Suppose your friends are available, you’ve got some free time, and your wallet isn’t totally empty. I know this scenario only exists in some of our wildest dreams, but humor me for a bit and pretend this is reality. Sounds like ideal conditions to go see a movie, right? So let’s take a look at some of 2017’s summer blockbusters: Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Mummy, Cars 3, Transformers: The Last Knight, Despicable Me 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, and the list goes on. Are you noticing a trend here? While there are a few other blockbuster releases scheduled over the summer, these are all sequels or reboots to existing film franchises—and that doesn’t even include the rest of the year. So where, you may be asking, is the originality?
Long story short, these are the movies we spend money to see. In 2016, eight out of the top 10 highest grossing films of the year were either sequels, reboots, or movie adaptations of existing creative material. And though we may bemoan the abundance of big-budget franchises and their tiresomely predictable installments, Hollywood cares about our money, not our opinions. Even when big releases fall short in the American box office, movie studios can usually rely on the same release overseas making up a good portion of their overall profit. But times are changing, and audience opinions and harsh reviews of sequels are starting to threaten the formulas that Hollywood loves so dearly.
By September 2016, around 26 sequels and remakes had been produced that year, while only 7 of those made more money for movie studios than their originals. In addition, more sequels were made in 2016 than in 2014 or 2015, which spells bad for Hollywood if this trend continues for the years going forward. However, as mentioned before, only two of the top ten highest grossing films of 2016, Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets, were based off of original content. Because of this, Hollywood still sees the financial risk associated with funding sequels as worth it. After all, the biggest performers of the year still seem to be associated with franchises or reboots.
Does this mean that the problem of unoriginality is being framed the wrong way? Some believe that box office success simply comes down to whether or not a movie is well-made. Positive press and social media buzz is, of course, a huge driving factor that gets people to take the trip to the movie theater rather than waiting for a streaming release (getting people to the theater is huge as ticket sales overall have been dropping over the years as fewer people decide to go to the movies). Others also argue that perhaps, in a frenzy to produce additions to past successes and draw in audiences, studios are rushing out movies too quickly for them to be good. This leads to the greater problem of Hollywood churning out films on the basis of quantity over quality.
Speaking of quantity, so many of these hastily-made productions are simply unnecessary. In 2016, was anyone really clamoring to see Alice Through the Looking Glass? After Johnny Depp’s fall from public favor, isn’t a fifth Pirates installment just overkill at this point? And after Pixar’s first (and so far only) flop with Cars 2, do audiences even care to see a third? In some cases, movie studios just seem to strike upon a winning formula. Disney seems to have done this twofold—Marvel sequels consistently rank among the top of the box office in each year they are released. More recently, every new live-action remake seems to generate more and more online publicity. And while I may not personally understand the appeal of seeing how Disney tries translating anthropomorphic tableware to live action, the allure these movies have with their target audience is undeniable. If studios are after success, they simply need to get better at learning and predicting what moviegoers are interested in.
And if each new blockbuster release promises a film worth seeing, do people simply start spending money at the movie theater more often, leading to profit all around for studios? Not exactly — at least not according to big names like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who predict a major shift in the film industry. Spielberg believes that blockbusters that don’t earn enough profit (in relation to their ever-expansive budgets) will have to start commanding a higher ticket price, while lower-budget indie films can keep their prices low. Lucas adds that he believes blockbusters may end up like Broadway shows—higher ticket price and a longer duration in the theater itself. I believe it’s very plausible to see rising ticket prices in the coming years, and while I don’t look forward to it, I believe that Spielberg’s prediction could actually spur positive ramifications in the film industry. If costs continue to rise for studios producing sequels and reboots constantly, perhaps we might start to see more truly original screenplays on the big screen.
Box office success or otherwise, it is disheartening to me to have to wait until Oscars season every year to treat myself to a well written and produced movie with an original concept. This may seem like a low bar, but it could be awhile before Hollywood cures itself of its “sequel-itis.” But as fewer unoriginal blockbusters prove successful to big name studios, only time will tell if change is on the horizon for the film industry.