Recently, I read speculation about whether Sam Raimi would stick with the Spider-Man "franchise," and couldn't help picturing Raimi in a polyester fast-food uniform. Somewhere along the way, epic tales of the human spirit stopped being stories and became "franchises."
The entertainment industry's pervasive use of the word "franchise" goes deeper than the plague of endless sequels, reboots and remakes. It's worse, even, than the gurgling entertainment pipeline, which constantly gives us more of the last thing that made money. When we talk about "franchises," we're speaking of entertainment as fast food, empty calories, the ultimate in disposable junk.
The word "franchise" used to be reserved for Burger King and McDonald's, Best Buy and Circuit City. It used to be reserved for Pete Seeger's proverbial "little boxes, all the same," retail cubes where you could buy a standard product from sea to deoxygenated sea.
Somehow we've gotten used to using that term to describe our favorite stories — lately, I type the word "franchise" in a news story or feature almost without thinking about it. Here's a Google News chart showing the frequency of the word "franchise," combined with "movie," over the past two decades:
What you see in that chart, though, is the entertainment industry's last dregs of soul dribbling away. It's the final vestigial pieces of forebrain atrophying, leaving only behind a hindbrain that doubles as a profit center. It's the scowl behind the panderer's wink.
(Although, to be fair, there are worse terms than "franchise" out there. There's always "storyverse," which people have started using seriously recently.)
Of course, I get why the word "franchise" has such currency — it's popular because of the rise of multi-platform entertainments. The Transformers toys, the Transformers cartoons, the Transformers video game, the Transformers comics and the Transformers drama product (featuring Shia LaBoeuf) all form one seamless enter-globule, with each different version dovetailing. So just like you can Drive Thru a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Raleigh, or an identical KFC in Durham, you can read similar stories of Optimus Prime's spiritual exile in the comics and the novels.
But understanding why we talk about "franchises" doesn't make it any better — if anything, it makes the idea of treating escapism as a fungible commodity, that you repackage over and over again in different shapes, even more annoying.
Most of us are corporate vassals, of one sort or another, in every other part of our lives — so it's disheartening to think that our fantasies, the places in our imagination we go to escape from being so thoroughly owned, are also turned into units that are packaged, repackaged, rebranded, focus-grouped and target marketed to death.
None of this is news — and if we managed to stop everyone on Earth using the word "franchise" outside of the context of fast food or voting, it would still be going on. But eradicating the word "franchise" is, at least, a step in the direction of rooting out the thinking that word represents.
If, every time people started to use the word franchise, they had to stop and think for a moment about what they really meant, maybe they'd be one step closer to connecting with the power of Story. I'm serious — you remember Story, right? That thing where people go through a series of events that test and confound them, and along the way they become different people, and maybe we also find ourselves straining and building the thinking and believing parts of our brains as we follow them? That thing. Story.
So what word should we encourage people to use instead of franchise? Maybe universe, that works.
Or maybe don't actually need a word to replace "franchise." Think about it: is there anything you can say using that word that you couldn't better say without it? There's a kind of Orwellian imprecision about the word, as if we're trying to stay as far away from the process of creation as possible. Instead of "Will Christopher Nolan stick with the Batman franchise?" you can always say, "Will Christopher Nolan direct another Batman movie?" It's more precise, and says what you actually mean — but it's also more connected to the process of creating something, instead of the vague corporate speak.
Because if you choose, instead of saying "direct a movie," to talk about "franchises," what you're really asking is whether Christopher Nolan will continue to swear allegiance to a particular corporate product, and stay under contract with a particular set of paymasters. Who will own Christopher Nolan's brain over the next few years? It's group-speak of the worst kind.
So I'm making a pledge — the "F" word will never appear under my byline again. And I encourage anyone else who talks or writes about entertainment to do the same thing. It's a small, but meaningful, step in taking back our fantasies from the brand managers.