Have you been wondering why Hollywood keeps on reusing the same material over and over again? Regardless of how you feel about some of the recent reboots that have come out, let’s take a look at this trend in depth.
Reboots, revivals, do-overs, remakes, adaptations, and more seem to be pervading the cinema. Call them what you will, but they’re one of the most talked about, chided, and derided trends in Hollywood. You’ve heard it before, maybe even participated in conversations about how tiring and uninspired it is to see yet another lifeless installment in a past-its-prime franchise.
So why do the big film studios keep rehashing the same ideas when the concept is almost universally despised by audiences?
The answer is money. Hated though the idea may be, remakes, reboots, and adaptations regularly bring in millions of viewers to the box office (or, more recently, subscribers to the small screen). Audiences keep spending money on them, sometimes to the tune of over a billion dollars, so Hollywood keeps making them.
It’s the money. Case closed, let’s wrap it up.
Or, actually, there’s got to be more to it than that, right?
Was It Always This Way?
Yes, it was always this way. One of the earliest adaptations from Hollywood was all the way back at its start, back before Hollywood was really Hollywood. In 1914, Cecil B. DeMille (yes, that Mr. DeMille) made his first movie, The Squaw Man. It was an adaptation of a play and grossed half of a million dollars, a roaring success at the time.
As Hollywood’s first major movie, The Squaw Man cemented the viability of adaptations in Hollywood’s very foundation, the core of its DNA.
But what about remakes? How long did it take those to come around? Surely early audiences would be more discerning in wanting their money to go to new ideas, ready for new experiences in a fresh new medium. Certainly longer than four years…
Hollywood’s first major remake was The Squaw Man. Again, just four years later.
The Squaw Man… Again
In 1918, with a full four years of a cooling-off period, DeMille dipped back into The Squaw Man inkwell with a remake. Not a sequel, not a new perspective or sister movie, but a full-on remake. New cast, new crew, same story. DeMille wanted to prove a point that a good movie was founded on a good story rather than star power. Again, The Squaw Man was a massive success, proving not only that DeMille was right, but that audiences would see a movie with a good story even if it was a familiar one. And DeMille didn’t stop there, making the movie yet a third time (this time as a talkie!). Though three times proved to be one too many, as this iteration was a financial failure.
More Hollywood Building Blocks
Cecil B. DeMille wasn’t the only one in Hollywood to have the idea of an adaptation or a remake. You may have never heard of The Squaw Man, but surely you’ve heard of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that classic 13-minute short film made in 1910. What? That doesn’t sound like what you remember? How about The Wizard of Oz, the 1925 silent film starring Dorothy Dwan? Still not ringing any bells?
The Wizard of Oz started as a novel in 1900 and was adapted for the screen six times (and one given a sequel) before the famous Judy Garland musical in 1939, with another half-dozen or so adaptations since then.
The message is clear: remakes and adaptations have always been a part of Hollywood, way back to its beginnings in feature motion picture productions.
Was It Really Always This Way?
The longer answer is… no. Because it does feel different now, doesn’t it? Besides the occasional one-off sleeper hit, it feels like Hollywood has simply run out of ideas.
And there’s some data to back that up. While the movie industry, represented by the Academy Awards, may still purport to value originality by consistently nominating movies with original screenplays, the box office tells a different story (as does what actually gets made by the industry).
Of the top box office-grossing films by year, besides 2014’s American Sniper (itself adapted from a book based on real events), you have to go back all the way to 2002’s Spider-Man to find a movie that isn’t a direct sequel of another movie, and even further to 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to find a top-grossing movie from an original screenplay.
That’s nearly two decades of sequels, and even longer for adaptations. Before that, though, things look a little different. Throughout the 90s, the only direct sequel was Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, and more than half of the films of that decade were original screenplays. This trend follows backward through time until box office figures get difficult to pin down.
This holds true even when looking at the top-grossing movies by year, rather than just the top-grossing movie. Before the 2010s, the split would be about half-and-half between original works and adaptations/sequels/remakes, but adapted works have come to dominate over the past ten years.
It’s no secret why Hollywood loves adaptations. There’s a built-in audience, a fanbase of the material which often results in a guaranteed number of ticket sales from fans regardless of the quality. This also helps reduce the marketing burden, as fans will often stay connected with the material and even share news of the movie on their own. Finally, the material has (usually) already been proven successful in other media, so there’s at least a market for the fundamental story (and remember, DeMille already made a solid point in Hollywood about the importance of a good story decades ago, because that’s just the kind of thing you have to prove to Hollywood outright). This doesn’t guarantee a film’s financial success, but it takes away a lot of the variables and hurdles that a totally unknown work may have.
In short, making something that’s already been done before lowers risk and maximizes reward. It’s a no-brainer for movie studios to invest most of their time and money into things they know are likely to do well in all but the most egregious failures. But still, new IPs have to come from somewhere. There would be no opportunity for Disney to make a slew of box-office-smashing Star Wars movies if Fox had never taken a chance on Star Wars in the first place. There would be no chance to make another Rocky sequel, a television show, and a Creed sequel if United Artists had never given Stallone a chance on the first one way back when (those have all really been announced).
The industry has always been ready to set a little money aside for original screenplays and new ideas, taking a chance that they could end up with their next smash franchise or even just a critical darling sleeper hit, but they started to drift away from that in the late aughts and early 2010s.
While there’s no one factor that precipitated this change, there was a major shake-up at around the same time that could help explain the shift: the rise of digital filmmaking.
Studios v. Indies
With new advancements in filmmaking technology, suddenly making a whole, real, theater-quality movie was within reach of even the average person. There had been a few success stories of low-budget filmmaking in years past, like Kevin Smith’s Clerks or Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, both self-funded successes from the 90s. But those types of movies had always been the rare outlier. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that low-budget movies with compelling stories and original ideas exploded onto the scene.
And they never really stopped.
Suddenly, self-funded or low-budget movies saturated the market, with the rise of the internet making distribution of these movies easier than ever before.
With the indie auteurs taking care of the “new and interesting ideas” side of the market, the major studios pulled back as a response and focused on doing what only they could: big-budget spectacles, the one area the indie filmmakers could never compete. The massive, star-studded, CGI-laden, stunt-and-explosion-filled experience that would wow audiences in a theater.
Hollywood Finds Its Forte
Hollywood’s one blessing, being able to outspend the indie filmmakers, was also their curse. They had to actually spend all that money on all that CGI, those explosions, the incredibly expensive star-studded casts, making every movie a major financial risk. The film industry is filled with stories of big-budget productions that nearly (or sometimes entirely) bankrupted a studio when the film failed to recoup its budget. To help mitigate that risk, the studios turned to the built-in audiences with proven material and started cranking out more adaptations than ever before, while spending more than ever before to remind audiences what Hollywood was really good at.
This wasn’t entirely at the cost of good ideas, as more than a few modern adaptations and remakes have found both financial and critical success, with talented filmmakers finding new ways to present old material, using new ideas or new technology to offer fans a new experience with characters and stories they know and love. But, by and large, if audiences wanted something really new, an original idea, they’d likely have to turn to smaller distributors and independent filmmaking companies to scratch that itch.
Thankfully, with the rise of streaming services, it’s easier than ever before to find a low-budget movie with talented creators behind it, letting audiences expand their minds with interesting new concepts while still getting the grand experience of a big-budget movie in a theater (once they open back up, anyway).
So, while it might be tempting to decry the unoriginality in Hollywood, remember that all that’s really happened is the industry has broken into more segments, giving audiences more options than ever before to find what suits them.