How original is too original?
Critics of the Hollywood system are often vocal about the lack of original output. The perception is studios are prioritising sequels and franchises over new product. There are many reasons for this, but a lot of the blame lies with the audience.
It will come as no shock that studios tend to invest heavily in sequels, reboots and remakes. There is a proven audience for these properties and with millions invested this is a safe approach. A semi-guaranteed return on investment is always going to seem more enticing than a risky gamble.
The accepted norm is that the phrase “big-budget” relates to franchise pictures. It’s not uncommon to hear criticisms of this practise. But what about those chances that studios take? Those original screenplays that evolve into big-budget tentpoles? Well it’s here where the problem begins.
Daring to be different
Unfortunately for the studio, Disney seems to have suffered the brunt of these examples in recent years. Tomorrowland was a much-touted original film (ignoring the fact it is based on, or at least inspired by, a Disney theme park), that joined the ranks of such Disney (non) hits as John Carter and the Lone Ranger.
While the latter were both based on existing ideas, Tomorrowland ticked all the right boxes. It was an original story with big budget SFX and starring A-lister George Clooney. Audiences said they longed for originality, and here it was. A family friendly movie with an inventive and fun premise, yet the movie failed to gather any traction on release.
Tomorrowland ended its worldwide theatrical run at $206.6 million. While not a disaster by any means, given the lavish $190million budget the film is considered a flop.
It’s a matter of perspective
The general opinion of Hollywood is that, recently, it has stopped producing original ideas. Relying too heavily on a slew of remakes, reboots, sequels and adaptations. The truth though is that this has always been the case.
Perhaps one of the best examples of classic Hollywood cinema, the Wizard of Oz, was in fact the tenth version of that story released.
The Maltese Falcon, a classic Hollywood noir, was the third film version.
There have been five versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, itself an adaptation of a novel. Hitchcock was known to remake his own films from time to time.
To say this is a modern problem, or a problem at all, is to fail to see that this is how Hollywood has always worked.
Watch your budget
Mass audiences are gravitating towards big franchise pictures. Hollywood’s challenge then is a matter of budget.
A majority of recent ‘flops’ have been big-budget extravaganzas. 47 Ronin, Seventh Son, Tomorrowland, Jupiter Ascending… it’s a common trend. Compare those with original comedy movies. They rarely struggle to turn a healthy profit due to controlled and significantly lower budgets. Low budget indie films also continue to thrive, especially films with festival and awards buzz. Low budget horror is a consistent sound investment; practically guaranteed to bring in massive profits if you keep your budget strictly around the $5 million mark.
Looking at those figures, movies which kept a restrained budget enjoyed a healthy margin between budget and gross. The larger budget films, while still enjoying a respectable gross, were unable to make a profit.
Franchise pictures like Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Furious 7 have managed to draw a large audience this year. While audiences flock to these over other films, it doesn’t mean that originality is dead. Original pictures are just less popular for mass audiences it would seem.
Rising ticket prices and the total cost of an evening at the multiplex has made audiences wary. Films without buzz can drift by unnoticed, forcing Hollywood to roll out the hype machine for their releases. This has its own problems, as audiences are savvy to this strategy. Cinema goers are taking less risks, preferring a guarantee of an enjoyable experience.
There is a disconnect between what audiences say they want in focus groups and what they’re actually prepared to pay for.
It’s the marketing, stupid
The real battle isn’t actually between original vs. adaptation at all. This argument completely disregards the notion that most franchise pictures have original stories. The truth is that it comes down to good vs. not good.
Social media has allowed near-instantaneous spreading of messages like never before. The first wave of audiences for new releases can immediately let everyone know their thoughts on what they’ve just seen.
Online commentators have praised the originality of Ridley Scott’s recently-released The Martian. Through ignorance or apathy, there is little argument over its originality, given that it is another adaptation. If the key concern of the modern audience was the lack of original ideas in Hollywood, a film based on a book would be a key target. Instead, The Martian is scoring well with audiences and critics, and should pull in a healthy gross.
Research consistently shows that recommendations from friends are more trusted than marketing messages from brands. It was arguably much easier a few years ago to put out a sub-par picture and have a great opening weekend. There was a delay before audiences woke up and smelled the stink; now that buffer has been completely stripped away.
There is a bias to consider when looking at audience data. Audiences are unlikely to admit to being wooed by shallow experiences over deeper ones, yet clearly they are. The disconnect between what people think they like vs. what they will pay for, is a key driver in today’s industry landscape.
No discussion on a film’s performance with audiences should be had without the tacit understanding that audiences lie. The only true barometer is financial. It’s no wonder Hollywood continues to prioritise big franchises over the riskier options.