I don’t know what your movie news feed looks like, but mine tends to be painfully predictable. Over the past few months, with rare exception, it’s pretty much been a non-stop barrage of Star Wars, DC, and Marvel updates.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good franchise. I’m a huge fan of Star Wars and am eagerly awaiting the release of Episode VII. Likewise, I love me some Marvel Cinematic Universe and will be first in line to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron next summer. I’m still a bit cautious about Batman vs. Superman: Courtroom Drama and the upcoming Justice League slate of films, but that’s a whole ‘nother article.
A friend of mine recently echoed the ridiculously common complaint that Hollywood has lost its creative edge and is no longer making original movies. Instead, it’s obsessed about remakes, reboots, sequels, and other adaptations of previous source material. My knee-jerk cynicism aside, he seems to have a point. Sure, there are some interesting original films that show up now and then, but the studios seem to be focused greatly on retreading the past.
This got me thinking: Can’t we go back to the good old days when Hollywood wasn’t all about remakes, reboots, sequels, and franchises?
The Answer: There Never Were Any Good Old Days.
One of the biggest traps of this discussion is to bemoan how movies today all seem to come from existing source material. However, just because Hollywood has a newfound love for comic books and video games doesn’t mean that movies were entirely original up until a couple decades ago – like they just now ran out of ideas.
In fact, one of the oldest honors given at the Oscars is the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, which has been around since the 1920s, specifically differentiating it from the Academy Award for Best Story and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Movies made from existing source material is nothing new. Popular books, plays and other previously-made films have been mined since the beginning of cinema. Looking back to 1980 (the earliest chart that BoxOfficeMojo.com keeps detailing domestic grosses), you’ll find that only three films (The Empire Strikes Back, Any Which Way You Can, and Smokey and the Bandit II) of the Top 10 films of the year were sequels. However, an additional three more (Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Blue Lagoon and The Blues Brothers) were based on existing source material. (This is ignoring Airplane!, which as a spoof, could also be argued to be based on previous works.)
Even in the golden age of film, you couldn’t escape adaptations. For example, look back to 1939, which is possibly one of the greatest years of early 20th century cinema. Two of the biggest, most endearing, and most famous releases of that year were The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, both based on books. More over, The Wizard of Oz was based on a book series that might have been expanded into a full-blown franchise had the original film’s release not been a financial loss for the studio.
So, that takes care of the myth that screenplays weren’t commonly adapted from other sources, but…
When did it become all about franchises?
Again, the reality is that franchises have been around almost as long as motion pictures have been. Strings of sequels on a yearly basis did not originate with the Friday the 13th franchise in the 1980s. In fact, one of the biggest – and still continuing – franchises got its start in the 1960s. Once Dr. No hit pay-dirt at the movie house in 1962, the studio began putting James Bond movies into a pipeline. There was a new Bond film every year from 1962 through 1965, then on the new schedule of every other year from 1967 with You Only Live Twice until the franchise fell into legal shambles in 1989 with Lisense to Kill.
Before James Bond, Universal studios pioneered a major multi-character franchise with their monster movies which stretched from the 1930s through the 1950s. The iconic monster movies started with 1931’s Dracula (which wasn’t just an adaptation of the stage play based on the novel, but also essentially a reboot of F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized Nosferatu) and then Frankenstein later that year. Dracula spawned two direct sequels, and Frankenstein gave us three. In 1941, The Wolf Man introduced a new monster, which went on to star in the cross-over sequels Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945).
That’s just the tip of the Hollywood sequel iceberg. Going all the way back to the silent era, sequels were put into pipelines and churned out, sometimes with several installments a year. The Keystone Cops had a series of a dozen silent films that ran from 1912 to 1915. Rin Tin Tin starred in fifteen films, taking him from the silent era into the talkies in 1931.
Other famous series of movies include Dr. Kildare, the East Side Kids, Bulldog Drummond, Blondie, Red Ryder, The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, and Charlie Chan. Some of these franchises went on for decades and had dozens of installments. Comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Bowery Boys, and Abbott & Costello also made long series of films featuring themselves as characters.
These may not have all been direct sequels, but they were certainly franchises in their own right. For an overall look at the long-running franchises in movie history, look at this list.
So where are all the original films today?
Oh, they’re still around. People just seem to be less interested in seeing them. In fact, the August/September frame offers a cavalcade of movies that are not reboots, Hollywood remakes or sequels. However, originality doesn’t guarantee quality or success. Take this year, for example, The Identical was the only new release on September 5, and it bombed with less than $2m. The weekend before, As Above/So Below and The November Man fizzled. In August, If I Stay, When the Game Stands Tall, Into the Storm, and Get On Up all underperformed.
In recent history, some of the biggest box office losers have been original films, including Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, All About Steve, and The Cold Light of Day… and those were only from the August/September frame. Of course, these films were terrible movies and not indicative of all original scripts. However, they do show that Hollywood isn’t only making reboots, remakes and sequels.
In the end, it’s our own damn fault. Hollywood isn’t making these decisions in a vacuum. They’re giving audiences what they want. It’s not that there are so many reboots, remakes and sequels flooding the marketplace. Instead, people are just paying the most for them. When the average movie-goer sees 6 movies a year, these are the ones they’re choosing. The number of non-sequel/non-reboot/non-remake movies have dipped a bit, but they haven’t disappeared.
Over the past three and a half decades, the Top 10 domestic grosses have been weighted down with sequels, but that’s a result of the franchise pipeline system that was paved first by Warner Bros. with The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films in the early 2000s, then perfected by Marvel in the 2010s. However, historically, there have always been at least 15 to 20 sequels in the Top 50 grosses. Even in 2013, only 20 of the Top 50 films were remakes/reboots/sequels, compared to 15 in 1985.
The harsh reality is that audiences pay for sequels, and they aren’t as friendly to new movies as they like to think they are. People like familiar things. They are creatures of habit.
However, if you like original films, there are still plenty of them out there in the marketplace. They just may not be in the top 10… or top 20… or top 50. Hell, they may be buried in an On Demand menu on your computer rather than in the theaters themselves. However, they are out there, and it has become easier to find them.