Hollywood Has Never Been Original

By  · Published on February 24th, 2015

Marvel/Disney

This article is best read with its companion piece “Hollywood Has Always Been Original.”

In 2012, for the second year in a row, there were zero original movies among the highest grossing films of the year. For some it signaled the natural culmination of the journey studio filmmaking had been on for a decade – one where the ever-fattening calf of intellectual properties and name recognition pushed originality into the hallway, then the lobby, then the parking lot. For others it was just the tip of the iceberg, a frozen foundation that the future of Hollywood seemed destined to be built on.

In that same year, Andrew S. Allen wrote “Has Hollywood Lost Its Way?” for Short of the Week. It’s an incisive piece that jabs at demonstrably waning creativity. It also launched an infographic (comprised of graphs covering the highest grossing films of 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011) into viral orbit. Everyone screaming about how Hollywood had lost its originality now had visual proof. There was only one problem.

Hollywood has never been original.

Instead of looking at 4 random years from a 4-decade span, I’d like to look at a half-century of worldwide filmmaking profits to find how little originality there’s been.

That’s the ten highest grossing films from each year (1962–2014) graphed by whether they were original properties, adaptations or franchise entries. Here’s the full list on a handy spreadsheet. All information is from Wikipedia. I chose the highest grossing movies because it’s a simple metric, it’s what Allen used, and, since studios attempt to duplicate success, looking to the movies that were most monetarily successful can give us an idea of how studio focused shifted over the years.

To see this same information in starker detail, here’s a version where the adaptations and sequels are lumped together in a kind of originality vs. non-originality binary face-off.

There are some definite high points. Brief moments in time where originality won the day (and the money), creating a trendline from 1962–1982 where it heads toward Peak Originality before sliding back down toward 1992, rising briefly in the mid-90s and then heading toward the abyss that we now know intimately. Otherwise, that’s a ton of blue.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. The most original box office year was 1984 with 8 originals (Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, Karate Kid, Police Academy, Footloose, The Terminator and Romancing the Stone). Note how many of those got sequels or were remade.
  2. The least original box office years were (of course) 2011 and 2012, although 1968, 1972, 2007, 2013 and 2014 all only had a single original movie make the top ten.
  3. 13 years had 3 originals; 10 years had 4 originals; 9 years had 2 originals; 7 years had 5 originals; 5 years had 1 original, 4 years had 6 originals, 2 years had 7 originals, 2 years had zero originals, 1 year had 8 originals, and zero years had either 9 or 10 originals.
  4. Thus, there were only 7 out of 53 years (13%) where the top ten were majority original, and there were only 14 out of 53 years (26%) where at least half of the top ten were originals.*
  5. Double thus, at least half the highest grossing movies were non-original 74% of the time in the last half-century, and Hollywood banked the biggest on non-originality 87% of the time.
  6. The mode of the set of originals is 3.
  7. The average number of originals is 3.4.
  8. In 1976, there were 2 documentaries in the top ten – To Fly! and In Search of Noah’s Ark, which I listed as originals.

* This is a more dramatic way of viewing surplus originality in the highest grossing movies:

Again, that’s a lot of blue.

To expand more a bit on labeling, it’s understandable that a few movies can land hazily in a gray area. Documentaries are inherently about real life, so I considered them works of originality because doing otherwise would count all documentaries as creations of non-originality, and that seemed wrong. In fact, where I could, I’ve tried to help the cause of originality by letting the tie go to the runner whenever gray areas cropped up.

Trading Places could be considered an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “The Prince and the Pauper,” but it seems unfair to consider it non-original. Likewise, Footloose is loosely based on real-life events, but it also seems clear that its concept was drawn from the headlines, while the characters and situations grew beyond them. Ditto Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee.

How do you categorize something like Sleepless in Seattle, which is both based on An Affair to Remember and references An Affair to Remember directly as the thing that their romance is mirroring? How do we categorize something like The Lion King, a film whose originality is in dispute? Or Gravity, whose originality is literally in dispute?

A lot of this, naturally, depends on the user. Since I was trying to illustrate how non-original Hollywood has been for the past half-century, I wanted to tip as many fence-sitting films into the Original column and still watch its numbers overshadowed by adaptations and franchises.

If anything, the changeover of supremacy from adaptations to franchises may be the biggest takeaway here. Hollywood has always made the most money off of recognizable properties, but sequels didn’t start making real headway until the modern era. The first time half of the top ten were franchise entries was in 1989 (The Last Crusade, Batman, Back to the Future 2, Lethal Weapon 2 and Ghostbusters 2), and although franchise power dipped in the 1990s, 11 out of 13 (85%) of the years between 2002 and 2014 featured at least 5 franchise entries in the top ten (if not 8 or 9).

That’s the current trend, and it’s the easiest to spot. It’s what Allen was tapping into when writing his article and what many others have tapped into while writing about the dearth of originality in Hollywood. Yet while it’s the easiest trend to understand, it doesn’t give anywhere near a full picture because the full picture shows us that Hollywood has never placed much of a premium on originality.

Except maybe for a few years in the 1980s.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.