Box office déjà vu: Hollywood’s passion for prequels, sequels and remakes

As the screen finally faded to black at the end of the latest superhero instalment Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I noticed I had been on the edge of my seat for the entire film. Not because I was alive with anticipation or excitement, but because I was anxious to leave the theatre. I was experiencing an overwhelming sense of déjà vu—of course I had seen these characters before, but something about the plot and all of its sparkling Hollywood effects seemed all too familiar.

Walking out of the cinema, I passed posters advertising the likes of Now You See Me 2, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Ice Age 5: Collision Course. These looked great, I thought. Out in the carpark, I scrolled down my Facebook newsfeed to discover that production for three more Avatar films had been announced; how exciting. I then stumbled across a post that said Disney were planning to release a minimum of four more Star Wars-related films. This news somewhat compensated for what I had just sat through. Yet suddenly I struggled to remember the last truly-original film I had seen.

Audiences crave context; they need more than being simply presented with a story and then told to go home. For some reason, we are fixated on background information and with how plots came to be. This is where the ‘prequel’ comes in, detailing the events leading up to some of our most favourite stories. And why leave it there? Audiences also seem to wonder what else happens after the screen fades out. The ‘sequel’ feeds us this information—there probably wasn’t much point to canvassing Batman’s character in Batman Begins if The Dark Knight and The Dark Night Rises never told the rest of the story. Then there are complete re-imaginations of a story, the remakes, which are often told with a fresh twist as seen through a different set of eyes.

What could be the motivation for this approach to film making? Laziness? A lack of fresh ideas? Perhaps it actually has more to do with guaranteeing a profit. According to Box Office Mojo, an online reporting service owned by IMDb, eight out of 10 of the highest grossing films worldwide in 2015 were prequels, sequels, or remakes. Disney Pixar’s Inside Out and 20th Century Fox’s The Martian—ranking in at numbers seven and 10 respectively—were the only original films on this list. Even then, The Martian was an adaptation on a book of the same name so it could be argued that Inside Out was the only truly-original film. Obviously there is a demand for movie reboots. These films are risk-free options for studio executives who would not continue to endorse them if they made less money than it costs to produce them.

I suppose people like me are partly to blame for the blatant reduction of new and innovative script ideas. I never hesitate to go and see the countless additions to many of my favourite movie series. In fact, I often expect studios to continue announcing more reboots; not all of them are disappointing. But there was a time when film writers were hired for their ability to imagine and animate never-before-seen stories—when audiences were engrossed in the sheer novelty of films that offered viewers a smorgasbord of variety.

Film lovers should not yet abandon all hopes of returning to a time when this was the case. Many short or independent films, and even foreign cinema, provide a reminder of the power and intensity of a unique and well-told story. And there are exceptions to the trend towards film franchising; take this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, Spotlight, as an example. However, it is worth calling into question whether Hollywood is selling out and trading originality for solid admissions. The film industry already has enough threats to deal with without considering the impact of exhausted script ideas on increasingly-critical audiences. There are only so many times I can barrack for Jason Bourne to escape the clutches of death.

Words by Ethan Minervini

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