If you take a look at the top five movies in the nation according to box office revenue results as of Thanksgiving Day, you will see two sequels, a sequel to a prequel, a remake and a biopic. Despite varying quality, genre and popularity, all of these movies share one thing in common: none of them are original. The biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is the only film of these five that can be argued as original, but as a summarized edition of Freddie Mercury’s life, part music video montage, the film stands less on its own two feet than on prosthetic legs. Nonetheless, the film still stands out simply because it isn’t a sequel, reboot or adaptation of a young adult novel. The sequel, once rare in theaters, is now over-abundant, to the detriment of both film audiences and film-makers.
To be clear, there is still a place in the film industry for original movies; many comedy and horror movies aren’t based on any previous material. Original movies also have retained their place in the realm of film criticism and academia; films like “The Shape of Water,” “Get Out” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” all earned Oscar wins in 2017. The way that the Academy Awards is structured makes it seem as though films are split evenly between adapted films and original films, as there are categories for both, but in reality, the adapted films, including sequels, make up the majority of blockbusters that are distributed.
According to database research by Short of the Week, eight of the top 10 highest grossing films in 1981 were original films, but 30 years later all the films in the top 10 were either sequels or adaptations of comic books, a trend that has continued into 2017. At the same time, ticket sales have diminished significantly, with 2017 showing the lowest sales since 1992. In a market that appears to be on a downturn, film corporations are looking to make low-risk investments in what Lights Film School calls a “presold concept,” such as the sequel to a blockbuster or the adaptation of a New York Times bestseller.
This downturn in ticket sales is partly a result of higher ticket prices due to “premium” theater experiences and more aggressive marketing schemes, but the Atlantic attributed it primarily to millennials and other younger generations. Entertainment is so easily attainable with services like Netflix and Hulu that it sometimes only means waiting a few months if you don’t see a movie in theaters.
Production companies are trying to appeal to both domestic and global audiences. This means that there needs to be a certain level of thematic neutrality or generality to major blockbuster attempts so that they can appeal to countries like China. Both of these factors effectively cheapen the movie-going experience for young people, leaving companies to make safer bets with big, flashy movies they know people will want to see instead of taking chances on original ideas.
I’m not saying that franchises are the sole instrument of greed in Hollywood, and I must admit that I’ve seen more comic book adaptations than I care to count, but the reliance on them for easy capital gain is creating a cyclical effect of alienating audiences and increasing ticket prices. Companies like 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and Universal need to start taking chances on original ideas and let go of creating endless franchise money machines. Filmmaking is both a business and an art, and hopefully someday soon Hollywood will begin to put more of an emphasis on the latter.