Splitting The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and Blockbuster Television

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is dividing some fans with its ending (or lack thereof); welcome to Blockbuster Television.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is officially the biggest movie of 2014, at least in terms of opening weekends. While there is still some dispute over whether June’s Transformers: Age of Extinction actually crawled past the $100 million mark in three days like Paramount claims, there is no denying that the penultimate Hunger Games movie was led by a fiery Jennifer Lawrence to an estimated $123 million.

Yet this number, much like the film itself, is dividing fans over whether our third trip to Panem was a disappointment or not. After all, last November’s near universally loved The Hunger Games: Catching Fire amassed a staggering $158.1 million in the same weekend frame. IMAX or no IMAX, the far less adored The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 fell relatively short of catching that kind of flame.

This is not to say that Mockingjay is in any danger of underperforming—it’s not. Chances are that it will out-earn Guardians of the Galaxy at least in the U.S. market (just as Catching Fire smoked Marvel’s Iron Man 3) and that the film should still easily gross $800 million worldwide. Jennifer Lawrence, and her Katniss Everdeen alter-ego, is still the most popular girl in the world, fictional or otherwise. And quite frankly, the movie is indisputably a good experience at the multiplex. As I wrote in my review, “It’s in [Jennifer Lawrence’s eyes] that the fire still burns with a white-hot intensity, dwarfing the kindling of its Young Adult contemporaries…They’ll even cloud the fumes that Mockingjay’s first half is just that: an incomplete portion of a larger story that’s a year away from any actual payoff.”

Yet, therein lies the problem.

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Whereas the first two Hunger Games movies were complete and satisfying stories on their own merits, their recent successor is merely what its title suggests: “Part 1.” It’s the exposition-laden first half of a story that’s a year a way from ending. It is nothing new in Hollywood, but maybe this is the moment where fans start to push back both on Twitter…and at the box office.

While The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is still quite good—thanks in no small part to its terrific cast and clever social commentary on political PR messaging, even in war (especially in war)—it clearly could have been better if it were perhaps a three-hour epic conclusion instead of a two-hour teaser of thwarted anticipation. It’s still better than the worst offenders currently clogging multiplexes, but the Girl on Fire may also stand as a Mockingjay monument for many fans of a new PR phenomenon in Hollywood franchising. Perhaps it will be the moment that the ratings soured for “Blockbuster Television.”

Long before Katniss’ arrow first landed in the moviegoing public’s heart, studio heads had already begun a new form of filmmaking that, ironically, has been taking more and more from their small screen counterparts: they’ve serialized big budget tent poles. Generally speaking, cinema is by its definition a standalone medium. With the meticulous craft and precision of a sea of artisans and filmmakers, each movie is meant to be a testament to the hands that made it, as well as the ones reaching out to buy a ticket for a two-to-three hour experience.

Much like a novel, narrative film dictates by its very finite nature the necessity for a beginning, a middle, and an end. The bigger the budget, then the bigger the need to satisfy a larger audience. Thus, in theory, the more conventional and widely appealing tropes of storytelling have long been what one can anticipate (or dread) from blockbusters, which are meant to entertain countless millions.

However, the basic concept of film being a finite experience has been abandoned by studios in the 21st century. Instead, they are now realizing that franchises can be more than a diminishing line of sequels; they can be serials that never, never, never end.

The real architect of this current mode of blockbuster filmmaking is Disney’s Marvel Studios. Under Kevin Feige’s careful eye, superhero movies have increasingly begun to resemble their comic book origins (and the mid-20th century serials that inspired them). While Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man film was relatively standalone in its need to tell a sweeping narrative about how a weapons manufacturer became a one-man superpower with a god complex, by the time Iron Man 2 came out two years later, Favreau was (rather unhappily) making an extended preview for The Avengers. The follow-up focused far more on introducing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow than in setting up any kind of conflict for its hero, and it also set up a studio that could expand into an endless slate of films that are not interested in telling unique stories; they’re doling out one massive narrative in piecemeal. How else was the studio able to convince general audiences to go see a movie about a talking raccoon?

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Marvel is just one factor in the current Hollywood landscape and hardly the most direct comparison to Hunger Games. Yet, the studio’s unbridled success has undeniably been rubbing off around town. When Marvel entered the moviemaking game in 2007, they were chasing filmmakers with unique visions, such as Edgar Wright, but are now quite happy with filmmakers who are more adept at the relative anonymity required for quick-turnaround television storytelling: The Russo brothers, Alan Taylor, Peyton Reed. And we have since seen that spread either directly to other franchises (Taylor is now helming Terminator: Genisys) or to entire studio financing for the next decade (see: WB luring Breaking Bad’s Michelle MacLaren to Wonder Woman).

In the meantime, studios with their own more finite source material have been left to ponder how to build that kind of expanded universe, and that kind of money, in a modern franchise. Warner Bros. was the first to crack the code around the same time Marvel Studios had its kickoff. In early 2008, WB shrewdly announced that they were cutting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts. Ostensibly, it was to ensure that large portions of the book were not cut, yet this was clearly not a decision made by director David Yates or anyone else actually in the pre-production office. No, WB astutely (or cynically) realized that they weren’t making two movies; they were making two billion dollars. The end result was that instead of a truly satisfying final movie, the seventh Harry Potter film was a tedious chore stacked with padding and expository sequences that only diehard enthusiasts could appreciate, while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was a 120-minute action sequence.

There are plenty of fans for these two films, but they have borne some less beloved decisions in the following years. Recently, Summit Entertainment miraculously found a way to turn the last 50 pages of the fourth Twilight novel into a film unto itself. While it is not necessarily a great offense since the franchise was never exactly the sanctuary of great art, it has certainly emboldened Summit to already announce a planned elongation of the third Divergent film, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, beginning in 2016.

Perhaps more egregiously, however, is the expansion Peter Jackson and WB/New Line made to The Hobbit. A slender little thing, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fairy tale about Bilbo Baggins and his quest to the Misty Mountains was an approachable 275 pages in hardback (some later printings with larger font have spread it out over 320 sheets). Yet, the film “adaptation” of that story is going to clock in well over nine hours by the time all the extended cuts have had their day—which is impressive considering how listless the first two of three theatrical films felt at about 165 minutes each. The Hobbit may be the only time where reading the book is the faster experience.

Quite frankly, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is the least offensive culprit of this literal commodifying of stories. Keeping its run time down to just barely over two hours, it is the shortest film in its franchise, and it maintains its eye on the impressively strong performances that successfully herds its grazing pace into a suspenseful (if dangling) third act. Nevertheless, the slightly diminished box office opening and surprisingly diverse word of mouth suggests that audiences are showing a discernable rejection of the Mockingjay split, at least more noticeably than they have for The Hobbit or Deathly Hallows.

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Ultimately, this is the result of placing a square form of storytelling (serials) into the big budget moviemaking circle. Sixty years ago or more, serials were common in Saturday matinees, but they were made for relative pennies in the sole aim of amusing children and few else. They also were literally structured to pay off each weekend’s cliffhanger with a new one the following week. In essence, they were a form of television before the medium existed in earnest.

No matter how much marketing is enjoyed by a film that features a “Part 1” surname, and a promise that they’ll be back in a year, film is not television—not at $15 a ticket in most major American cities. The transformation of storytelling in this medium can affect how movies are viewed inside the theater, but it cannot change the fact that they’re still playing at a theater where audiences gather for a shared and singular event, as opposed to half of one (or a third in The Hobbit’s case). And with ever-ballooning budgets that can creep to a quarter-billion dollars upon occasion, it seems unlikely that studios will allow  a reduction in the year-long waiting intervals, a prerequisite to build hype. Unless of course, they treat a franchise as even more persistent in its commonality: turning movie calendars into a television schedule where Thor leads into Captain America, which in turn leads back to that talking raccoon, nullifying almost any tension with regards to Thor’s last ending (isn’t Loki supposed to be ruling Asgard?).

The other drawback with serials is that frequency can often reduce their distinctiveness. In other words, when making two, three, or five crowd-pleasers that all have to feed into one another, it is hard for any singular installment to stand out. There is the odd exception, such as when Alfonso Cuarón gave his playful stamp to the Harry Potter series (and also its best film), or when Christopher Nolan got to turn the superhero genre into a cinematic saga of operatic proportions, but by and large those opportunities are rare—rarer still since they occurred before Blockbuster Television had its official 2008 debut. When Francis Lawrence is told to make two Mockingjay films simultaneously, the IMAX grandeur of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire becomes an unaffordable luxury.

Strangely, viewers who like stories with a bit more finality and singularity are not lacking in options. They just may increasingly have to turn to…television. Just as adult dramas have found new havens on the small screen as Hollywood’s budgets evermore explode, so too have storytellers who want to tell something with unique quality and an ending. Over the last several years, the “anthological series” has been created on premium cable networks as a way for storytellers to craft a long-form narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Whether these are tales of American horror or of the truest detectives, they allow an alternative for writers that dislike “to be continued…” They’re even starting to let directors, like True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga, provide a personal, unique vision.

For some, it at least proves that all’s well that ends well. Hopefully, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay will, too. In a year.

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