Spoiler Alert: Is Franchise Filmmaking Killing Dramatic Tension?

Published 2 years ago by

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…

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  1. I’m ok with either approach: one at a time or announcement of a planned trilogy. My only problem is with trailers giving away too much and showing the best part of the movie. So if it’s a big blockbuster, I watch the teaser and just try my absolute best to avoid any other trailers. Switching the channel as soon as I see the words ‘marvel’ or ‘dc’.

  2. Hire stand up comedians as actors. That really gets the ol’ drama across. Works great for Micky Bay.

    • …like who? Who in Michael Bay films is a standup comic and was also a terrible actor?

      I find that comedians tend to make better dramatic actors than you’d expect. Ex: Woody Allen cast Louis CK and Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine and that worked out great. Will Forte is cast in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”.

      • Can’t say I enjoy Louis CK or Andrew Dice Clay (never found them funny) but Robin Williams is definitely another example (and should’ve won an Oscar too by now).

        • Or jim carrey he was great in the truman show and eternal sunshine

        • Robin Williams has won an Oscar. Best Supporting in Good Will Hunting.

  3. Great article. I always felt the same way. I have a problem with this and prequels.

  4. Marvel Studios has mostly followed what you advise (except for IM3 being announced when Avengers was playing), they have been pretty secretive about whether or not Cap or Thor get a third movie in the next few years. Yes, we know Avengers 2 or 3 are happening, but we don’t necessarily know who will still make it. Again, the exception is always RDJ.

    • I guess that’s because he’s the big star and the one the audience pays to see so they have to announce whether or not RDJ is coming back to keep up that cinema attendance.

  5. Bit of a difference with the Stark/Wayne nuke thing because we didn’t know whether Stark would live or die but we also knew it was the final Batman movie from Nolan and wondered whether he really would die with that nuke (which we found out he fixed the autopilot and escaped before it flew out over the bay, giving us a happy ending for Bruce but the tension was still there).

    Anyway, I’d guess this whole “giving away the secrets” thing concerning announced sequels and advance warning about characters and plans is to satisfy the lazy society we seem to be stuck with these days where people will only get off their butts and do anything if they have something to motivate and give them reason to do so.

    (Examples: “Meh, I won’t bother going to see Spider-Man until I read spoilers telling me a certain character shows up” or with Cloverfield when people said “I’ll wait until other people see it and tell me what the mystery is before I bother watching it myself”)

    • Wait, Batman jumped out before it flew over the bay? I could’ve swore I saw him in the cockpit five seconds before it blew up…

      • The magic of editing.

        Seriously, didn’t you pay attention to the line about the auto pilot being fixed 6 months before the bomb went off? And the scene right at the end with Bruce sitting at a table with Selina?

        I’m guessing you also think Jack Bauer never went to the bathroom because there weren’t scenes of him peeing in 24.

        • Awful/cheat editing for them to show the timer spliced in out of sequence then, if that’s what you’re implying. Them not equating a real-world second to a movie second is acceptable but they crossed the line, or somebody flubbed it in the post-production process.

          • Only if the very close up shown to us was him IN the batwing, not some escape pod or whatever (like the Batbike in the tumbler)
            Still… Kinda like a cop out, but whatever.

      • They showed more than one Bat, the one they were looking at near the end, clearly was not the one that flew out to sea with the Nike. Hell, for all we know he had a dozen of the bloody things. They showed him in the cockpit, yes, but not the same one.

        • Nuke not Nike. I hate auto-correct.

  6. I don’t think there’s an issue here at all. If a film is good, it will create tension.

  7. No offense Chris, but this article seems a little hypocritical. A site like Screenrant is more succesful when announcing news and spoilers from the movie studios. The very news that you are saying you are against. While I agree with your article, doesn’t that take away from the news that sites such as Screenrant rely on for viewership?

    • What he’s saying is that we’re all better off not knowing every detail months (or years) in advance.

      Sony optioned to have more Spider-Man movies. They should have kept that quiet and only announced the next entry in the series when it was about to go into pre-production.

  8. Literally JUST got done arguing my point about this to someone who cares for movies. It’s absolutely a terrible strategy to script out that there will be sequels. I know after Batman Begins no one REALLY knew if the Dark Knight was coming, especially after that had such success, we conversely didn’t know whether we were getting RISES or not. Nolan kept a tight lid and waited for a viable script that would warrant and “earn” making a film. Knowing that 3 more Avatars are coming, it’s not like Jake Sully is going to die people. I therefore cannot in good conscience as a savvy film buff go into these movies without skepticism. Any of the “oh crap our heroes are in trouble” moments go right out the window and feel like child’s play. Even with Star Wars, sure Lucas had an idea, he certainly wouldn’t have named it Episode IV if he didn’t know about the others, but no one had any clue that Luke was gonna get his a$$ handed to him by his dad, found out it WAS his dad and get his hand chopped off to boot in a PG movie. THAT was incredible. It was real, there’s no way some farm boy who had a week’s worth of Jedi training in a swamp was going to best a dark lord of the Sith. Even Lucas wasn’t too fantastical or predictable back THEN.

    Nowadays, freaking every movie must start a trilogy and it bothers the hell out of me. I think very FEW movies even deserve a SNIFF at a sequel let alone even touch a trilogy. Studios then get caught up so much in continuity that they leave out cool parts in the first movie, save them for the second movie where they show up in much less dramatic fashion and each movie ends up feeling slightly empty.

    Studios need to switch to the approach of “show me why THIS movie deserves a sequel” and “make THIS movie as great as possible before we even THINK about moving forward with a series”. We as audiences will get better movies as a result and clearly studios will be taking way less risk when distributing deserved and undeserved funding in potential projects. There is NOTHING worse in a movie than when the drama feels empty, soulless, and predictable. Hollywood needs to make a change ASAP

    • Agreed.

      It’s like Taken, Chronicle, Saw, Paranormal Activity and some others. They really didn’t need sequels and should have been standalone movies instead of announcing there will be more films.

    • Exactly the point why I’m happy Pacific Rim will probably not get a sequel. I always knew the monsters would die and the hero would live…knew that from the very beginning of the movie. No drama, no edge of your seat tension and no character investment in my opinion.

    • Top post

    • So Star Wars had an element of the unknown b/c something crazy could happen to Luke, but Avatar is different? Hindsight?

  9. The problem with franchises is that they aren’t planned well. That’s what LOTR got right that some films couldn’t. A stand-alone film shouldn’t make sense without a sequel.
    Marvel f#cks this up the most btw. Kill Bill, Star Wars & LOTR are good examples of how sequels must be formulated.

  10. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect Superman to snap General Zod’s neck.

    And that is why Man of Steel was such an amazing story.

    Sorry, I had to go there.


    • I dont have a problem with it. TV shows do it all the time.

      • Didnt mean to reply to Bald Bull.

  11. I almost feel the opposite. Would anyone actually have walked into Spiderman 2 expecting that Peter Parker might die? The only time I actually believe that the leads in franchise movies are in danger is when the film is specifically announced as the CONLUSION of a trilogy or series, i.e. Dark Knight Rises, Matrix Revolutions, Return of the King, ect.

  12. you get more invested knowing its going to end e.g. Breaking Bad

  13. What are the issues in making a wonder woman movie?

    • First of all, it’s Wonder Woman.

      • And then, there’s Woman. Sadly.

  14. I really don’t care. I always enjoy the movie either way.

  15. The second Amazing Spider-Man film will still have some tension – will Gwen die? Will Norman Osbourne? Who will become the Goblin? Also bear in mind that the only character guaranteed to appear in future Spidey films is Ol’ Webhead himself with a possibly-still-Shailene-Woodley MJ later on. Heck, they might even throw a curveball with Miles Morales! The acting talent involved will only add to the impact.

    With Star Wars, we know (pretty much) that the ‘old stars’ are back, but for how many films? If they’re not retelling Expanded Universe stories, they’re effectively creating canon as they go and can kill off anyone! Now that Han’s finally met his maker, Fast and Furious films can do whatever and it’s more *how* they win rather than ‘if’ that makes those films enjoyable for me.

    Really, the same ‘franchises ruining tension?’ arguments could be levelled against any TV show that has even a sniff of a cliffhanger ending. Does it ruin those shows? Not if the writing and acting is good and the sequel/next season gets made! In a show about Green Arrow, they’re not going to kill Oliver Queen. A second season was all but guaranteed and probably confirmed before the finale. However, I challenge you to say that the ending honestly wasn’t tense or surprising.

    • I for one gasped when Tommy got impaled and I aslo did not see the leveling of the Glades coming.

  16. “Is franchise filmmaking killing dramatic tension?”

    Answer: Short and simple, absolutely.

  17. also they should severely limit the trailers, i hate looking down during trailers because i don’t want to know an entire movies plot and climax (which you can figure out from most trailers if you’re not an idiot)

  18. There’s a fairly simple answer to this: First, from a press/media point of view, announce the lead actors and actresses roles in particular franchises as having agreed to a clause that stated as So-and-so “committed to future installments IF the story requires it.” “IF” Being the qualifier that’s emphasized.

    Secondly from a legal standpoint, have contracts drawn up with similar language. By doing this companies/franchises will avoid being definitive in announcing actors/actresses involvement in their franchise but will embrace being inconclusive their announcements, which at best, will add to public speculation (good)and reduce the chances of effecting the story’s dramatic tension (very bad!)…

  19. Completely agree with you on this SR! Although i like movie franchises this is going way too far with announcing certain actors to be playing their characters for nine times(Fury) and because of that i don’t have to fear that he will die for example.
    That is one reason
    Reason number 2 is killing off main characters(see Rachel Dawes)
    That kind of emotional punch really makes you strive for revenge and gives you motive to continue watching a film

  20. Ho-hum stories, bad acting, messy scripts, and (in many cases of superhero movies) not sticking to canon are a few factors wrecking dramatic tension.

  21. Actually, I’m completely fine with Marvel. They’re doing things right over there. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was doing things right but now they for some reason need to resurrect the character for some reason…oh, money. Man of Steel was a movie at war with itself and Green Lantern stunk. The Bond movies are alright, the Bourne movies were great but they’re trying to milk the franchise. Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter are fine. Indiana Jones? Should’ve stopped at Raiders although Last Crusade was good. Pirates, National Treasure, etc.? Done decently but not well enough Movies like Fast and Furious and GI Joe are decent but…money.

  22. Announcing that an actor is signed on for X# of films can be taken as un-dramatic, but it builds enthusiasm amongst fans. As does announcing sequels.

    This topic is only an issue when lackluster filmmaking is involved. A director with guts can still pull the rug out from under us and/or create dramatic tension with good writing and directing of the “predictable” existing elements.

  23. Too much navel gazing in this article. There have been very, very few films over the years that I have seen and honestly wondered who will live and who will die. It’s always been about how the hero will save the day and increasingly films are adding in a sense of how successful will they be and what consequences and will follow up and what effect the events will have on the characters. It’s in this area where the great are separated out from the good and the awful.

    • For what it’s worth, I didn’t go into ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ or ‘Man of Steel’ this summer thinking anyone would die. Like I said in the article, the term “franchise filmmaking” means that sequels will probably be made. My main argument is more about the visceral thrills and the emotional involvement of watching a movie. If you know the characters are going to live, then it’s harder for some people to be invested in what’s happening on screen.

      I think the Abrams quote I used perfectly sums everything up. It’s cool for the filmmakers to work on sequels behind-the-scenes, but making everything public cheats viewers out of a full emotional experience. James Cameron only did two ‘Terminator’ films as opposed to setting up a trilogy or whatever. The first time you watch ‘T2,’ there’s a chance Sarah or John can die and it makes the movie more exciting.

      • I was really surprised in How To Train You Dragon when the main character lost a leg at the end of the movie. Now I’m going into the next installation knowing anything can happen.

        Actually you don’t have to kill off a character to create some tension. Creative writing is all that’s required, even if you announce your actors for the next five films.

  24. I still think it’s hypocritical of the writer of this article, because bottom line, if there is a scoop to tell, you’re going to tell me Screenrant won’t print it? C’mon really??………However, I do agree with the person who said that if the movie is really good, it will create tension. (i.e. a movie like Apollo 13 or Argo- everyone knew the outcome, because it’s based on true events, yet there was tension. Now, fictional examples – Strike Force or the Fast and Furious movies where you know the series will continue, but yet certain characters that you get to care about, don’t survive).
    Again, if someone offers the author of this article a scoop or spoiler, please do not tell me he won’t report it!

  25. Sorry, been a while since I commented SR! Still love you guys; I listen to your podcast every week!!

    Mneah, I dunno. I think this approach works in every situation except comic book movies. I mean, I could be wrong, but don’t most people understand that comic-book heroes and villains never really DIE?? Sure they get banged up a little, but who really expects a comic book hero or villain to DIE?? Where this works is when there is a new story being brought out; situation like that, I’d prefer to not be in the know when it comes to my characters. But, you know, even then, even if you know the outcome of your protagonist, isn’t it more about the development and growth of the character and not the (potentially ultimate) destination??

    • + like 20 (alteast) for you bro.

      Destinations are trivial, what a character does on the journey in-between can be much more important in a story. There can be just as much/more dramatic tension in wondering *how* something might happen than just knowing that it will.

    • I think the real question this article is asking is whether or not the predictability of a movie’s story effects its ability to engage an audience. While unpredictability can create dramatic tension, I think ultimately it plays only a minor role in the audience’s investment.

      Consider the LotR trilogy. Despite retelling a 50 year old story, it’s one of the most engaging blockbuster franchises of the past 15 years. This is because, while its story is well known, it tells that story well. It gets the characters and emotional moments right. Because of this it has great re-watch value.

      Unpredictability is a useful tool in a storytellers toolbox, but it’s really just a one time thing. Once you’ve seen a movie, you know how it ends. But if the story is done well, you’ll want to keep coming back to it.

      So, does knowing the outcome beforehand hurt dramatic tension? I don’t think it does, at least not for me. Obviously, I avoid spoilers, because it is fun to discover things along with the characters in the movie. In the long run though, predictability doesn’t have much of an effect on my engagement with a franchise.

      • Whoops, I was late to the party, you are saying much the same thing I think, and saying it very well. I very much agree, the best movies can be watched many times.

      • Agree with FlyoverCow. Predictability is not a symptom of franchises. I think the author is kinda meaning ‘Serialization’ which lowers the dramatic stakes. If anything I feel the serialization/franchising allows for bigger, staggered story arcs, so maybe the author feels the film writers are not capitalising on that

  26. I think the adage that ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ should apply here. With any superhero or standard action movie, most of the time there are some assumptions you can make about the most likely resolution and who will survive. It’s true sometimes these expectations may be played with, but that’s really no different than studios playing with expectations made by casting announcements. They very well -may- be making one movie at a time, but until they have made the next one, it’s safer to have their actors secured weather they are needed for one movie or more. Once they have made the next movie, if they decide to kill off or part ways with a multi-contract character, it’s far easier to let them go than secure them if they need them for a future film.
    At any rate, it seems to me that for most movies that identify with any particular genre the audience has to suspend disbelief to invest in the world already, despite knowing what outcomes are standard for the genre. Likewise it is the creators’ job to craft a journey that is rewarding, weather the destination is expected or not.