Due to COVID-19, the entertainment industry has stalled from producing any new content in 2020. Marvel fans to Grey’s Anatomy fans and every fan in between didn’t get to see their favorite TV show or movie at its pre-COVID-19 date. The only fandom that seemed to be winning in 2020 was Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show aired on Nickelodeon in 2005 but it has been a hit ever since. However, everything changed when Netflix attacked. Netflix is two years into making a live-action TV series out of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since it’s such a massive franchise, it was puzzling that Netflix hadn’t released any information since the announcement. But, now we know why: things behind the scenes are not going well. In August 2020, creators of the franchise Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko announced they would no longer serve as showrunners and executive producers in the live-action adaptation due to creative differences.
Netflix’s Avatar the Last Airbender is another adaptation in a long line of movies in which creative heads have split ways due to creative differences with the studio. With the consolidation of film studios into media conglomerates, creative leads like directors, writers, and producers have more people to answer to. In an age where studios favor franchises over original stories, creative heads often clash with their corporate funders. Consequently, the adaptation often isn’t what the original artists, creative heads nor fans want. The adaptation loses its built-in audience and suffers and the box office and with critics creating a lose-lose situation.
Avatar Live-Action Adaptations: A 15-Year Struggle
Fans were hopeful for the Netflix live-action TV show remake because the previous attempt to tell the story in the live-action format failed. In 2010 Paramount Pictures released a live-action film of the animated show. One of the biggest reasons why the film failed was because the studio ignored the advice from the show’s original creators. The absence of DiMartino and Konietzko had deadly consequences for the live-action adaptation. Many people consider the film to be one of the worst films of all time because of its whitewashing, bad acting, numerous plot holes, screenplay, poor special effects (despite its reported $150 million budget), and especially Shyamalan's directing. Roger Ebert, who is the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, wrote, "The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here.”
Despite the horrible film adaptation, Avatar: The Last Airbender is still regarded by many as one of the best animated shows of all time. The film adaption thankfully didn’t hinder the successes and reputation of the animated show. In fact, 2020 was one of the best years for the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom. The show became available on Netflix in early May 2020 and immediately broke records for having the longest-consecutive run on Netflix’s Top Ten chart. Another win for fans of the franchise was Legend of Korra (the sequel set in the same universe 70 years later), which became available to stream for the first time since its cable run in 2014. Before August 2020, if one wanted to watch Legend of Korra they had to buy the series. Not anymore. Furthermore, Netflix was in the process of making a live-action TV show that involved the original creators. DiMartino and Konietzko were executive producers and showrunners of Netflix’s remake which made fans hopeful the show wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the live-action film adaptation.
Melissa Cobb, VP of kids and family content at Netflix promised, "We are committed to honoring Bryan and Mike's vision for this retelling and are thrilled to support them on creating a live-action event series, bringing Aang's epic world of elemental magic to life for global audiences on Netflix." However, DiMartino and Konietzko both cited creative differences and Netflix breaking its promise as the reason they left.
DiMartino wrote in a lengthy blog post, “Netflix said that it was committed to honoring our vision for this retelling and to supporting us in creating the series. Unfortunately, things didn't go as we hoped... Whatever version ends up on-screen, it will not be what Bryan and I had envisioned or intended to make.” Konietzko stated outright that corporate control is the reason he and DiMartino left, saying, “When Netflix brought me on board to run the series two years ago, they made a very public promise to support our vision. Unfortunately, there was no follow-through on that promise. The general handling of the project created what I felt was a negative and unsupportive environment.”
Why Do Corporate and Creatives Butt Heads So Often?
The short answer: adaptations. When you hear of public splits it's often regarding non-original work. Such examples include The Hobbit, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Thor: Dark World. It’s important to note that Hollywood has adapted original stories since the beginning of its existence, with films like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Studios make adaptations. They are a safe and profitable option because they know the story has an existing fan base which translates to a built-in audience. Recently, studios have taken it one step further by remaking their own adaptations. Take Disney’s recent trend of remaking beloved Disney animated movies. The live-action remakes are adaptations of animated films which are an adaptation of centuries old fairy tales.
In any case, studios are always looking for their next big franchise. Companies like franchises over a single brand because franchises have the potential to make more money. A franchise is a collection of related media in which several derivative works have been produced across a variety of mediums from the single creative work. For example, Spider-Man is a franchise because it has movies, TV shows, comic books, a Broadway musical, video games, and theme park attractions. On the other hand, Pixar’s Inside Out is a brand because it's only told in the medium of film.
Studios often turn to non-original stories for a franchise potential (e.g. Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe) because of their wide appeal. For example, Harry Potter can appeal to all demographics and psychographics. Therefore, companies are less willing to give creative freedom and allow risks with adaptations as opposed to original stories. Original stories usually have a more niche audience. The more creative risks a director, writer, or producer takes, the more chances it will alienate a target market.
In other words, the allowance of creative freedom depends on the studios’ intended audience. If a studio wants the film to be a four-quadrant hit, then the studio will most likely prevent the creative from doing whatever they want because one wrong movie and you lose a quadrant. An adaptation that a company wants to turn into a franchise means the company can’t afford to lose a single target market.
Monopolies Increase Monetary Competition, Not Creativity
As previously mentioned, Hollywood has always adapted books and other content into movies. The problem now is that there is an imbalance between adaptations and the original stories. Nowadays, studios favor adaptations over original stories because as a result of studio mergers, there is less internal Hollywood competition. In the past decade the number of separate studios has decreased. The Walt Disney Company recently bought Fox Studios and owns Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Marvel. AT&T bought Time Warner, meaning HBO, Warner Brothers, and TBS are all under one company. Universal and NBC merged, and Viacom acquired CBS.
Before all the studios combined into huge corporations, studios often needed to take creative risks to stay in the competition. No single studio had a majority of box office revenue. Now, six corporations own almost all media. Because there is less internal competition, studios only need to compete in terms of market share not creativity. Adaptations cost less money to produce because there are already established story guidelines. Adaptations also have a built-in audience which translates to more profit and then an increased market share. Consequently, studios have become complacent. Thanks to all the mergers, studios can now reach into their vast library of assets and IPs for new adaptations of old films. Because of mergers, studios have a bigger set of intellectual properties making adaptations.
Additionally, as monopolization increases, more people need to sign off on decisions. Let’s say you are directing a Pixar film. After answering to all the heads on the film itself like the producers, you need to answer to the heads at Pixar. Since Pixar is under the division of Walt Disney Studios whose parent company is The Walt Disney Company, you must answer to all the key people at each of the “levels.” The more levels, the harder it is to take a creative risk because there are more people with a variety of opinions.
Additionally, a film needs to stick to the overall brand image. For any film produced by a studio owned by The Walt Disney Company--whether it be Pixar, Marvel, or Lucasfilm--the film needs to have Disney’s family-friendly image. If the film doesn’t fit under the “Disney image” 20th Century Studios (formerly known as 20th Century Fox) distributes it or it gets released on Hulu. This happened to Death on the Nile and Love Victor. Each studio has its own brand image and intended audience. Filmmakers will choose to pitch their movie to the studio with the most similar brand image and audience. For example, Marvel Studios attracts comic book and action film fans. Pixar films draw in families and children. But now that Marvel Studios and Pixar are owned by Disney, Marvel and Pixar need to comply with The Walt Disney Company’s greater family friendly and happy endings brand. As studios merge together, the number of unique studios a filmmaker can choose to pitch their film to will decrease. In other words, filmmakers who want to pitch their superhero film to Marvel will also have to comply with the Disney image. While filmmakers can go the independently produced route, studio-backed films often have the connections, money, people, and other resources needed to make a successful film in this age.
Power Plays: Should Corporate Power Supersede Creative Direction?
Just because a creator or director disagrees with the studio's direction does not mean the adaptation is bad. Sometimes movie adaptations become classics or are even better than the original medium. For example, author P.L. Travers hated Disney’s Marry Poppins, but many still love the film. Fifty-six years after the movie premiered, it is more likely that you’d find someone who knows the English nanny from the movie than from the book. Mean Girls, Jurassic Park, and the most famous case The Devil Wears Prada, are all examples where the adaptation is the superior story. Mean Girls benefited from Tina Fey’s script and cohesive storyline, absent from the original nonfiction book by Rosalind Wiseman. Meryl Streep brought complexity to the film’s Miranda Priestly, absent from the book’s Miranda Priestly. The medium of film helped translate lengthy scientific parts of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in favor of groundbreaking animatronics, heightened suspense, and fantastic editing. The film not only changed cinema but changed the public’s world view of what dinosaurs looked like and how they behaved.
Corporate power should supersede creative direction when the adaptation is part of a bigger story. The new Star Wars trilogy suffered from the lack of a grand plan. Despite knowing there would be two other films after The Force Awakens (following the trilogy format of the previous six Star Wars films), Lucasfilm did not have the story planned out. Consequently, each film retconned the other. Even worse, based on reports from sets, the Star Wars sequel's plot points kept changing even during filming. Storytellers don't need to plot out the trilogy point by point; but understanding a general story arc from the beginning of the first movie to the end of the third movie is helpful. That way, storytellers can create satisfying endings, character developments, twists, and redemptions. A beat sheet can let the director, screenwriter, and others know what and who to focus on.
The answer is not a perfect division of power but a shared power balance. Artists need creative leadership and funding from studios. At the same time, studios need filmmakers’ unique talent, style, and vision to ensure the film isn’t a copycat of what came before. Trusting creatives while still offering a guiding hand when needed pays off. The Marvel Cinematic Universe perfected walking this fine line. The MCU has made over $22.5 billion at the global box office. The key to their box office success is that Marvel tells stories that work on their own and then combines them into a larger idea like a squared quilt. Holding this quilt together are the characters and artists whom the corporation trusts.
As YouTuber FilmJoy says “Deadpool and Logan are two individual films that work but it is impossible to put the two titular characters in the same movie and have the film tonally fit both characters simultaneously.” But the MCU franchise manages this with a nuanced film about the ramifications of reckless, unjust imperialism (Black Panther) and a film about Norse mythology disguised as a Shakespeare drama (Thor). Unlike Deadpool and Logan, the two characters, Thor and Black Panther fit perfectly into the same universe. The reason why they fit together is that Marvel trusts each director to make the characters relatable. There have been countless directors who’ve worked on a Marvel film, but each character is consistently recognizable in every film regardless of creative leadership.
In other words, Marvel Studios believes that when creative freedom isn’t restricted, the movie becomes a unique (and successful) entry in the MCU. A director's vision helps Marvel films from appearing too similar. This helps avoid superhero fatigue. The studio only facilitates communication between all other Marvel movie creative teams to ensure the quilt squares can be sewn together to create a cohesive picture. Other filmmakers and studios should learn from Marvel’s success in balancing between creative freedom or a shared corporate long-term vision. Communication through studio heads ensures that the franchise's continuity remains intact and characters stay consistent from film to film.
Marvel screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus confirmed the surprising amount of creative freedom when talking to Vox Media. “There are no rules to start, generally speaking … it’s not like Marvel says, 'Here’s a list of preapproved characters we would like you to shove in here.' It doesn’t work that way. Marvel trusts its artists to do right by the characters. It doesn’t mean we can do anything. It doesn’t mean that Kevin Feige doesn’t have the final say. However, it is rare to nonexistent, the times we are told, 'You absolutely cannot do that.'” Expanding on the squared quilt metaphor, Marvel allows creative freedom in the individual quilting squares. Marvel steps in to sew them together. If each square is perfect thanks to the creative talent of each director, actor, screenwriter, then the studio doesn’t have to overextend its power and can easily stitch them together.
When Studios and Creatives Have Different Goals: Avatar the Last Airbender Case Study
Now that you know in general why creatives often split on adaptations, let's return to the case study of Avatar: The Last Airbender. For Avatar: The Last Airbender, the problem is how Netflix and the creators view the show's purpose. When it comes to smaller Netflix shows like Russian Doll, Maniac, Master of None, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and Dark, Netflix allows a lot of creative freedom. These small niche shows get to take creative risks because they are original stories, have small audiences, and cost less. Media can be successful in two ways: critical acclaim and profitability. To achieve critical acclaim, you don’t need a huge audience. In fact, it’s better to have a small but satisfied audience. Stranger Things has a huge audience and is only ranked #49 out of 160 original Netflix films. On the other hand, the five shows previously listed are among the top-rated original series on Rotten Tomatoes and have very small audiences.
Netflix wants their Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation to achieve monetary success. Streaming services need massive franchise-able intellectual properties that are four-quadrant hits. A four-quadrant movie or TV show is a piece of media which appeals to all four major demographic "quadrants'' of the movie going audience: male, female, and both over- and under-25s. Four-quadrant shows like Stranger Things drive conversation and gain subscribers around the world. Gaining subscribers translates to profit for the company. After all, at the end of the day, Hollywood is a business. Furthermore, to make small niche shows Netflix needs money earned through blockbuster type shows. Netflix wants Avatar: The Last Airbender to be a breadwinner for the company.
In other words, Netflix views its adaptation in terms of making the most marketable extension of the Avatar brand for long-term monetary success. On the other hand, DiMartino and Konietzko wanted the adaptation to have a singular creative vision. To them, the goal of the remake was to dive back into their creation. It was never about giving Netflix a solid stream of revenue. Because of the different visions, Netflix viewed Avatar the Last Airbender as bigger than its creators. Netflix needs its next hit show to increase subscribers, and they hoped that Avatar the Last Airbender was the means to that end.
Therefore, to turn the live-action Avatar the Last Airbender series into Netflix’s own Star Wars, it will cost a blockbuster movie amount to make. As YouTuber Captain Midnight says “Once that much money and brand management is involved creative voices often take a back seat. The more money is involved the more people there are behind the scenes that need to sign off and question every creative choice.”
Cadillacs With Their Paint Stripped Off: The Future of Adaptation
So what happens to adaptations where original creators and creatives split from the project? For Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, if they don’t cancel it will most likely become watered down and boringly competent. It will most likely have a more mature tone to avoid the outlandish assumption that “animation is for kids.” The same thing happened to the film adaptations of the Percy Jackson, Divergent, and Eragon series. Many people watched the adaptations, but they were pale imitations of the original creations. It was all bones but no meat. The problem is we live in a world where consumers have countless forms of entertainment from books, films, TV shows, YouTube videos, and video games. Therefore, a studio needs to trust the people they hire to tell a good story.
YouTuber Just Write touches upon the importance of not stripping a story down to its bones by bringing up Stephen King's novel The Stand. In 1978, King’s publisher Doubleday exerted their corporate power over King, forcing him to cut about 400 pages from the novel. Doubleday was not sure people would buy and read a long novel. However, in 1990, King regained creative control and published the uncut version of his novel. In the preface of the uncut version, King explains why he wanted to include the 400 pages. He writes, “If all the story is there then why bother? Isn’t it indulgence after all? I think in really good stories the whole is always greater than the sum parts.”
King explains his stance by retelling the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel in only one paragraph, concluding, “I don’t know what you think, but for me that version is a loser. The story is there, but it’s not elegant. It’s like a Cadillac with the chrome stripped off and the paint sanded down to dull metal. It goes somewhere, but it ain’t, you know, boss.” In the end, when corporate power and studios meddle with a creator's vision instead of trusting the creative people to make a good adaptation, you get an acceptable mush of a story. A lukewarm adaptation is like a Cadillac with the chrome stripped off and the paint sanded down to metal.
It goes somewhere but it ain’t you know, boss.