“Franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.” – Mark Harris, Grantland, December 16, 2014

jessica chastain

Since Harris wrote those words a few months back, most of the other serious, Harris-level writers about film have nodded their heads in approval. But there are a few star-actors who don’t seem to have received the Harris memo. And for at least some of them, we can very reasonably assume that they were offered choice roles in choice multi-film projects: consider names like Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jessica Chastain, Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Williams, Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington*, Jake Gyllenhaal, Matthew McConaughey, Joaquin Phoenix, and Sean Penn. They could have signed on to Untitled Marvel Universe Project 2019 (certainly as a villain, if not more), they just didn’t want to.

(*It’s true that Denzel Washington has just apparently signed on to make his first sequel, to The Equalizer. One could see that as evidence of Harris’ point – see, nowadays even Denzel! – or one could “grandfather” in this particular sexagenarian and say that after a three-decade career sans franchises, he’s proved his point.)

If star-actors like these have been consciously eschewing franchises (and animation and TV, for the most part), they’re clearly holding a minority position in Hollywood, even amongst its most talented actors. These days, when an excellent actor arrives in town, say Miles Teller or Kate Mara or Michael B. Jordan, the smart money tells them to sign that three-movie deal with the nearest franchise – in their case, Fantastic Four. (Oops.) Having been burned by re-negotiations with the likes of Tobey Maguire on Spider-Man 3 and the lead kids from the Harry Potter films, the standard Hollywood franchise contract is now three films to be made within seven years (stars of the 1950s bequeathed to current actors their right not to become indentured servants, i.e. have contracts that last longer than seven years). If Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron won’t sign those three-movie deals, the studio will just make Mad Max with someone else who will. And according to many, that’s just fine. After Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 brought George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon into franchise work, we’re not supposed to mind when we see Michael Fassbender doing X-Men or Oscar Isaac doing Star Wars or Emma Stone doing Amazing Spider-Man. That’s just the price of doing business, right?

Well, for one thing, the franchise imperative may have caused us to lose the kind of stars we had in the 90s, who could earn $20 million making something like Cast Away (2000) or Ali (2002) – nowadays, even Robert Downey Jr. wouldn’t be paid more than a few bucks for something like those. Well before that, Steven Spielberg coined the “one for them, one for me” idea of How to Survive in Hollywood – the idea being that you alternate big-budget spectaculars with more personal/challenging fare. I personally believe that one of the reasons Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (consider that subtitle for a moment) won the most recent Best Picture Oscar is that it dealt head-on (well, sort of) with this perpetual devil’s bargain. Excellent, multi-talented actors like Kate Winslet (Divergent), Ralph Fiennes (007 films), Amy Adams (Superman) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange) seem aware of the Hobson’s Choice they make by signing with franchises – they get money and visibility to make the sorts of films they want to make, but does their persona lose just a bit of its association with quality?

The simplest reaction – one shared by many college students I’ve taught over the years – is to shrug your shoulders and say something to the effect of “They gots to get paid,” or “what’s the big deal? They should be able to do what they want.” Nobody is talking about abridging star-actor freedom, far from it: Streep and others’ own instincts toward freedom (nothing more free than refusing to sign a multi-year contract) is probably a major factor in keeping them from signing up for Ant-Man 3. And nobody is telling anyone not to get paid. Nobody is saying that we don’t see outstanding work by actors in franchises – it happens all the time. (Though perhaps not as often as Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. think it does.) But once a year, we celebrate certain Oscar-friendly films for going against the commercial-imperative grain of most of Hollywood, and so it seems worth asking: do we prefer the “brand” of actors who seem to do likewise?

leo dicaprio

Consider, if you will, the career of Leonardo DiCaprio, and the panoply of film roles he was offered after Titanic (1997), which we know included the original Spider-Man movie as well as Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III. Why would any actor turn down roles like these? It’s not like they were asking him to play a pedophile or in blackface or something even more disreputable. (Let your imagination run wild.) Whatever else you want to say about his post-Titanic behavior (google “pussy posse” if you missed it), DiCaprio then recognized something that writers like Paul McDonald have been saying for years, yet eludes some actors: a star is his/her own brand. The DiCaprio brand is specific: blond, scrawny, boyishly handsome, amiable, immature-voiced, good at acting (that’s why playing a con man like Frank Abagnale worked), and badly needing a comeuppance. But because of his career choices, his brand has also come to stand for something else: quality motion pictures that aren’t about setting up the next installment. When we pay to see him in something like Inception or The Wolf of Wall Street, we can presume, as we have since the 1980s with actors like Streep, Washington, and Penn, that we’re getting a stand-alone film with compelling, even challenging themes. That’s not nothing. And if Chastain, Phoenix, Mulligan, Gosling, and Gyllenhaal have chosen to brand themselves likewise (in Gyllenhaal’s case, we got lucky that Prince of Persia failed), perhaps we should be at least a little grateful that they’re not confusing their fans or their films by strapping on spandex and capes. Acting is about representation, and actors not tied to franchises may well have a slightly easier time representing independence and quirky individualism.

Since Harris wrote that jeremiad, a few developments have called it into question. One was the rather lackluster Comic-Con 2015, which the studios all but ignored. Second was Universal’s record-setting year at the box office, achieved without a single superhero. Third was the realization that only two studios – Disney (owning Marvel and Star Wars) and Warner Bros. (owning DC) can realistically tentpole summers from here to 2020 with sequels, prequels, and brand extensions. The other four studios will almost be forced to make some kind of middle-range adult films (think Gone Girl), just to put out any product at all. When Rupert Murdoch handed Fox over to his two sons this summer, they did interviews, and absolutely no journalists asked them how the film division was going to “world-build” on the level of Marvel. If Fox won’t be expected to do that, we might dare to guess that star-actors won’t be expected to “one for them, one for me” into perpetuity. Brand-crazy Hollywood is getting nervous. The best-branded actors – the DiCaprios and Chastains – may just be getting the upper hand again.