I. Franchises, Remakes, and Sequels: Oh My!
If we look at the box office as of today, the top three films are: Ocean's 8, Solo: A Star Wars Story, & Deadpool 2. All of them are tied to a franchise (one being a prequel, two being a sequel, though Ocean's 8 is more tangentially related to the original franchise than anything else). This weekend Incredibles 2 is expected to dominate the box office.
This speaks to a common complaint many have about the state of Hollywood: there is very little original filmmaking out there. It's all superhero movies, sequels, remakes, and reboots. I've heard filmmakers, cinephiles, and regular moviegoers voice this complaint time and time again. There is some substance to it, too.
Marvel has released eighteen superhero films in the past ten years (roughly two films per year). We have seen multiple attempts at franchises and reboots, from The Mummy to King Arthur, and there have been a ton of sequels. John Wick 2, Fifty Shades Darker, The Lego Batman Movie, T2 Trainspotting, The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Alien: Covenant, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Cars 3, Transformers: The Last Knight, Amityville: The Awakening, Despicable Me 3, Bad Dads, War for the Planet of the Apes, Annabelle 2, The Nut Job 2, Blade Runner 2049, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Insidious: The Last Key, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Jigsaw, A Bad Mom's Christmas, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Pitch Perfect 3.
Those are just the sequels that were released in 2017. In one year there were 28 sequels released. Let that sink in. That's not even counting the remakes and reboots there were.
So what is going on? Why is the market so saturated with these types of films? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?
II. Same Hollywood, Different Franchises
If there is one thing we know about Hollywood, it's that it's very predictable.
While it may seem like Hollywood has only become interested in the mass production of franchises and sequels and remakes in the past ten years, the truth is that big-time producers have always funded these kinds of films. Just look at the Transformers franchise.
I was thirteen years old when the first trailer for Transfomers came out. My first thought was "this looks really dumb." In fact, a lot of my friends thought the same thing. After all, how could they make an animated TV show about transforming robots?
My instinct for box office success had not developed at that point, quite obviously, because Transformers went on to be one of the most successful films of the years, spawning five sequels with Michael Bay in the director's chair. Even now, with him leaving the franchise, Bumblebee is scheduled to come out this year. Every single one of these films has made a profit at the box office, too, and Bumblebee likely will as well.
In 2003 a small Disney film called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl came out. When I first saw this trailer I was nine or ten (for some reason I thought this was The Count of Monte Cristo, though I have no idea why). Again, it seemed like this film was bound to fail, even with a talented cast (including Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, who had just finished up Peter Jackson's highly acclaimed film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings). After all, this was a film based on a ride at Disneyland -- what could they do with that?
Well, again, I (and everyone else) was wrong. The first Pirates film was highly acclaimed, spawned four sequels, and made a ton of money domestically and overseas.
This goes back even further. Just think about the Star Wars films, or the Rocky series, or the Alien franchise.
My point is that these trends should not be surprising. Hollywood has always put money on projects they know are "safe" -- where they know they are going to get a decent ROI. The real issue nowadays has to do with the amount of sequels, remakes, and reboots.
In fact, if you look at the statistics, you will find that there has been a rather large increase in the release of sequels from 2005 to 2015.
Sequels Released From 2005 to 2015
So what's causing this influx of sequels in the film market? Why are these films saturating our theaters?
III. Marvel Takes Over
There is one clear catalyst for our current age of sequels and franchises. There is one clear reason why producers and companies are trying their hardest to create franchises right and left: Marvel.
Before Marvel, the closest thing we had to a cinematic universe was Star Wars. With seven films, multiple characters, and one overarching story it gave audiences a sense of scope that few other franchises could offer. Marvel changed everything, though.
Over the past ten years (including 2018) Marvel has released 19 films to create the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Ant Man and the Wasp coming out this year, that count will tick up to 20. Next year they are planning on releasing Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel. This doesn't even include the Marvel films produced by Fox.
Marvel is, therefore, one of the most successful brands in the world at the moment. Their films regularly dominate the box office in the top spot. Their fanbase is huge and devoted. They are so powerful they can get distinguished actors like Robert Redford in their films.
Because of their power, other producers and companies have tried to jump on the bandwagon. The DCEU (starting with Man of Steel) tried to pursue the same basic world-building structure. The Mummy was an attempt to kickstart the Dark Universe. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword tried to start a seven-film King Arthur franchise. Kong: Skull Island started a monster franchise with Godzilla.
Now these franchises have had varying degrees of success. The point is that investors, now more than ever, have a clear idea of what will make them money: superheroes and cinematic universes. Therefore, we have seen more investment in these kinds of films.
IV. The Foreign Market
Another big factor that should be mentioned here is the foreign market. Nowadays, when a film is released, the majority of its revenue comes from cinemas abroad, not cinemas in the US. This is especially true of giant franchises like Transformers, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and -- you guessed it -- Marvel films.
Just look at the top ten highest grossing films of 2017 below and see the difference between their domestic gross and their foreign gross.
Highest Grossing Films of 2017, Foreign and Domestic Revenue (Millions)
So why does it matter that the foreign market is often the most profitable for investors and producers? Well, mainly because when a franchise does poorly in the US but very well abroad, that franchise will continue.
Just take the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: fans have been over the franchise for years. Dead Man's Chest and At World's End received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales have suffered at the domestic box office and have been hated by fans and critics. Yet, abroad, these films are still making hundreds of millions of dollars.
If there's one thing you take away from this exploration of modern filmmaking, let it be this: Hollywood will always follow the money, no matter where that money is. If critics hate a film, but it makes a ton of money they will continue to fund that franchise, or films like it. If critics and audiences love a film but it doesn't at least break even, that filmmaker will have a tough time selling future projects.
V. Our Nostalgia Is Our Worst Enemy
It's not just producers that are spurning these kinds of films, though. As moviegoers, we tell investors and producers what we want with our wallets. If we spend a lot of money on a certain film, and buy DVDs, Blu-Rays, and digital copies of it producers take notice of this. They notice an incentive to further invest in these kinds of projects. Often times what could have been a one-off film (like Kingsman: The Secret Service) turns into a franchise and spawns a sequel.
When Hollywood releases these kinds of films, we immediately turn out.
You don't have to look too far to see this in action. Tonight Incredibles 2 comes out and, already, it is expected to make almost $175 million this weekend.
That's not me knocking Incredibles 2, either. I will be one of the people buying a ticket this weekend. However, we need to notice our own reaction to these kinds of films.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It's the reason why we turn out highly anticipated sequels. It's also the reason these sequels are being made. Just think about it: if these films didn't consistently make money at the box office would producers invest in them? No, obviously. Even if those films have a passionate fanbase there is very little incentive to continually fund those projects.
VI. We Want Original Films, But We Don't Show Up for Them
And that brings is to the biggest reason why we don't see many truly original films nowadays: we simply don't show up for them in the same way we show up for sequels, remakes, and Marvel.
Now, granted, this isn't always true. Every now and then we have a film like Get Out which makes a killing at the box office. And, in some respect, films that turn into cinematic universes and sequels don't always start out like that.
Think about it like this, though. One of my favorite filmmakers is Martin Scorsese. He is an established name now who can get funding from anyone for any project. Yet, his biggest and most well-known film (Goodfellas) was his 12th film. He made some other classics before that (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc.) but none of them were the financial success that Goodfellas was.
Would Scorsese have survived in our modern filmmaking climate? I'm not so sure. I would like to think so, as his filmmaking prowess is clear from his debut feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door. I'm not sure modern producers would have funded these films over more profitable franchises, though. And, more importantly, I'm not sure we would turn out for those films.
In some respect the reasoning for both parties is the same: investors aren't as willing to invest in unknown projects and unknown filmmakers; we aren't as willing to pay for a ticket to go see a film we know nothing about, or a filmmaker we have never seen before. That brings us back to the central tenant of the film industry: if there's no money in it no one is going to make it.
David Lynch, probably the best example of someone who may not have made it in modern Hollywood with his filmography, did an interview last year before Twin Peaks: The Return came out. In it he said some depressing, but unfortunately true, things, which included this quote.
To hear the most well-known "art-house" director (though I think he would reject that label) say that the arthouses are dead and that cinema is in trouble should be the canary in the coal mine for filmmakers. He's not the only one concerned about the state of modern filmmaking. Jodie Foster has also voiced her concerns about the state of filmmaking, and movie-watching, today.
James Gunn had a rather candid and polite response to Ms. Foster, defending superhero films and spectacle cinema in general in a series of tweets.
I'm stuck in the middle of these two perspectives. "Spectacle cinema" is an important part of Hollywood; it always has been. However, this hard lean into spectacle cinema, at the expense of independent cinema and the arthouse, is killing the diversity that Hollywood used to be known for. It was that diversity that allowed filmmakers like George Lucas, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, and Sofia Coppola to thrive. To shirk that diversity is to reduce the quality of our filmmaking and our cinema.
VII. It's Not the End of the World
I don't want to make it seem like I am completely against sequels, franchises, and remakes -- I'm not. Some of the best films of all times were sequels -- The Godfather: Part 2, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, etc. I also enjoy the Marvel films, even if they tend to be derivative.
Filmmaking is not in trouble in the way Jodie Foster is suggesting -- independent cinema is not dying, it's just changing the place it lives. A24 has done a lot to put independent films out for the public; those films are making a good amount of money domestically. Amazon has put a lot of resources into producing original independent films like Moonlight, Paterson, and Manchester By the Sea. Even Netflix, though it's original films are often of a lesser quality than we would like, is giving young, new, and established filmmakers a platform.
When you think about it, original films are very similar to good rock music nowadays -- it can be hard to find. If you want to listen to modern, quality punk bands you're not going to find them on your FM dial. They won't be the thing that is promoted immediately by Spotify. But if you know where to go, which site to search, and which people to follow you will be able to find some decent punk rock.
With the constant barrage of spectacle films in theaters, and the incessant churning out of sequels, prequels, remakes, reimaginings, cinematic universes, and franchises it can be difficult to find truly unique cinema. If you really want to find it, you just need to do a little bit of digging