Can the television showrunner model work in film?

Feature Mark Harrison 8 Jul 2014 - 06:14

007, Star Wars, Marvel, DC and Spider-Man all seem to work on a movie franchise-runner model. But is that the way forward for film?

Much has been written about the crossover between television and cinema, with various big shows on the small screen garnering praise for their much improved production values and star quality, while franchise films increasingly look like less regular episodes in a larger story, more than standalone features.

Traditionally, we all accept that film is a director’s medium and television a writer’s medium. Most people with even a basic knowledge of cinema can tell you that Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. are Steven Spielberg films, but they’re probably less sure of who wrote the scripts for those films. By the same token, Aaron Sorkin has been behind some of the most acclaimed television shows of the last two decades, but the directors involved in actualising those shows don’t immediately spring to mind.

In both spheres, there are producers. Spielberg and Sorkin are both examples of hyphenates within their main medium as a director-producer and writer-producer respectively. Sorkin also serves as a showrunner on his shows, effectively outranking the director and the other commissioned writers, to maintain consistency of storytelling and tone throughout the series.

But at least as far as Hollywood franchise movies go, film is a director’s medium within the producer’s domain. If you set stock by the filmmaker’s individual voice, this then raises the question of whether or not the showrunner model can work as well in film.

We would argue that the showrunner has already existed in Hollywood for a long time, vested in the role of the producer, but also that there are precedents for the kind of creative (as opposed to financial) oversight that has been more popular in recent years.

Daniel Craig as James Bond

Of these precedents, the most obvious is the James Bond series. In the course of 23 films over 52 years, the 007 brand has been in the custody of EON Productions, a family production company set up by Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman in 1961.

Up until 1989’s Licence To Kill, EON released James Bond films every couple of years, before legal and financial issues forced a hiatus in the early 1990s. Throughout the previous 27 years, 'Cubby' Broccoli served as a producer and he trained up his stepson Michael G Wilson and daughter Barbara Broccoli to take over from GoldenEye onwards. In short, Bond belongs firmly to the Broccoli dynasty.

Directors and screenwriters recur throughout the history of the franchise, but the stories have typically been led by committee. Evidently, this approach hasn’t given them any trouble at the box office, even if some would argue that the series was a bit creatively parched through the later films of Roger Moore’s run.

John Glen helmed five films, directing Moore to the end of his tenure and pulling off the series’ first soft reboot with two underrated films starring Timothy Dalton. Sam Mendes will follow Skyfall with next year’s 24th instalment, making him the first director to stick around for more than one in a row since Glen.

Recent rumblings about the state of the script forcing a delay in shooting on Bond 24 would suggest that Mendes and star Daniel Craig have a little more sway over the script than others have had in the past, but it’s certainly too soon to call that a combo-breaker to EON’s tried-and-tested model of running the show.

The Harry Potter cast. Laughing all the way to the Alliance & Leicester

Up until a few years ago, the only other measurable comparison was the Harry Potter series, essentially an eight-part adaptation of JK Rowling’s seven-part series of novels, undertaken within a decade. Producer David Heyman oversaw all of those films through his Heyday Films label, but also passed the director’s chair between a diverse range of filmmakers, from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuaron early on, to Mike Newell and David Yates in the darker movements.

The phenomenal popularity of the books and the astonishing fidelity of the film adaptations carried audiences through eight films. By the time The Order Of The Phoenix came out in 2007, the filmmakers were openly dedicated to the whole story, rather than giving way to audiences jumping on the bandwagon halfway through, which is quite unprecedented for such a big franchise.

Indeed, these quintessential British franchises seem to have built the models to which other massive film series are aspiring. Producer Kevin Feige has been associated with big-screen comic adaptations since Bryan Singer’s X-Men, receiving credits on just about everything that’s had the Marvel logo in front of it since then. But it’s his work as a producer for the initially independent Marvel Studios that has made him something of a household name, at least in geeky houses.

Striking out on its own back in 2006, Marvel had the rights to the characters in The Avengers to toy around with, while its most recognisable heavy hitters (Spider-Man, Wolverine et al) were tied up at other studios. Its initial five-year, six-movie plan, now better known as Phase One, arguably pioneered an increased role for the showrunner in franchise cinema by elevating the level of intertextuality between films
Feige is a terrific ambassador for the brand and his enthusiasm for Marvel’s output is probably the reason why we’re getting a Guardians Of The Galaxy movie later this month. Even that film, a space opera from the director of Super and Slither which stars a tree and a raccoon as action heroes, probably seems insurable as one part of Marvel’s larger continuity.

Of course, there has recently been a very public rebuttal to the notion that Marvel is insuring riskier prospects against crowd-pleasing fare like Iron Man and The Avengers. Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man was one of the first projects that the independent Marvel Studios announced, but after eight years of development, the director suddenly quit the project, citing creative differences.

We don’t know the full story and there doesn’t seem to be anything acrimonious about their parting of ways, but it wasn’t long before speculation began, especially given Wright’s individual standing in geekdom. This is the guy who made Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a big, colourful, marvellous folly of a movie that seemed to fly in the face of conventional studio acumen.

Naturally, the script by Wright and Joe Cornish probably needed a rewrite to gel with the now well-established Marvel continuity, but to some, that’s started to look like Marvel is cramming risky prospects into its own mould. Others have even posited that Feige and co must be unhappy with James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, which seems like a far bigger gamble on paper, but the buzz about that film has been universally positive so far.

For those who claim that the sky is falling at Marvel, we would point out that its turnaround of directors is quite high and it’s still gone pretty well thus far. Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon are the only ones who’ve come back for another go (on Iron Man 2 and the upcoming Avengers: Age Of Ultron respectively.) Despite acclaimed Phase One entries from Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston, neither director was picked up for the Thor or Captain America sequels.

Rather than return for Thor: The Dark World, Branagh went on to make Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and next year’s Cinderella instead. Funnily enough, he was replaced by Patty Jenkins (Monster) who, if you remember, also left that project over creative differences. She was replaced with Game Of Thrones director Alan Taylor and maybe there would have been the same outcry about that if Jenkins had directed Shaun Of The Dead beforehand.

We’re all bummed that we won’t see Wright’s version of Ant-Man, especially after it was teased for so long, but we can’t possibly comment on his replacement, Peyton Reed, until after we’ve seen his take in July next year. Given how Reed once pitched a version of Fantastic Four that was “A Hard Day’s Night, but with superheroes”, we think it’s probably in safe hands there.

Where you come down on the issue of the showrunner model in movies really depends on how you feel about Marvel movies being safely handled, instead of taking risks. In its favour, Joss Whedon is arguably the acceptable face of showrunning and he’s been installed at Marvel for a while, penning the Avengers movies, co-creating the TV spin-off Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D and doing punch-up writing on Captain America: The First Avenger and the more embattled Thor sequel.

It’s not the only way in which other studios have followed suit with their superhero licences, but Whedon’s role has been reflected elsewhere. Fox brought Mark Millar aboard its Marvel productions as a creative consultant last year, but apparently, his influence won’t be seen on screen until next year’s Fantastic Four reboot. Simon Kinberg also has a similar role for the studio.

Meanwhile, Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach have a whole bunch of Spidey-verse films plotted out with various writers and directors attached to realise their vision of a franchise where Sony gets a Spider-Man movie or spin-off a year, and Man Of Steel screenwriter David S Goyer seems to be sticking around as Warner Bros finally gets its DC cinematic universe underway.

The transfer of comic book continuity to the big screen market has meant that those movies (especially Marvel’s) have the most to gain from the prevalence of the showrunner model, but let’s not forget how the same model is going to factor into Disney’s other big property.
We haven’t even seen a new Star Wars movie since the buyout of LucasFilm was announced, but we can already see JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson lining up to continue the saga, while Gareth Edwards and Josh Trank will helm spin-offs based around certain characters. It wasn’t entirely surprising to find out that Abrams won’t be directing all three episodes in the new trilogy, but we wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks around as a producer or showrunner figure for the foreseeable future.

Does any of this mean that we’ll see fewer original or distinctive movies? Let’s not forget that Guardians Of The Galaxy is out at the end of this month, and we don’t doubt that if that one underperforms, the doomsayers will probably declare their fears of a Thor 3 directed by Brett Ratner.

But the continuity between films is still what sets certain loose franchises apart as special. The early Bond films are only uniform in terms of the hand of Cubby Broccoli steering them, and there seems to be a more open policy in the Daniel Craig era. Even in franchises where direct sequels carry the story forwards, like the Potter movies, the stewardship of the story by a producer doesn’t mean that directors can’t put their own spin on the material.

While there are drawbacks to the model, there’s nothing to suggest that the new wave of 'franchise-runners' are wresting more control away from writers and directors than those who have gone before, even if they wield the influence to hire and fire when they please.

The continuity of story and tone which they help to maintain is still exciting, but it’s still affecting the climate of blockbuster production, especially when it comes to superhero films and the upcoming revival of Star Wars. We’re sure that the model can work in franchise cinema and with such massive pocket universes in the making all over Hollywood, we’ll find out which of these creative overseers in waiting are up to the job.

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We might be moving towards a show runner model, at least for the expensive popcorn films. A good show runner would serve to ensure consistency and be able to reassure both the banks/shareholders and fans that their personal concerns are being heard and taken care of. There are examples of this type of movie production that predate EON and Bond. The most famous examples would be Irving Thalberg's career at MGM and Universal before that. He directly over saw every film both studios produced when he was in charge of production. Everything from Dracula to Anna Karenina to A Night at the Opera. All very different, all very much Thalberg productions. Another example that's a little more on point would be the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, in the 40's and 50's. Freed was given a budget, almost total creative freedom and then told how many movies were expected from him in a given year. That arrangement resulted in many of MGM's classic musicals.

I think what we are seeing is basically a mega budget era of the movie serials that were around in the 40's and 50's. This will die out again eventually and it will be replaced by a mutated version of something else which was once popular.

Sorry guys - Whedon did punch-up writing on 'The Winter Soldier', not 'The First Avenger'...

I have to admit at being a bit confused by what this article is driving at, largely because (apart from the Bond franchise, the various horror franchises and leaving aside the very early movie serials and westerns) the multi-film franchise seems to be a fairly recent construct. It is certainly very difficult to find a time where quite so many rival houses were putting together series of films with not just one or two sequels but whole rafts of sequels and spin-offs. While I can think of some examples of producers trying (and failing) to do this in the 70s/80s (the Salkinds and Dino De Laurentis spring to mind here) in most cases (eg Irwin Allen and the guys at Cannon or Hammer) this seemed more of a studio style than a true franchise building effort.
As such, there's not really that much analysis that can be made of what has come before (not much) by way of extrapolation for the future. I expect the real test will be what house manages to get the right balance between consistency of style (so making the most of the franchise model) without getting stale (by over-limiting the creative teams it hires to a set template). I don't think we can guess now what is likely to happen in terms of control as, apart from Marvel and (maybe) Fox's X-Men, the other planned franchises (and I would include Star Wars here - the new films and new universe are just that, rather than being long gestating parts of the existing franchise)are really only currently at a very early stage and (in the case of Sony's Spider-Man at least) one may even ask just how long-lasting these plans will actually be.
I think that one thing we can say now is that it would not be a great thing for the expanded franchise idea to become the driving force behind all big budget features going forwards as that would, given the long lead times for films, inevitably stifle original productions, in particular those which couldn't readily be sold as having not just sequel potential but expanded universe potential. Although I am a Marvel fan, I have to admit that I am already questioning whether we need quite as much of a Marvel onslaught as we are currently being promised (two SHIELD TV shows, the Netflix shows and two theatre features a year at least). At some point, you can have too much of a good thing.

In defense of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: both shows will not be
broadcasted at the same time. You get one AoS, part 1 - then a break
with a handful of Agent Carter Episodes - and then AoS, part 2 - the
conclusion.

I tend to agree with the Netflix shows, though... I'm
feeling a little bit scared in terms of "what else do I need to watch to
not miss anything?" and "holy crap - what if it's not good?"

*Thor The Dark World.

What a dud of a film, I'm worried that this is the new Marvel, homogeneous, forgettable, safe, with barely no story or character development, as was the case with The Winter Soldier as well. Hopefully James Gunn will do something much better than these last 2 'efforts'.

After Perry Moore, the producer and director who helped bring The Chronicles of Narnia to the big screen, died in New York in early 2011 these films first under Disney (1-2) then under 20th Century Fox (3+) seem to have floundered.

Actually it was all of the above; Whedon's hand has been in a LOT of these Marvel movies.

He was involved with shaping both the first Captain America AND Winter Soldier (not in terms of writing; but he reviewed the scripts and made suggestions toward consistency with later Avengers movies) and outright wrote a decent amount of Loki's dialogue in The Dark World.

He also directed the post-credits scenes on both the original Thor movie and the Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch scene in The Winter Soldier.

He's been installed as a sort of second in command after Kevin Fiege.

I understand people's complaints against The Dark World (although I liked that movie perfectly fine)...but Winter Soldier? I thought that was one of the best movies Marvel has offered so far.

No, it was a middling effort, underdeveloped plot with no character development. It's absurd, how many people are blind to that, no-one changes by the end of the film. So much wasted potential.

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