How to Keep Your Fanbase When “You Can’t Experiment…”

In a recent interview, when asked about making new entries in the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas said  “You can’t experiment… all you do is get criticised”.

This is likely a reference towards Lucas’s much derided, Star Wars prequel series. I personally feel that many different things contributed to the poor reception of those movies. However, I do think that George has a point in a way. After all, old-school Star Trek fans (of which I count myself among) have equal disdain for the most recent J.J Abrams efforts that are, for all intents and purposes, well made films. Just how different would my opinion of these new incarnations be if they were named differently?

It’s true. Fans don’t like things that are different. In fact, if I had my way, I would approach all Hollywood writing offices with a speaker set-up playing nothing but looping guidelines of what I think should and shouldn’t be in all of my favourite franchises. However, if I were to do that in the 1940’s, I might find myself being turned away (inexplicably) simply because such guidelines already existed.

For example, Loony Tunes creator, Chuck Jones, had a very specific set of rules for making each episode of Roadrunner. They were as follows:

1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “meep, meep.”

2. No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.

3. The Coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic.

4. No dialogue ever, except “meep, meep” and yowling in pain.

5. The Road Runner must stay on the road — for no other reason than that he’s a roadrunner.

6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters — the southwest American desert.

7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.

8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.

9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch the Road Runner.

Now that you’re familiar with the rules, take a look at this video…

 

So the skit begins. The Coyote catches the Roadrunner. Rule number 11 broken straight off the bat. Now skip to 0:40 of that video…

See! There it is. Right there; rule number 7. Broken. The Coyote pulls out a smart phone and just starts snapping away. Pretty cute huh? Except it’s not! Is that phone an ACME product? Of course not. Does the Coyote have a social media account? He must do. Does he have access to a computer? Yes. That must mean there’s a town or city near by. What is he doing hanging around in the desert if he has full access to functioning civilization? What about that ending! That’s hardly humiliation. He’s going to die in there! Gravity is meant to be his greatest enemy? What about slow starvation in a tiny greenhouse on a hot summer’s day!?

You see? This is just too much to think about in a Roadrunner cartoon. In the old shows, you don’t question that the Coyote can take ‘Earthquake pills’ and actually cause a freaking earthquake because it just fit the rules. It wasn’t just Chuck Jones who had these rules either. Alfred Hitchock had his rules for suspense. Buster Keaton had his rules for a creating a gag. I could talk about those guys but, because I like talking about cartoons, I’m going to talk about The Simpsons now.

The Simpons is another hit show on a sad decline in popularity. I don’t think the writers of The Simpsons had a set of rules in mind when coming up with the show so I’ll just have to make up my own. The Simpsons isn’t a complicated show so here’s a simple rule that should just about fit.

Rule 1) Every adult character in The Simpsons has to have two basic defining traits; being stupid and at least one other thing.

Mr Burns is stupid and greedy. Krusty is stupid and a clown. Cheif Wiggum is stupid and a police officer. Moe is stupid and grouchy. Snake is stupid and a criminal. Even characters who are meant to be smart like Principle Skinner, Doctor Hibbert and Sideshow Bob are all stupid in some way. When put together, these characters serve as a great satire of everyday 90s life.

What is Homer’s defining trait other than being stupid? Well, Homer is stupid while also being an everyday family man. We relate to him more than the other characters and also see that he’s quite innocent and well meaning despite his lapses of intelligence.

Okay. So that rule seems to work. Now, how can we push the envelope inside this rule? If the adults are all stupid, who can be smart? Enter, Lisa. Some of my all time favourite Simpsons moments come from episodes like ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ and ‘Lisa the Vegetarian’ because Lisa is forced to confront the stupidity of the adult world and is often pitted against her Dad. At the same time, Homer is just an everyday guy who can’t really help how he acts. It’s easy to feel sorry for him. These kind of situations allowed The Simpsons to have a little more depth and emotion while still working as a wacky, cartoon comedy series.

From what I’ve seen of recent Simpsons, I guess the writers just figured that people find Homer funny precisely because he’s stupid. Therefore, he should be even more stupid. As this became more and more the focus of the show, Homer is now a sociopathic moron prone to sometimes shooting blow-darts in Marge’s neck. These aren’t the actions of an everyday family man. How is it possible to relate to him now? Meanwhile, the supporting characters aren’t as developed either so the whole show falls flat. All it had to do was break one simple rule, and it was a rule that I just pulled out my head when thinking about The Simpsons.

Here’s another example. Many people aren’t too keen on The Matrix sequels. People tell me that the original Matrix has quite a complicated plot. Actually, it has a very simple one: a normal everyday guy discovers untapped powers within himself and saves the day. That kind of story has been done plenty of times. So, this will be our rule 1 for The Matrix series: complicated themes are built around a very simple plot structure. I actually think that the story and themes in the two Matrix sequels are quite fantastic and have some interesting and far reaching ideas (especially Revolution’s mind-blowing twist that  Agent Smith was actually The One all along) but with orgasm inducing puddings, references to vampires, back to back fight scenes that go on forever without advancing the plot and the whole story split into two movies and 1 video game, the structure is all over the goddamn place. The golden rule is broken and, strangely enough, people can’t build on what they liked about the first one.

The best sequels are the ones that follow the rules set by the previous movies/episodes. However, there is still room for experimentation here. How do you make a great sequel to The Terminator, a hard-nosed, badass action movie about time travel and killer robots? Answer: why not make it more emotional? How do you make a great sequel to Star Wars, a campy, unpretentious, heroes journey in space and a homage to old sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon? Answer: why not introduce darker and more serious themes. The answers can be more complicated than this but, to me, this is what true experimentation is: taking the rules that have been set and experimenting with just how far you can go with them. In order to think outside the box, there must be a box in the first place. I think modern creators should take cues from Chuck Jones and really think about what it is that is going to make their product work rather than ignore what’s come before and leave it to complete chance that it will work again.

On the other hand of course, making a franchise that follows a set of rules forever and ever and ever is inevitably going to get tiresome. This is why complete re-imaginings happen. This is also why, eventually, all good things should end.

If studios are going to cater to familiarity purely to make money then, really, that’s fine. That kind of thing has been going on since forever. However, if any new franchises are going to come out and become truly memorable, the creators seriously need to think about exactly what it is that is going to make people engage with it and exactly what guidelines they are going to follow to achieve that. After that, apply, repeat and experiment.

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