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Recent Rewinds: Social media allows movie studios to make real-time improvements to films

(Bridgette Baron/Daily Bruin)

By Phillip Leung

January 16, 2020 9:57 pm

History repeats itself, and so does art. With films, video games and even books being flooded with sequels, remakes and spinoffs, audiences in recent years have appeared to embrace familiarity over novelty. In Recent Rewinds, columnist Phillip Leung explores the entertainment industry’s inclination toward reimagining and building on old stories.

Harley Quinn and the Joker have broken up in “Birds of Prey.”

In other words, Jared Leto got fired.

Such clever, if not cold, sentiments were echoed in the comments section of the recent trailer for “Birds of Prey,” which serves as a spin-off to the poorly received “Suicide Squad.” In the latter film, Leto’s portrayal of the Joker received mixed reception, alongside the rest of the production. As such, Leto’s Joker has seemingly become a loose end that’s been tied off in “Birds of Prey,” in large part because of audience reception.

On public platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, moviegoers can easily contribute to the overall consensus of a film as soon it releases, sometimes even earlier as opinions on trailers spread. Film studios and executives are able to witness firsthand responses to their movies, which has resulted in changes and follow-ups directly addressing negative responses. In the case of “Suicide Squad,” critics and audiences alike felt Leto’s performance was too over the top and further exacerbated the Joker’s lack of screen time.

[Related: Recent Rewinds: Movie sequels and remakes continue stories from one decade to the next]

Margot Robbie, who will play Harley Quinn in “Birds of Prey,” pitched the idea of the film during the creation of “Suicide Squad.” While “Suicide Squad” received negative reviews, Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn was among the more positively received aspects of the movie. In that regard, “Birds of Prey” appears to be Warner Bros. Pictures’ method of giving Robbie’s character justice, and partially redeeming “Suicide Squad.” Furthermore, a sequel to “Suicide Squad” is planned for release in 2021, oddly titled “The Suicide Squad” – as if Warner Bros. Pictures is trying to subtly reboot the series while also separating the new film from the original.

Some films have been fixed before they are even released, with changes that directly address audience complaints. The first trailer for “Sonic the Hedgehog” was released in April, which received widespread negativity for the titular character’s appearance. Sonic’s look had been greatly altered from his video game art style, with additional anthropomorphic proportions that fell right into the uncanny valley for many viewers. In response to the outcry on social media, the film’s director, Jeff Fowler, personally responded to the criticism on Twitter, promising to fix Sonic’s unsettling design before the film’s release.

Many fans were still skeptical that their complaints would lead to significant modifications. However, a new trailer for “Sonic the Hedgehog” was released in November, delightfully surprising most audiences. Sonic now boasts larger eyes and cartoon-like proportions – a design more faithful to his video game appearance. Though the film’s silly premise and dramatic characters appear to be geared toward children, “Sonic the Hedgehog” is an astonishing example of how film executives are becoming more receptive to social media.

In other cases, however, a franchise needs a whole reboot to win back audiences’ trust – sometimes twice. Sony Pictures Entertainment attempted to reboot “Ghostbusters” in 2016 with a female-led cast, whose initial trailer garnered much controversy. Audiences found the trailer’s humor to be sorely lacking, with many seeing the all-female cast as a blatant political statement. The film trailer became the most disliked movie trailer on YouTube, and “Ghostbusters” subsequently became a contentious subject of discussion on social media.

On Twitter, the film’s director Paul Feig was very vocal in his defense of the film, condemning criticisms of the trailer as misogynistic. Meanwhile, content creator James Rolfe posted a video on his YouTube channel Cinemassacre explaining why he’d never see the film. The video received widespread attention, with even actors such as Patton Oswalt expressing praise for the video. With high-profile filmmakers and audiences voicing their opinions on Twitter, the 2016 “Ghostbusters” became steeped in an intense cultural debate, tainting its reputation.

[Related: Movie review: ‘Suicide Squad’]

Subsequently, Sony turned away from the reboot after its poor box office performance, releasing a trailer for “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” in December, which serves as a sequel to the original films. Set 30 years after “Ghostbusters II,” the film seemingly separates itself as a new story and cast, while still respecting the legacy of the original characters. Fans expressed their excitement for the new film on Twitter, praising the cast and an atmosphere reminiscent of popular supernatural shows such as “Stranger Things.”

With reboots such as “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and “Birds of Prey,” studios and executives appear to be catching up with the fast-paced nature of social media. Audiences can determine the overall consensus of a film in an instant, and studios are willing to respond just as quickly.

Even though these follow-ups may be cynically viewed as studios taking repeated bets to make a profit off popular franchises, audiences will be receiving films geared toward satisfying them as a result. But only time will tell if the studios have truly heard what audiences want.

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