Gonzo Blockbusters

Plus, Giri/Haji, Brandon Sanderson, and the etymology of "corpsicles"

Are Hollywood’s blockbusting days over?

Putting aside for a moment how wrong the term “blockbusting” feels to say, here’s the situation with the Hollywood film industry right now. Ticket sales are dwindling. This is bad news for a diverse range of types of films, but good news for the absolute biggest franchises. If you only go to the theater twice a year, you want to make it count, so you go see Endgame and the new Star Wars, but nothing else. Being a franchise isn’t enough; You need to be the most popular franchise out there.

This is most obvious when it comes to movies, but a similar principle applies to other media like TV (Before Peak TV hit, I probably would have checked out shows like Locke and Key or Hunters, but these days even just seeing a few mediocre reviews for them was enough to put me off, even though I hopped on the Game of Thrones bandwagon) and books (too busy watching TV).

Plenty of ink has been spilled about what this means for the successful franchises, but I want to talk about one weird effect this has on the non-franchises out there. You need to be a hit. If you don’t have a winning franchise already, your options are limited. You need a selling point: You can go for Oscar-bait, you can bet on a streaming deal, you can try a little franchise arbitrage star power (“We gotta see it, it’s the James Bond guy and the Captain America guy, directed by the Star Wars guy”).

The final option: Just go for a gonzo premise. Here’s a line from a Vulture article that has stuck in my head since 2018: “ABC’s Deception is one of those ideas that’s so goofy, it sounds like a series Jenna Maroney would’ve guest-starred in on 30 Rock.” I’ve seen the same point made about Skyscraper, the Die-Hard-but-bigger movie Dwayne Johnson did a few years ago, although I couldn’t dig up the quote. This is a kind of a corollary to what I talked about the other month, when I mentioned my love for genre movies that aren’t trying to do much beyond a few satisfying twists. This is the opposing force at work: The idea is to deliver a “can’t believe I’m seeing this” feeling that translates into good word-of-mouth. The end result is a bunch of premises that are quasi-self-aware about how unreal they are.

I’m honestly not against the shift. Creative work always needs constrants, and a bias towards absolutely bonkers ideas is as good as any. If a movie is reasonably decent, I’ll enjoy a goofy premise: I was cackling with glee when I saw this ludicrous Mortal Engines chase scene in theaters. But even the most gonzo ideas can’t launch a franchise by themselves, and it’ll only be harder for them to do so in the future. They’re more a symptom of a constricting Hollywood ecosystem than anything.

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If you want to learn more about my opening bit on franchise dominance works, check out this longread about the history of storytelling and where it’s headed next:

The Next Frontier in Storytelling Universes and the Never Ending Desire for More
Matthew Ball & Jonathan Glick, personal blog

Soon, it will be a fight for dominance between all franchises and across all mediums. The major stories will expand into all categories, from film to TV to podcasts, and be envisioned as interactive experiences, whether UGC worlds or ever-extending game universes, that allow them to grow indefinitely. And as long as these franchises continue to offer more “more,” there’s little reason for a fan to look (and invest) elsewhere.

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Want an example of a nice non-gonzo TV show? Try Giri/Haji, a Japanese/English language show on Netflix. It’s a nice slick 8-episode crime show that moves at the perfect pace and has great cinematography. It doesn’t transcend the genre or anything, but if you’re in the mood for an escapist crime show, you’ll love it.

Here’s a review that I agree almost completely with, although I wouldn’t consider this show “ultraviolent” enough to stick the descriptor in the headline. Your mileage may vary, I guess.

‘Giri/Haji’: Inside Netflix’s Stunning New Ultraviolent Yakuza Series
Nick Schager, The Daily Beast

A professionally mounted and consistently engaging regurgitation of stock crime-fiction archetypes and entanglements, it’s a bilingual work (available now) less interested in reinvention than in solid, straightforward dramatic thrills. On that count, the series achieves its modest goals—and, thanks to a few unexpected flourishes, occasionally exceeds them.

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Here’s an interesting quote from Brandon Sanderson, written in his acknowledgements for The Way of Kings (which you can even read in the Amazon preview, take that, well-justified local library closures).

It’s a nice data point for an argument that the cover artists of the 60s-80s directly impacted the generations of SF/F fiction after them.

“Finally, a moment on Michael Whelan’s wonderful cover. For those who haven’t heard the story, I started reading fantasy novels (indeed, I became a reader in the first place) back as a teenager because of a beautiful Michael Whelan cover painting. He has a unique ability to capture the true soul of a book in a painting—I always knew I could trust a novel with one of his covers. I’ve dreamed of someday having a painting of his on one of my books. It seemed something I was unlikely ever to receive.

To finally have it to happen—and on the novel of my heart that I’ve been working on for so long—is an amazing honor.”

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Here’s a tangent into science fiction history: Authors would occasionally borrow terms from each other, building a tag-teamed fictional lexicon for common sci-fi concepts.

An example: The term ‘corpsicle’ was created by Larry Niven and used in his A World Out of Time in 1976, after which it appeared in a short story by Frederik Pohl that was collected as The Years of the City in 1984. Both times, it referred to cryogenically frozen and revived people from the past.

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I’m adding this work by artist Bryan Olson to my mental list of inspiration for the typography on the cover of my retro sci-fi art book. It has that great “70s-reminicent but also kinda new and modern” feel.

One that’s not going on that same list? This 1970 cover to Computer magazine. As great as it is, I get the sense that readability was not a priority.

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That’s all! Feel free to forward this issue to any friend you think might appreciate getting a crime show recommendation or learning the origins of the word “corpsicle.”

Next Time on Retro Sci-Fi Art: Paying subscribers get a look at the inimitable Mike Hinge