A new series of movies based off J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them debuts in theaters in a little more than three weeks. As part of the promotion for the film they have started releasing songs off the soundtrack on iTunes. The very first of such was the Main Title and it sounds appropriately sinister for a potentially dark series of movies (having to do with Gellert Grindelwald, apparently). Being the Potterhead that I am, I was of course excited for this release. The song begins with those opening notes of Hedwig’s Theme, so well known to almost everyone, even those who are not obsessed with Harry Potter. It is brilliant to tie in this first song, this first movie with the most successful franchise of recent years. I would say it is marketing 101. The filmmakers want to tap into that audience of people who loved Harry Potter, and of course they are right to do that. Musicians, authors, filmmakers, and other artists might consider themselves above the dirty and corrupting influences of business, but it is almost always because of those business practices that they are successful (especially on a scale like J.K. Rowling).
Yet it is precisely those business practices that have had a corrupting influence on many aspects of our lives. One needs only to browse any form of media to see this. The aforementioned Harry Potter is a perfect example. Everything to do with the Fantastic Beasts movie has from the start been branded as coming from J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding world. Pottermore, the official online Harry Potter encyclopedia, is likewise branded. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Harry Potter, though. It has become the exception to have a video game, or a successful movie that does not have at least half a dozen sequels. What are they up to on the Fast and the Furious now? Seven, was it? A quick perusal of Goodreads authors reveals the same: Outlander, Book 1 (terrible book, by the way). A Dream of Witches #1. Terry Goodkind should probably have stopped writing the Sword of Truth series fifteen years ago. Even Stephen King got in on this a little bit with both the Dark Tower series, and the Bill Hodges trilogy, though I think he is finished with both now. How many Law & Order shows are there (and I should know this because I am trying to watch them all)? CSI? The Walking Dead, a truly terrible show, has an even worse spinoff called Fear the Walking Dead. Bought any celebrity’s clothing line or fragrance lately? It is endless. Endless I tell you.
We live in a world where our media is like a bag of Cheetos: fluffy but without substance. Why, oh why does Outlander have to be a series? It could have been wrapped up in one book, no? Why does Bookbub constantly sell boxed sets (funny phrase for a series of ebooks) of romance novels? Have we become that bad at telling stories that we cannot wrap up the story in one novel? No, it just pays better to stretch it out over successive books. It must give a sense of job security for the author of the books, to know they have a loyal fan base who will keep buying their work, I understand that. But not every single book published with any tiny degree of success needs to become a series.
With books in particular, this could be a throwback to the nineteenth century when many authors, Dickens springs to mind in particular, published novels in serial format, with a new part released at regular intervals. People could not wait to read the next in the series. And since authors of such media in Dickens’s time were paid by the word, we tended to get verbose narratives. But Dickens and others at least understood when a story had to come to an end. We don’t see Great Expectations 2: Miss Havisham’s untold story, or Jane Eyre: Mr Rochester Speaks. Jane Austen did not release a story to tell us what happened after Darcy and Elizabeth married. Dante didn’t feel the need to continue his Divine Comedy past the natural ending point. We didn’t get the story of Dante’s climb from Beatrice as well, or from Lucifer (Paradise Lost is a different beast all together). It isn’t just books though. TV, movies, video games. There are sequels, cross-overs, cross-marketing, tie-in editions, you name it.
If we’re not talking about the franchising of every aspect of our media, then we are talking about the proliferation of the ‘updated’ versions of technology. I love all my iDevices, and am a fairly staunch brand loyalist to Apple (I’m writing this on my iMac, in fact) but even I recognize that many of Apple’s recent updates lack their previous innovation. It might be that they haven’t made a giant leap forward in recent years like they did when they released the iPhone. Perhaps their changes are smaller bits that ten years down the road will make us sit back and wonder why we didn’t notice this before. If that is the case, I say now that I am sorry for jumping to cynical conclusions. I happen to agree with a point Bill Maher made several weeks ago about how most of these updates are a way for corporations to pad their profits. While not a business expert, I have some experience with the terminology: productivity, efficiency, cost effectiveness, year-over-year growth forecasts. I would go on but I am putting myself to sleep. Every one of these terms are part of the profit motive, that practice of eking out that little bit of extra earnings to placate shareholders. As a shareholder myself, I like growth in my company, but as an employee I’m not always sure the layer upon layer of extra work is worth it. Companies like Samsung pay for this overwork in having to recall whole series of phones so that they don’t catch fire. Shouldn’t this have been worked out before the device was released? Why do that when it is easier and cheaper to deal with the complaints after the fact? It is always easier to ask forgiveness than permission, right? And as long as they’re on top of a problem fairly quickly, the marketing geniuses that brought us the phrase brand loyalty, can spin a problem, saying that the company is customer focused. We, sheeple that we are, often swallow it.
The world can be a dark place sometimes. Just look at the presidential election in the U.S., a campaign dominated by racism, misogyny, hatred, vitriol, and easily disprovable lies, but yet Trump is still almost tied with Hillary Clinton. It isn’t because the election is rigged. It isn’t because his policies are as good or better than Hillary’s. He doesn’t have experience in foreign affairs, or really any qualifications for the job. He is in the position he is because he’s a celebrity. He’s a brand. He knows, if nothing else, how to make himself heard above the fray, and to get people to notice him. In our scary, noisy, overcrowded world, this is what counts. It is not substance, it is not character, it is the recognizable packaging. It is the marketing geniuses that have brought us to the point we are at today, where style is the important ingredient in success. Style, presence, and that ever important brand name.