This is not an article merely rehashing the same outrage at the number of sequels on cinema screens this year, it is an exploration of why this has come about, and the great repercussions it may well have on the state of cinema, most specifically Hollywood.
Let me start out by saying I am not a hater of sequels, prequels, reboots or reimagining. I don’t get up in arms about book, video game or cereal packet adaptations. I fully appreciate the love, and need, for franchise based blockbuster filmmaking. The fact is, however, it really has now got out of hand.
So far this year, of the top ten highest grossing movies, eight are based on existing properties. Of these, three are sequels – Men in Black 3, Madagascar 3 and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Four are adaptations of literary properties – The Avengers (Comics are literature, right?), The Hunger Games, The Lorax and Snow White and the Huntsmen. One, 21 jump Street, is a TV show re-imagined for the big screen. The final two are The Vow, based on a true story, and Safe House.
My problem with these movies is not their quality. I loved The Avengers, The Hunger Games and the first half of 21 Jump Street. An adaptation of an existing story has as much chance of making a great film as completely original writing. My problem is that original ideas are being forced to take a backseat.
This has been going on for some time. From 2000 to 2010, of each year’s highest grossing movies, seven were sequels (Return of the King, Shrek 2, Revenge of the Sith, Dead Man’s Chest, Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight and Toy Story 3). The remaining films, Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Grinch, were all literary adaptations. The final film, and sole exception to the rule, was Avatar. More on Avatar later.
So what? So sequels and adaptations have been going on forever, right? The film industry is still healthy. Well, yes and no. Whilst sequels and adaptations have been ‘a thing’ for some time, it is only in the last decade that they have staked such claim at the box office. The highest grossing films for each year from 1990 to 1999 show a different picture. Terminator 2 and The Phantom Menace were sequel and prequel respectively, and Aladdin was based on an old story, whilst Jurassic Park was adapted from the novel. The other six were original stories. In theory, Titanic and Saving Private Ryan were based around real events, but Home Alone, Forrest Gump, Toy Story and Independence Day were all imaginative filmmaking. We are seeing the box office changing hands from original stores, to sequels to original stories, to studios scrabbling around to the four corners of the Earth to find existing ideas to plunder. (Box office rankings used are US domestic box office rankings).
I know what you’re thinking. I’m focussing on the big financial successes, and ignoring the hundreds of sequels that flop, and the hundreds of original films that are profitable. Clearly, I’m using the big numbers to identify a trend, and to make a point. My point is this. Big studios are focussing their resources on their tent pole productions, and original ideas are relegated to much smaller, much cheaper productions. This does not mean that the quality of these cheaper movies necessarily has to suffer, but it does mean that their exposure to the wider audience is decreasing.
So much money is being spent on the big movies, the sequels and remakes, that there is very little money not just for the production of original stories, but also the marketing. Transformers are being printed on every lunchbox, lining every toy shelf, and dominating every billboard. The money these movies make do allow studios the luxury of gambling on smaller, less profitable movies, but what is the point if no-one knows they exist?
The increasing production and marketing budgets of the biggest films increases the pressure on them to max out their gross. With studios desperate to get these blockbuster movies the biggest possible audience, in the most theatres, on the most screens, the more interesting, lower profile films are being nudged out of the multiplex. I genuinely see a situation in just a few years’ time where Transformers 6 will take over four screens of a ten screen theatre house. One screen for 2D, one for 3D. A screen for the ‘IMAX Experience’, and a D-Box showing. Two big films out at any one time will leave very little room for anything else.
This will leave two places to see the smaller films. The ever-decreasing independent cinemas, and On-Demand streaming. Whilst many see the On-Demand model as the future of independent filmmaking, it is not ideal. Many smaller films still depend on the casual cinema-goer to recoup costs. Currently, even the smallest film will capture the curious percentage that turn up at Vue, Odeon or Cineworld and choose a film based on an intriguing poster or film title. If these films have no presence on the high street, make no mistake, these people will not go home and search the internet for streaming movies. They’ll choose to watch whatever IS available. A trip to the cinema is a night out, and many will be reluctant to make it a night in around their TV sets or laptop screens.
At one time, we could rely on powerful, successful yet innovative filmmakers to push through original stories and ideas. Unfortunately, even they are not immune to the current trend. I mentioned Avatar earlier. Avatar looked to be the saviour. James Cameron spent many years and a lot of money on a completely original (depending on how you look at it) idea, taking a big gamble in the process. It paid off massively. The highest grossing movie of all time, we thought it would pave the way for studios to take more gambles on completely new movies. Movie executives chose to ignore the message that original properties could pay off, and chose to focus instead on the gross-increasing powers of 3D. Cameron at least was in a position where he would be able to procure the necessary resources to make another brand new film, though, right? Yes, he was. He has however apparently chosen to make all Avatar, all the time.
Other innovative filmmakers of the past decade or so have also been compromised. Ridley Scott is immersing himself back in the worlds of Alien and Blade Runner. Tim Burton’s once unique style has been confined to remakes of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After Peter Jackson’s great success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he could have done whatever he wanted. Instead he adapted The Lovely Bones and has slunk back to the comforts of Middle Earth. Christopher Nolan followed up the massively successful The Dark Knight with a product of his imagination, Inception. It made only half as much as his Bat-sequel, and back to Gotham he went. Even Michael Bay, like him or loathe him, has found himself trapped in a cycle of Transformers movies. JJ Abrams, well-loved for his unique and innovative TV shows, has stuck mainly to recycled cinematic material with a Mission: Impossible movie and two Star Treks.
What about the next generation of great filmmakers? Josh Trank scored this year with Chronicle which, though derivative, was a financially successful movie based on completely new characters. He will now be working on either the Spider-Man spin-off Venom or an adaptation of the Shadow of the Colossus video game… M Night Shyamalan made a name for himself with unique stories, but when it all fell apart he adapted a cartoon. I loved Gareth Edwards’ unique Monsters in 2010. So did Legendary Pictures, snapping him up for the umpteenth Godzilla movie. As soon as a filmmaker shows any degree of promise now, they are indoctrinated into the studio system, and put to work on a licensed property that has been stagnating, awaiting a new creative mind to revive it.
The biggest worry is not the number of adaptations that are now being bankrolled, it is the further narrowing of the field that has begun. Even using an existing property is not enough to make money anymore. John Carter of Mars was based on a years-old classic work of literature. Dark Shadows was based on a TV show that stretched to over a thousand episodes. They flopped, the source properties not well-known enough to today’s audience. Next month, we see the reboot of the Spider-Man movie series, and The Dark Knight Rises, the end to a Batman series which we already know will then go on to be rebooted, or re-tooled. We are facing not just an endless stream of movies based on well-known characters, but a constant rehashing of the ones that turn out to be the most successful.
So who is to blame? Surely it is the mainstream movie audience, who are the ones pouring money into the studios’ coffers for the most recognisable franchises the cinema houses have to offer? Yes, the majority rules, and as long as people will pay to see endless Transformers sequels, there’s no reason to stop making them. The studio executives do, however, have to accept the blame in part for training audiences to choose the familiar over the unique. The overwhelming majority of marketing money goes towards the big sequels and adaptations, leaving more casual film-goers with very little knowledge of anything outside that. With going to the cinema becoming an increasingly expensive habit, people are less inclined to take a risk on a film they know nothing about, when they can be reasonably sure of what they are getting with yet another superhero X-Men movie. This is most neatly demonstrated by the cases last year of lawsuits aimed at the producers of Drive, by customers who believed they were paying to see something more akin to the Fast and the Furious than to Peckinpah’s The Getaway.
Back in the days of the 1990’s, this wasn’t such a problem. There were plenty of original blockbusters that audiences enjoyed, which made them far more amenable to the idea of lower budget, original films. Independent film boomed in the nineties because of this environment, and has declined steadily since then because of the cinematic climate that has now been created.
Cinema is still currently, on the surface, a healthy industry, financially speaking. The big movies still, for the most part, make big money, and the smaller films still get made. As the field continues to narrow, however, the danger looms. Once we get to the point where every movie is a sequel or reboot of a familiar property, audiences will begin to get bored. One day, people will be fed up of superheroes, giant robots and Johnny Depp. It is easy to say that the studios will then adapt, but it is difficult to change the direction of any industry quickly enough to avoid financial collapse. Remember, in the lead up to the global economic crisis, bankers everywhere were still convinced the markets would stabilise, that everything would be OK, because it had been up to that point. That is the problem with impending crisis. No-one wants to believe it will happen, and once it does, there is nothing left to do but point fingers. I say, let’s head it off before the blame needs to be laid at anyone’s door.
Everyone has a part to play. Influential filmmakers need to take a stand, to fight to tell new, imaginative stories. Studios need to be less afraid to take risks on original ideas, spreading marketing and production budgets around a wide variety of filmmaking projects. And audiences have possibly the biggest responsibility. We need to vote with our wallets. See smaller films first, spread word of mouth for the unappreciated gems, and be vocal about our discontent. Corporations only respond when you threaten their bottom lines. It is time for us to do that, because if we don’t do it now, we may never get another chance before time runs out for the film industry.
Barry – You can follow me on Twitter at MrBarrySteele