As Richard Rushfeld wrote, “Genres do disappear. In fact, successful genres pretty much always disappear. Studios chase their success with a glut of imitators until the audience is exhausted.”
All signs point to that exhaustion point finally having arrived. And the end of franchise filmmaking being the biggest game in town creates a creative vacuum. But it also means that there are probably piles of IP-driven scripts out there that are destined to go unused, unless.
As Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon proves, reimagining your franchise blockbuster as an original sci-fi epic is just as easy as the reverse. In fact it’s probably easier. Turning an IP-driven script into an “original” one (what even is “original” when it comes to tentpole movies anyway?) means not having to deal with fan expectations and never having to argue over what is and isn’t “canon.”
Not only is this practice–of refitting an IP-driven pitch, fan-fiction, or a spec script for a specific show– not unheard of, it already even has a name and its own Wiki page. “Filing off the serial numbers is a common fannish term for the act of taking a piece of existing fanfiction and removing any details that tie it to a copyrighted source,” goes the first sentence of that Wiki, and it’s as good a definition as exists.
Many successful franchises owe their existence, in some way or another, to the practice of filing off the serial numbers. Fifty Shades of Grey famously began as Twilight fan-fiction written under the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon” (no apostrophes is canon here). Bella and Edward Cullen are copyrighted, so they became Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. The Duffer Brothers tried and failed to convince Warner Bros to let them direct Stephen King’s It as an 8-10 episode miniseries before concocting their own story about a group of kids saving their small town from an ancient evil and calling it Stranger Things. Steven Spielberg only made Raiders of the Lost Ark after a failed petition to direct a James Bond film. And just to bring us full circle, Star Wars itself probably wouldn’t exist if George Lucas hadn’t tried and failed to get the rights to Flash Gordon.
And these are just the examples of serial-number-filing that we know about. There are probably hundreds of others that their creators have never copped to for legal reasons. All of which is to say that it would be great if what Zack Snyder did with Rebel Moon happened more often. At a time when franchise movies, once seen as our last hope for keeping the theatrical business afloat, are clearly flagging, more IP projects re-envisioned as independent ones could be just the shot in the arm the industry needs.
How many more creators could discover what Snyder is discovering: that removing the limitations of the originally-intended IP can be liberating, and a quick way to jumpstart their imaginations.
“The deeper I got into it,” Snyder told Empire. “I realized it was probably never going to be what I wanted.”
Now he gets to do what he wants with it (for better or worse), without worrying about whether it fits the Disney brand or how it will affect the corporate five-year plan. Wouldn’t it be great if more filmmakers could do the same with their rejected pitches?