Spoiler Alert: Is Franchise Filmmaking Killing Dramatic Tension?

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Fast and Furious 3 Tokyo Drift Lucas Black Sean Boswell Spoiler Alert: Is Franchise Filmmaking Killing Dramatic Tension?
We here at Screen Rant love film franchises as much as the next person. With new installments in The Avengers, Man of Steel, James Bond, and Star Wars series (just to name a few) on the way, there’s plenty for movie fans to be excited about. However, there’s one aspect about franchise filmmaking we wish the studios would change. The recent announcement that Lucas Black was cast for not one, but three Fast & Furious movies raises a critical issue that filmmakers need to address.

Part of what makes watching a movie for the first time so exciting is that in the back of your mind, you know that anything can happen. While the very expression “franchise filmmaking” suggests that sequels are in order, it’s still nice to have the illusion of the great unknown when you finally sit down to see the movie. Over the past few years, two very different methods of handling film franchises have emerged: “Tell the audience everything at once” and “Take it one movie at a time.”

Dramatic tension is a basic element in film, but it’s an extremely vital one. The higher the stakes, the more likely it is that the audience will become emotionally invested in what happens onscreen – which is the ultimate goal of any movie. Franchise films, which tend to be in the sci-fi, superhero, or action genres, rely on high stakes more than others by placing characters in life-threatening situations. Part of what makes a tentpole action sequence so exciting is that we’re not sure who will live and who will die. Unfortunately, movie studios have done their part to evaporate any dramatic tension before the film even hits theaters.

andrew garfield amazing spider man 2 Spoiler Alert: Is Franchise Filmmaking Killing Dramatic Tension?

Several high-profile Hollywood franchises – including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Amazing Spider-Man, and now Fast & Furious – have made public their intentions to continue releasing installments in the next few years. While this is great for fans of those properties, it’s a little concerning for those of us who would rather not know everything all at once. How exciting can the action sequences in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 be if we know Peter Parker (and perhaps the members of the Sinister Six) will live to see two more movies? Can Dom Toretto’s death-defying stunts really be that thrilling if we know he’ll be in Fast & Furious 8?

Knowing the characters’ futures prior to watching the film (something that has plagued franchises dating back to The Phantom Menace) can make these experiences boring. It’s difficult to care when we already know what happens, and that can have a negative impact on how we perceive the movie as a whole. The next movies are essentially prequels to films that don’t exist yet, more concerned with setting up the upcoming installments as opposed to being a great movie experience that stands on its own merits.

Pop culture fanatics are (rightfully so) sensitive about spoilers. Whether it’s the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Star Trek Into Darkness villain or Walter White’s fate in the final season of Breaking Bad, we’d rather be left in the dark and be surprised as we see the story for the first time. It seems odd then that studios would essentially spoil their own projects by happily assuring the audience that the characters we’re supposed to care about won’t be in danger no matter how extreme things get. It eliminates the raw emotion of watching a film and instead makes it all about the money. So what can be done about it?

One way to counter this – as discussed on a recent episode of the Screen Rant Underground podcast – is for filmmakers to use the audience’s knowledge to their advantage by throwing in twists and turns to keep the character stuff interesting. This very well could happen in some or all of the upcoming sequels, but we prefer a different method of handling franchises.


NEXT PAGE: How taking things one film at a time is a better way to go…


jj abrams star wars Spoiler Alert: Is Franchise Filmmaking Killing Dramatic Tension?
Directors such as Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams have earned reputations as being extremely secretive filmmakers. This extends to their decision to only discuss their current film publicly to the media. When asked about the possibility of Star Trek 3 before this summer’s sequel hit theaters, Abrams said:

“I wouldn’t say there has been a [Star Trek] trilogy planned. … We really are taking this journey one step at a time, and while there are a lot of ideas we have now for what might be a third movie, it’s really up to the audience to determine if that is something that comes to pass.”

This is actually the ideal way to go about running a film franchise. In any film – no matter the genre – we are supposed to live vicariously through the main characters, learning things as they learn them. When the movie begins, they (the characters) have no idea if they’ll live to see another day, so why should the audience? By taking things one movie at a time, it forces the audience to become more invested in that particular film. Even if common sense dictates the “franchise” will go on, in the back of our minds there’s one small thought: “They haven’t officially announced the sequel… what if there isn’t one? What if this is it?” There’s no law that says every film franchise must be at least three movies.

That thought is what fuels the dramatic tension of a big action movie. Series that run this way (The Dark Knight, Star Trek, and now Man of Steel) are much more engrossing because they involve the audience by making them feel different emotions throughout the course of the film. Honestly, what was more interesting: Tony Stark throwing a nuke in a wormhole or seeing Bruce Wayne fly a bomb over the bay? If you’re going to tease moviegoers with death, it helps if they don’t already know a sequel is in production.

Ben Affleck Batman Superman movie Spoiler Alert: Is Franchise Filmmaking Killing Dramatic Tension?

When Ben Affleck was cast as Batman for Man of Steel 2, the official press release only mentioned that one film. This differs from the Marvel Studios method of announcing long-term multi-picture contracts for their actors. Sure, WB could be planning things behind the scenes, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t publicly green light a new DC film until after the Batman/Superman team-up hits theaters. If the audience goes into this sequel with the knowledge that no other film is (publicly) in development, then there’s a greater chance they are more invested in the characters and their actions. The filmmakers will have fun with the character dynamics to make things fascinating, but that very basic question of “does he live or does he die?” going unanswered allows everything to be that more suspenseful. Since action set-pieces are a large part of any tentpole film, it would be nice if there was some actual excitement behind them.

Dramatic tension is a tricky aspect to completely nail down. After we watch a movie for the first time, we know what happens and the tension is lifted. Films based on books or true stories are a Google search away from revealing everything. Still, in the case of fictional franchises where anything can happen, we would like to see more filmmakers and studios use the Nolan and Abrams method of taking things one film at a time so when we sit down for that all-important first viewing, we know that anything could happen.


What do you think Screen Ranters? Would you rather know a block of sequels is on the way or have your favorite franchises take things one film at a time?

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.

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Follow Chris Agar on Twitter @ChrisAgar90
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  1. I’m okay with both scenarios. For one, I think that it is good that a studio plans ahead in terms of franchises, but I don’t think they need to hype (for example) the third movie when the 2nd movie hasn’t been released yet (i.e. Fast & Furious, The Amazing Spider-Man). I also like the taking a film in a franchise one at a time. It worked so well for The Dark Knight trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and several other “trilogies”, because you actually think someone might die at the end of the trilogy, unless your ‘Batman Forever’, ‘The Last Crusade’, Terminator 3′, etc.

    • I get what you’re saying, but Lord of the Rings? Really? It was a film series based on books (so the plot was readily available/obvious) and I’m 90% sure that all three were filmed pretty much back-to-back. Not saying they weren’t great, great films, but it doesn’t really fit into your argument.

  2. Actually, the Fast and Furious movies have subverted this with the Han character to a pretty good effect. And realistically, that lack of dramatic tension isn’t exclusive to franchises. Did anyone really think Superman was going to die in Man of Steel?

    • Of course not, but I for one didn’t go in 100% certain Kent Sr. was going to die and felt that the way he died was pretty heart-wrenching. Oh yeah, and Zod and the remaining chance for the Kryptonian species to get a second chance. The only things guaranteed going in were, “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. Superman.”

  3. I agree with the critics. It’s not necessary for big franchise productions to lay all their cards on the table. (Ironically, in the case the Fast and Furious franchise, I am more than willing to read their cards.) The thing I find most annoying and illogical is the fact that in the trailers of their major productions, which tend to be action movies, is that the whole movie is displayed in a video of 3 minutes. This doesn’t make any sense and it shows how little the companies care about the audience’s voyage and ultimately their own product. This really needs to be adressed and changed, just for the fun of film making and watching. Bring back the creativity, because trailer can actually be an art in its self and sometimes even masterful.

    • I agree. So many times I see the trailer for a film AFTER watching the film itself, and I’m very glad that I didn’t see the trailer before because it would have ruined many surprises in the movie. Conversely, many a film has been ruined because I saw the trailer beforehand and basically knew what was going to happen. It’s almost as bad as announcing multiple sequels.

      For example, in Pacific Rim, there was this tension about Idris Elba’s character actually getting in a Jaeger. Was he actually going to? Yes, of course he was because I saw it in the trailer.

      Or take the F&F6 film. The whole “holy crap they have a tank” part, or “holy crap they’re chasing after a plane on the runway and it’s exploding” aspects of the film were ruined in the trailer as well. With a fairly formulaic film such as the F&F series, over the top sequences like these are what make it worth watching, and if you already know it’s going to happen, then it really lessens the experience.

      The problem seems to be that the people who make the trailer aren’t the same as the ones who make the film, so oftentimes they just want to show the flashiest parts of the movie in order to get people excited. Unfortunately, when there’s not much else left over, then I’m often left wanting as I walk out of the theatre.

      So often these days I find myself looking down in the theatre as trailers for anticipated films come on. I feel silly doing so, but it’s just not worth the lessened experience for me.

  4. I would say that several things contribute to the lack of dramatic tension in most of the current movie releases. The following are a few.

    A)Trailers that expose to much; Also too many trailers
    B)Lack of sufficient character development
    C)Films only made to capitalize on trends
    D)Several films borrowing many similar plot devices from each other
    E)Lazy production as a whole, e.g. scripting, casting, directing and acting
    F)Films that cater heavily to fan service
    G)Genre burnout, superhero movies are getting there
    H)Movies with big toy tie-ends; Kids don’t care about drama, its about discovery and non-stop action
    I)Poor screenplays; Don’t tell me! Show me why I should care!

    I found myself walking out of most movies this year saying, ‘Well at least the visuals were amazing.’

  5. It also depends on the knowledge or type of interest audiences have about a movie. I couldn’t care less about the details of the F&F films. In the end, women and men go to see these type of films to check out the actors or in the case of men; to check the girls wearing maxi-belts (skirts). Some others go because they do like cars.

  6. I did not think people went into these franchise movies looking for some deep experience or high art. It would like going to McDonald’s and expecting a gourmet meal…

  7. For the studios is money, money, money. As long as they can keep on making it, there will endless sequels or prequels. They will not bother about the plot nor will they try to engage the public.

    • Sadly, this is very true.

      I read an interview with a film maker recently that said that film studios are a bunch of bankers, and the film makers are artists, and it’s a struggle between the two to get films made.

      It’s unfortunate when they take a risk and make a film like Could Atlas, which tanks, and it’s just more reason for them to studios to reboots/remakes and franchise sequels.

  8. I strongly disagree with the premise of your article, Chris. I don’t think that knowing that there are three more sequels planned takes away from dramatic tension. I think that is was obvious to most people that Spider Man and Dom would not be killed. My enjoyment of the next installments will not be diminished at all since it’s unlikely that they’ll be killed. As others have opined, I think that trailers that show too much of a given movie kill dramatic license much more.

  9. It isnt killing dramatic tension its just taking longer to build it up. The end result just needs to be executed to a unforgivable level.