by theorists who predicted what late capitalism may look like.
What is happening with this recent trend is something else, something different.
Suggested by this recent trend is that mass media conglomerates will not limit themselves to thinking of savings and profit in terms of localization and universality, but that they are willing to extend this value system into the storytelling tenets itself that are already de-localized. This is occurring through the two main ideals of the oligopoly’s value system: risk and profit. Considered together, this streamlined combination of profit and risk begins to make clear why big-budget productions such as Game of Thrones and Star Wars would choose to deliver content that subverts the setup/payoff principles.
The first vital component is understanding risk. One factor that increasingly accumulates risk is that of time. The more time that is devoted to a production, the more expensive and thus riskier it is considered to be. Therefore, one way to eliminate a lot of expensive time on a production is to rid the process of writing entirely: this is one reason why reboots and live-action remakes are experiencing a boom across theaters and streaming services. Because remaking a previous production allows executives to bypass the expensive and lengthy process of drafting, writing, and seemingly endless revising that comes with the task of creating an entirely new story.
This is a large reason why so many live action films of older Disney properties have cropped up in abundance during these past four years: the recent boom began with the live action remake of Maleficent in 2014, and since then has included titles such as Cinderella (2015), Aladdin (2019) and The Lion King (2019), and will continue into the future with titles like Mulan in 2020 (Renegade Cut, 2019; Ellis 2019c). Renegade Cut (2019) refers to this boom as “Late Stage Disney,” a play on the phrase ‘late stage capitalism,’ and describes it as “a recycling of [Disney’s] old properties rather than risking their stake in the market share with new ideas.” Recycling is an apt descriptor because a large motivator of this boom is to take properties that have already been invested and paid out to reuse and pull additional profit from. Like recycling plants take used paper products and reuse to make newly recycled shopping bags, so does Disney reuse previous properties to repurpose into something new and ready to be consumed once again.
What is noteworthy here, especially in terms of late-stage capitalism, is that just because the Disney company holds a large percentage of the total entertainment output does not mean the remake boom is unique to them alone. This boom is industry-wide and has media giants collectively looking through their previous productions to see which could be viable as a remake or adaption. Other remakes include Ghostbusters (which is getting a second reboot in 2020 with Ghostbusters Afterlife), Charlie’s Angels, Child’s Play, Pokemon, Pet Sematary, and Men in Black, to name a few that released in 2019 alone.
This is not to say that adaptations and remakes have never been used in the past, because that’s not true. For example, live-action remakes have previously been released by Disney much earlier with titles such as The Jungle Book (1994), 101 Dalmatians (1996), George of the Jungle (1997). What distinguishes the boom of today from previous live-action outputs is that now, more than ever, the market demands of late-stage capitalism are pushing for an increased reliance on remakes as a main source of revenue. A push that is being felt across the entire entertainment industry.
There’s just one catch with the reboot track: curtailing the risk of lengthy production times using already existing properties butts heads with another media conglomerate tenet: the need to increase profit. Because as it stands, nostalgia alone is not enough to motivate large amounts of people to consume a product. If this were the case, then Disney would likely just re-release their original productions and cut investment costs altogether. They don’t because of an additional marketing rule: that a feature must be new and shocking in order to draw large crowds. But how is it possible to shock audiences with remakes of stories they already know?
For Disney’s recent live-action remake productions, this puzzle has been solved by inserting strategic justifications into the remakes. Justification here means providing audiences and shareholders with reasons why people will want to see the film despite them already having experienced the story before. For many Disney remakes this justification takes the form of metacommentary within the film to demonstrate that the story has been retailored to fit with today’s audience. Ellis (2019c) delves into this justification in her video essay, Woke Disney, where she points out that small changes are made to the stories, such as Jasmine aspiring to be the Sultana in the 2019 Aladdin remake, in order to justify how relevant, new, and woke these new productions are. Renegade Cut (2019) describes of the slight modifications,
Disney is reconstructing and modernizing its mythos by taking the safest possible political position, presenting it as ‘woke,’ and deflecting criticism about its role in both the economic and cultural landscapesRenegade Cut in “Late Stage Disney“
For potential audiences of a feature, these changes are marketed as: your favorite you had as a child, but “woke!” And while this strategy doesn’t completely inoculate against criticism, there is evidence demonstrating that these adaptations are succeeding regardless. The Lion King (2019) alone grossed a total of $1.6 billion worldwide, was the second highest grossing film of 2019 and is the highest grossing animated film ever (Watson, 2019; Carbone, 2020). Likewise, Aladdin (2019) surpassed the billion dollar mark worldwide. Although not all remake installments have reached the level of success of Lion King and Aladdin, there are few cases where investments don’t generate a profit for the company and its shareholders. Thus, we can see how the entertainment market has adapted to the increasing centralization of conglomerates by taking necessary steps to decrease costs and risk while increasing profit by recycling old properties and marketing them as new in some justifiable way. Quandary solved, right?
Well, the issue is solved at least where one-off productions are concerned. When it comes to big-budget productions longer than a single release, such as a television drama or film trilogy, the interment between releases introduces a new variable that creates an additional risk factor for investors: that of audience involvement. If a production markets itself based on its shocking or surprising story, this threat can become all-consuming for creators. Applied to a big-budget episodic production, increased fan involvement takes on a double purpose: first, as an asset in driving up profit; Second, as a direct threat to any possible justifications creators may make about their production being shocking and new. Sprinx (2020) delves into this in the SWSC Game of Thrones review, stating,
“And the longform format … lends a degree of volatility to fan reactions via the medium of online communication. The drawn-out nature of the form, historically, has allowed for greater discourse and communal interaction with the show. However, it also allows fans plenty of time to speculate, develop investment in theories, and, in more recent episodes, use online forums to amplify and reinforce each other’s disappointment when those theories don’t come to pass (or when the show is simply disappointing in general). Where a sub-par season of a streaming series would be met with a singular explosion of derision a day or two after its release, GoT’s fall from grace was not only precipitous, it was also prolonged.”-Sprinx in “Life After Thrones: The 2020s and the Great American TV Show“
Precipitous is an apt descriptor because Sprinx (2020) directly connects the ability of a longform episodic production to consecutively build prestige, stakes, and expectations that become so large they quickly shift from being an advantage into a liability. This means that the more popular a property is, the more fans and viewers will begin to follow the series. The more followers a series has, the higher likelihood that they will speculate about the future of the story with each other. This is particularly an issue in today’s social media environment where viewers from all over the world are able to connect instantly to network their theories and hopes. Growth of a productions stakes seem to risk becoming so large that there may be no viable outcome available other than to take a dive off a metaphorical cliff. In these instances, the more popular a longform production is, the higher the risk is that audiences will compare notes, collaborate, and even guess correctly about where the story it heading (Ellis, 2019a).
Publicly, the pressure of creators to deliver new and shocking content was dealt with when the HBO science fiction series Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan made a statement after fans on Reddit guessed the twist in the second season, saying,
“Reddit has already figured out the third episode twist. So we’re changing that right now. It’s annoying sometimes when people guess the twists and then blog about it … You can’t complain when people are that engaged. It’s very gratifying — but stop doing it, please.”Jonathan Nolan (Mccreesh, 2017)
Nolan doesn’t elaborate on why the third episode twist needed to change, or on why he asks Redditors to stop speculating. But from a spectators standpoint it’s plausible to guess that he may not want fans to predict the twists in the show because it directly undercuts his and his co-creators ability to sell the production as new, shocking, and surprising. There is evidence that a productions potential to shock audiences is considered extremely important to investors and marketers alike. For example, during the production run up for The Last Jedi in 2017, Screen Rant ran a story suggesting that part of the appeal for the film was in the fact that none of the fans had guessed the major twists of the story (Bacon, 2017).
The piece states, “writer/director Rian Johnson has voiced his appreciation for the many fan theories out there surrounding the film, but insists that not a one of them has yet to nail the really ‘big stuff’ in the movie.” Of the fan theories, Bacon (2017) includes the mysteries of Rey’s parentage, Snoke’s origins, and Luke’s reasons for being secluded on a hidden island as being among the questions that fans had not yet predicted. Small surprise that these were the same setups that Last Jedi broke the setup/payoff relationship with in the film. Whether it was true that audiences hadn’t guessed the outcomes correctly or not is beside the point that marketers wanted to drive up consumption of the film based on the idea that it was unpredictable and shocking. A move that was further underlined when an advertising campaign was released across online platforms including YouTube and Facebook, as well as on various television spots. The campaign explicitly urged viewers, “Don’t Let Anyone Spoil This,” and implicitly encouraged them to see the film (read: purchase tickets) without knowing anything about the story.
The accuracy in this line of reasoning, that shock always guarantees an audience and that viewers must not be able to guess where a story is going at all costs, doesn’t really seem relevant: it appears to be regarded as a truism within the industry and up until now has gone unquestioned. Film critic Lindsey Ellis (2019a) disagrees and thinks it should be questioned. She shares her concerns stating,
“The cultural endurance of any story has much to do with the desire to retell it, despite knowing how it ends. Breaking Bad is not devalued by knowing the ending. The Sopranos is not devalued by knowing the ending. Romeo and Juliet tells you the ending at the beginning of the play.”-Lindsey Ellis in “The Last of the Game of Thrones Takes“
Despite Ellis’s reasoning that having an audience already know a story prior to viewing a feature does not detract from its value, and despite that her argument is backed up by the success of the live-action adaptations, marketers are still likely to disagree by arguing that shock is the most effective tool to generate interest and revenues. At the very least, this appears to be a pressure that was likely heavily applied to all three productions of interest: The Last Jedi, Game of Thrones season 8, and The Rise of Skywalker. These three cases, under increasing stakes from rising popularity and feeling actively undermined by increased fan involvement caused by said popularity, had creators cornered on the edge of a cliff helplessly watching all the viable story solutions being picked off one by one by fan predictions.
Put into this position, throwing out the setup/payoff principles simultaneously satisfies both needs of minimizing risk (short development time) and maximizing profit (big shock factor). Subverting the setup/payoff relationship in story elements is cost effective because the ‘twists’ can be thought up in a short amount of time. And as far as shocking the audience is concerned, the subversions are practically guaranteed to surprise the audience because there were no setups for the audience to anticipate them in the first place. As explored in Part 1, outcomes and setups in these three cases felt more like a divorced child visiting different parents on the weekend than a cohesive storytelling principle. Audience questions like, ‘what’s the deal with that Night King?,’ ‘Who is Snoke?,’ and ‘Why is Rey important?’ all get divorced from their initial setups to an outcome that feels more like the sequence in a dream than an actual entertainment narrative. What these creators have stumbled upon, whether unwittingly or deliberately, is a cheap and effective method to manufacture novelty and surprise.
In a late capitalist oligarchical entertainment landscape, manufactured novelty and surprise perhaps hides the increased homogenization of storytelling that has resulted from shortened pre-production time and over consolidation. It keeps the audience on their toes and paying for products.
At least in the short term.
All of this is to say that while much ire was initially directed at individual creators for crafting unsatisfying stories, the emergence of the pattern of story subversions has brought up the possibility that these instances may not entirely be the fault of malicious creators or unruly audiences, but rather are the systemic outcome of the current late-capitalist landscape of the entertainment industry. What remains still unknown at this point is whether these three cases represent the future of mass entertainment storytelling as a whole, or whether these three will be effectively quarantined within the industry and treated as a failed experiment. Currently, it remains unclear which path the industry will take. Despite the large cultural backlash to Last Jedi, Thrones, and Skywalker, all three were still economically successful, even if they weren’t arguably as monetarily successful as optimistic industry predictions. At the very least, all three were far from being considered losses for shareholders.
Following the emergence of this trend in subverting setup/payoff, the effects have already been felt around the world. Even though the future of big entertainment remains unclear, examining how audiences have thus far been impacted will be an important factor to consider while watching what future moves entertainment conglomerates may make. In the upcoming final installment of the Subverting Storytelling series, the effects of these cases on audiences, creators, fans, and the industry as a whole will be covered in Part 3. Part 1 introduced the series by investigating how three big-entertainment cases form a troubling pattern in big entertainment. This has been Part 2 exploring possible causes to the trend. There is more to come, so stay tuned.
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