For those of you unfamiliar with Highlander, it’s the story of a five hundred year old Scotsman drawn into a deadly contest that’s raged for centuries. Connor MacLeod and immortals like him, fight for a prize some believe to be godhood. He is a reluctant participant in this game. Seeking the protection of holy ground, MacLeod fights for survival. Claiming the heads of those who try to take his own, MacLeod grows stronger through a merging of souls called “the quickening.” He’s done this ever since his mentor, Ramirez, taught him that in the end there can be only one.
Duncan MacLeod is Connor’s kinsman. While Connor represented the franchise on the silver screen his distant relative became one of the most enduring characters to dominate Saturday afternoon television. While the film series lost it’s way, claiming the immortals were reincarnated fugitives from the planet Zeist, the TV show kept the mystery interesting. When Connor and Duncan were reunited in Highlander: Endgame, fan favorite Duncan was put in a situation (MAJOR SPOILERS) that forced him to claim Connor’s head. This gave him the strength he needed to face a bigger foe. The series collapsed after that (stumbling back into Zeist-like planetary alignment territory in Highlander: The Source).
The problem with the currently proposed reboot: The screenwriters are stuck on retelling the story of Connor’s battle with the Kurgan, the strongest of the immortals. They want to bring back Ramirez, and give us an updated clone of the first adventure. Their additions have Connor swapping his iconic katana for a sniper rifle. They have the Kurgan exploiting a bureaucratic loophole to deconsecrate a church in order to fight on holy ground. Apart from Connor taking on one of his opponent’s physical ticks, after a claiming his head, it felt like this interpretation had nothing to add.
Controversial Fix: Keep the concept ditch the hero.
Connor MacLeod is not without his charm, but he’s no Indiana Jones. Connor was upstaged by his television counterpart Duncan, the romance novel cover model of the series. Both characters have established histories that come with a lot of baggage. I think the premise has more staying power than the protagonists. If we want to modernize the franchise, we’ll need a new MacLeod, one whose past, present, and future are mysteries to us.
Hollywood is dead set to refresh everything you’ve ever seen. I figure if I can’t stop them, then I’ll show them how it’s done. What film franchise do you wish you could take back to the drawing board? Not for nostalgia’s sake, but because there’s something worth exploring there.
Here’s how my new series will work: you give me a film franchise in dire need of repair and I’ll write you a fully realized pitch. As a former script reader, I’ve written over two-hundred coverages, as well as treatments, and script notes. Having pitched to networks and studios, sat in on meetings, and the board of the Minnesota Screenwriters Workshop, I can say I know my way around a screenplay.
Rather than criticize the parade of titles Hollywood dishes out, I want to pose alternatives. If I say I could come up with a better plot, I better have a narrative to back it up. Any mega fan can recognize where a series fell flat, but it’ll take some imagination to wrench it back up off the ground. It’s one thing to say The Phantom Menace lacked a clear protagonist, it’s another to give it one.
I’m not just going to make an abstract series of demands for J.J. Abrams to check through when he’s making the next Star Wars movie. I’m going to write a condensed outline of what that movie might be. Explaining my reasoning, I’ll show my work, and welcome objections.
I’m going to start by scraping the bottom of the barrel, the films with so many entries they’ve destroyed their own continuity. The ones that no longer resemble the classics they came from. The ones that jumped the shark, nuked the fridge, and stepped in the Eopie poop.
I’m talking about the sequels that took spec scripts and shoe horned their series mainstays in, because it was cheaper than writing a fresh script (Die Hard and Hellraiser I’m looking in your direction). I’m talking about the franchises that were ruined by investors who thought it would be a good idea to bring aliens in (Highlander fans are still pretending part 2 never happened). I’m talking about the reboots that did more harm to the brand than good (Nightmare on Elm Street is not supposed to put you to sleep).
Here’s my proposal: I want to tell new stories with new characters, in the same universe. Let’s take the best parts of fan fiction and put them up on screen. I’ll make controversial proposals that could spark heated debate. I’ll take the backbones of these franchises, and spin them on their heads. Knowing that most of these properties are already being remade, I’ll pitch something so far out of the left field, no one will see it coming. I’ll be the lightning rod to direct your nerd rage at, the spark that ignites yelling matches between geeks, the free lunch for trolls everywhere.
Here’s my stance: I’d rather refresh a franchise than reboot it. Let’s tear down the old sets and rebuild from the ground up. Forget about Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, a retelling that missed the social commentary of the original. Give me Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a familiar concept from a different vantage point, with a whole new cast of characters.
I don’t want to see a young Captain Kirk face off against the Borg. I want the series to boldly go to a plot line it hasn’t gone to before, to show us new worlds, and give us new moral quandaries. Don’t get me wrong, I love this new cast, but I don’t want to see them in another story with a Khan-like villain. Captain Picard became Captain Ahab over the course of four movies, let’s not have Kirk go through the same transformation.
We don’t need to meet a young Connor Macleod, we need to meet his Highlander brethren. We don’t need to paint the mask of irony on another Eric Draven, let’s have a Crow film starring a woman. We don’t need a found footage Jason movie, we need a Friday the 13th with a protagonist who is just as compelling.
Do we need to see what’s in the Freeling family’s closet again, or could we meet a new family with a similar Poltergeist situation?
Does Ridley Scott need to take us to the engineers’ home world in Prometheus 2, or could we take a pit stop in one of the worlds they’ve decimated already? Maybe he could introduce us to a creature in the engineers’ arsenal that makes the Alien xenomorphs look like kittens in comparison, something the Predators wouldn’t have a chance at hunting.
If Clive Barker really wants to wow me with his next Hellraiser movie, he’d make Pinhead the protagonist, and have him take on a even more malevolent foe. OR make the cenobites one of two feuding demon mobs our hero is forced to play against each other, like a grifter with a debt hanging over her head. OR he’d go back to his original concept and make the cenobites other worldly sadomasochists with no affiliation with the afterlife. These creatures aren’t moralists, but explorers in the further regions of experience.
Your job will be to tell me what series you think is broken, in the comments section. I’m not going to catalogue their problems (the rest of the internet has got that covered). My job will be to prescribe a solution, to pitch a fix, to adjust an established universe to accommodate a brand new story. I’ll write a treatment that hits every major plot point, with a logline and everything. I’ll give you conflict, a character arc, the whole shebang.
You’re welcome to come back and nitpick, to respectfully disagree, or to shout heresy until your lungs bleed.
With a little luck we’ll come up with something so cool that we’ll feel compelled to free it from its source material and turn it into its own thing.
Are you feverish from franchise fatigue? Do you suffer from sequelitis? Has nonstop nostalgia left you feeling nauseous?
Are you stricken with sickness at the silver screen? Are the prevailers of popular pictures only pitching placebos? Are you missing the mystery at your marquee, the thought at your theater, the brains at your box office? Do you require a remedy for all these reboots, an antidote for antiquated archetypes, an inoculation from adaptations?
You’ll have to get sick before you can get better. You’ll have to subject yourself to something that insults your intelligence so completely that you won’t be able to suffer through another installment. You’ll have to let Lucas and Spielberg fire you up, before you can burn that bridge. You’ll have to watch in quiet awe as they…
A Screenwriting Professor’s Prophecy
When the market crashed, our screenwriting professor decided to put his curriculum on hold for a day. The giant notepad, which usually featured terms like, “Drive, Goals” and “Conflict,” had a graph on it. Drawing in a deep breath, he searched his eyelids for the right words. “This is a hard industry to break into. It’s about to get a whole lot harder.”
Our professor had a vision of the future; a time when the average theater-goer had less change rattling around in their pocket. A time when seeing a movie would be reserved for special occasions, when there was a big title to draw a crowd. With everyone tightening up their belts, they’d be less likely to take a chance on something they’d never heard of.
He foretold the death of the original premise. He saw a marquee filled with familiar titles; a handful of franchises with annual entries. He saw each of us sitting on stacks of unrequited spec scripts. He saw the image of the lone screenwriter cracking his knuckles at the typewriter, replaced by a committee in a boardroom.
Soon, the studios would make sure that everything on their docket was a tentpole picture, a safe bet blockbuster, a for certain sure thing. Production costs were too high to gamble with. A few box office bombs, would unseat studio dynasties. Risk had to be eliminated. It wasn’t enough to have bankable actors, audiences had to be built in.
Shaking his head, our professor paced the room. “The only properties studios will take chances on are ones that have been proven in other mediums: comic books, young adult fiction, romance novels, Mattel action figures, and boardgames.”
We had a harsh truth to face: our career making masterpieces were bets no one was going to take a chance on. Battleship had a better shot at making it to the big screen than our coming of age flicks.
With his eyes clenched tight, my professor saw the battlefield of art and commerce. He saw commerce raising art’s severed head, atop a mountain of slain pitches.
Gone would be the days of the breakthrough independent feature. Art house theaters would play blockbusters. Indie would go from a production method to a genre, a flavor of romantic comedy, where every title had animated box letters, and every trailer had a soundtrack with a glockenspiel and an ascending choir.
The independent studios would disappear back into the lots from wince they came. For those of us who wanted to write the next Swingers, the next Clerks, or the next Pulp Fiction, we were shit out of luck.
Hollywood didn’t need us anymore. It had all the stories it would ever tell, and it would tell them over and over again.
As harsh as this truth was, our screenwriting professor felt a responsibility to tell it. Sadly, his prophecy came true.
Déjà vu at the Drive-In
Franchise fatigue doesn’t just put the audience to sleep, it costs the medium its credibility.
For every remake, reboot, and reimagining, the world is denied the next great series. For every sequel, prequel, and betweequel, there’s an original premise that will never get green lit. For every spinoff, alternate timeline, and interwoven TV tie-in, there’s a universe that we’ll never get to explore.
For every screenwriter whose brought on to put in a draft on a franchise feature, a personal project gathers dust. For every property acquired in a bidding war, a piece is passed on for it’s lack of attachments. For every fresh spin on a familiar story, a script reader is forced to put a five star screenplay on the blacklist.
Every time we upgrade a classic, we lose a comment on our own times, viewers are denied a fresh perspective, and society misses out on a discussion it should be having.
Turning a blind eye to originality, the industry looks at dated blockbusters through VHS tinted glasses. Acting like the art form plateaued in the 80’s, they leave a generation with nothing to strive for. They recast our childhood heroes with whoever has the squarest jaw this week.
The more we pine for the past the more we fail our future. Retro worship costs us the next great light saber, the next proton pack, and the next flying Delorean.
Jump the Refrigerator
We live in an era where franchises have so many iterations that they’d rather hide their numbers behind a suffix. The prequel is now: Origins of The Beginning of the Alpha Genesis. The sequel is now: the Return of the Revenge of the Unleashed Chronicle. The threequel is now: The Salvation of The Final Chapter of The Last Revelation of the RisingRequiem. Anything after that is a variant of the original title, give or a take a “THE,” here and there.
There comes a time when every franchise, overstays its welcome. When its returns diminish. When it reaches the limits of its universe. When its curators write themselves into a corner. When an entry leaves such a bad taste in our mouths, that it will be a long time before we’re hungry for another one.
This happened when the writers of Happy Days strapped water skis to Arthur Fonzarelli so he could jump a shark. This happened when Lucas and Spielberg had Indiana Jones crawl into a refrigerator to survive a nuclear blast. It happened when the director of Terminator: Salvation grafted a CGI Schwarzenegger to a stand-in, reminding everyone of the film they’d rather be watching.
Brand recognition became a bad thing. I can’t wait for the rest of these franchises to jump their shark, to nuke their fridge, to counterfeit their Arnold.
Have Superman throw his S, have a kid with Lois Lane, and kill General Zod. Have the Dark Knight swipe his Bat-card, perk his Bat-nipples, and face plant when someone kicks his Bat-cane. Kill Professor X, give Deadpool typed commands, and katana blades coming out his hands. Give Peter Parker an emo haircut, have him build his own webbing, and take on more villains then anyone could possibly give screen time.
Give the Ewoks their own movies, Chewbacca a Christmas special, and digitally insert Jabba the Hut where he ought not to go. Count the midi-chlorians, have Vader scream “Nooooo” at the ceiling, and swap out old ghost Anakin with Hayden Christensen.
These franchises get to be the life of the party, so long as they bring something new to it, something to keep the guests coming. The problem is, the hosts keep it going too long, until someone inevitably invites Scrappy Doo, Cousin Oliver, and Jar Jar Binks to piss on everything.
Let My Heroes Retire Already
Disney just secured the rights to Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Arc taught me everything I know about plot structure. The heart ripping scene from The Temple of Doom gave me nightmares. My father and I bonded over The Last Crusade. I grew up hoping Lucas would adapt Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis game into a movie. I’m an admitted Kingdom of the Crystal Skull apologist. Dr. Jones is still my default Halloween costume, but I don’t need to see another movie in the series.
Die Hard defined action movies in the 80s and 90s. Bruce Willis brought vulnerability to the action hero. There was a message buried beneath his one liners, and social commentary beneath his catchphrases. John McClane was losing his family. The modern world was passing him by. He was an underdog until terrorists struck, and his run and gun cowboy ways saved the day. I grew up loving this character, but I don’t need to see another chapter in his story.
Terminator 2 taught me how cool swearing could be. I’ve mapped out its timeline on napkins in barstool arguments. I found dark poetry in its chase scenes, existential questions in its explosions, and benevolence in its blood drenched backdrops. Still, I don’t need another one.
Go ahead and let Indiana Jones enjoy his retirement, give John McClane his pension, and sell the old endoskeleton for scrap. Let’s move on.
My favorite comic book series was John Constantine: Hellblazer. Constantine was more of a grifter than a superhero. He fought the minions of hell by pitting them against each other, a hustler stuck between feuding mobs. He wasn’t fighting for God’s cause. He just wanted an edge on the other mug punters, to carve a path outside of Heaven’s jurisdiction.
Over its 25 year run, Constantine got his nearest and dearest killed, betrayed his allies, and watched his sister get carted off to hell. He used sex magic, attempted suicide, and murdered those who’d crossed him. He was an anti-hero we couldn’t help sympathizing with. He wore a cocksure smile in the bleakest of times. He quipped in the face of evil. He flicked off the devil.
DC ended the series when they revamped the New 52. Hellblazer was rebranded as Constantine, a young mage who battled spandex clad baddies alongside Batman and Superman. Warner Bros plans to return John to the big screen in Justice League Dark, while NBC plans to bring a different interpretation to the small screen. The synopsis for the TV show makes it sound like a clone of Grimm, that might as well be called Johnny Demon Hunter.
I own all 300 issues of Hellblazer, many of which cost me a pretty penny. I’ve modeled my hair cut after the character’s trademarked blond spikes, but as far as I’m concerned he is done. These new iterations are just wearing Constantine costumes. They don’t care about the old fan base.
They’ll swap the snarky sacrilege for Catholic iconography. They’ll trade John’s light hearted quips for a chip on his shoulder, turn him into the squinting brooder that all heroes inescapably devolve into. They’ll never capture the downtrodden charmer audiences fell in love with. To them he is just another property to cash in, another title to throw at the wall in the hopes it will stick, an echo of an idea, handed to desperate writers, who just don’t get it.
I say, put him out of his misery.
Nostalgia Needs to Die
Old characters are always reintroduced to new audiences, but their spirits fade with every reproduction. They’re modernized, made younger, more attractive, more likable, and more vanilla. Their jagged edges get soldered off. They bear but a passing resemblance to their counterparts. Superman sulks as Metropolis comes crashing down on its citizens. A jet black Robocop fights soulless drone bots, while Khan’s wrath is reduced to a starship crashing into the shore.
The heroes that are allowed to age get taken places they were never meant to go. Indiana Jones shares the screen with martians, the Terminator’s gut spills over his robot frame, and John McClane looks so very tired. Their stories have been mishandled and they’ve lost their luster.
Drag a property through the muck too many times, and it turns toxic. It spreads a contagion over a crop of coming attractions. It contaminates its spin-offs and bogs down its tie-ins. It ignores its own continuity and insults the audience.
There will come a time in every series, when it’s too risky to put out another entry, when an unknown low budget property is a safer bet.
I’m nostalgic for the good old days, before the majority of movies were made to capitalize on my nostalgia.
My generation has come of age. We’ve taken our place as a key demographic, but please Hollywood, stop pandering to us. Stop trying to sell us our childhoods back. Stop catering to our adolescent selves and give our adult selves something to chew on. Stop giving us what you think we want, and give us something we don’t yet know we want. Bring the wonder back. Surprise us.
Hollywood is so bankrupt for ideas they’re remaking box office failures. Brand recognition is more important than critical reception. I invite you to be a fly on the wall as a major studio mines your childhood for the last lingering piece of nostalgia.
A Franchise is Born Again
Somewhere in Hollywood, a studio head looms over his executives. Armed with a small clicker, he circles the boardroom. With a flick of the wrist, he puts a slide on screen: a weathered face at the center of a sculpted wheel. Its features are all but flattened, with the exception of a long stone tongue.
Leaning into the light, the studio head stares straight into the projector, “Research has shown that the Mayan calendar year was several days too long. This pushes their end time prediction from 2012 to the summer of 2015. The dawning of…”
Flicking his wrist, the words “THE AGE OF ULTRON” fill the wall.
The studio head’s shoulders sink, “The same summer that Disney releases The Avengers 2 and the new Star Wars movie. When Warner Brothers releases Batman VS. Superman, and Universal launches Jurassic World.”
Flicking his wrist, the studio head pitches the clicker across the room. The executives duck. The final image is of a mushroom cloud blasting through a marquee.
Running his fingers down his face, the studio head growls. “This, my brothers and sisters, is a block-buster-apocalypse, a block-alypse. A sign of our end times. If we don’t get a major franchise into production, our investors will be raptured.”
Cupping his hands in prayer, the studio head looks to the ceiling tiles. “We need a motion picture miracle, a remake revelation, a prophecy for our profit margins. Someone bring us back to the Garden of Eden and find me an apple that’s ripe for a reboot.”
The executives slouch in their chairs, adjust their skirts, and turtle-up in their suit coats.
The studio head pops open a can of Diet Coke. There’s silence as it fizzles.
Taking a sip, the studio head wipes his mouth. “Did anyone sleep last night? Hell is licking at our heels people, and your eyes are as red as the devil’s dick.”
An executive, at the far end of the conference table, reaches into her colleague’s suit. Pinching his nipple, she twists until he shrieks. She withdraws her hand as everyone turns toward the sound. The studio head zeros in on the panic stricken executive.