Hollywood’s Real Problem: Safe Bets
Every once in a while, someone will have a great idea: make film that hearkens back in some way to a beloved story told in the past. It often takes the form of a sequel, a reboot, or a remake. Sometimes this is done with love and care, sometimes it’s a cash grab. Sometimes it’s pretty good, and sometimes it’s garbage that still manages to make gobs of cash.
A positive example is Cobra Kai, which continues the story of Johnny and Daniel as adults. It has all the nostalgic appeal that a sequel should have, but it manages to be a very good story told by obvious fans of the original Karate Kid films. I’ve never seen the film sequels, and barely remember the original movie, yet I fell in love with this show and many others did, too.
Then there’s the slew of Disney remakes coming out this year. We’ve got Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King. We’ve already had Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, and Pete’s Dragon. I’m not counting Alice in Wonderland or the 1990s’ 101 Dalmatians, which at least had actual live-action dalmatians. Coming up still is Mulan and The Little Mermaid.
Throw in the fact that the theaters are constantly bombarded with new Marvel movies, Disney is still trying to save Star Wars from dying at the hands of their incompetence, and are happily buying up all the studios and properties they can in order to create more and more content and it seems clear that we have a huge problem.
Disney isn’t the only one, either. Rebooting Ghostbusters was a bad idea from the start. Another live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender is set to arrive (no opinion yet as to whether it’ll be great or not), and Teen Titans is set to make a live-action comeback (I do have an opinion on that one…) that intends to cater to fans of the original show instead of the Go variety of watchers.
There are many, many examples, and most of the time these various remakes, reboots, and sequels seem to be made with one goal in mind: money. They don’t seem to be made with a lot of care or affection for the source material, they exist to make some quick money.
They are, as a studio would see it, safe bets.
The problem with new, original stories is that you have no idea whether the audience will share the director’s love of the characters, themes, or stories. New stories, it would seem, are the job of authors, game developers, and people who want to pitch their idea to a streaming device like Netflix or Hulu.
Bird Box, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Stranger Things all come from streaming services. Cable also gets new material periodically, even if it’s not HBO!
The problem lies squarely in Hollywood and their unwillingness to do something new and take a loss, potentially.
Now, before I go further, I get it. If I write one of my books, short stories, or develop one of my indie games, I know there’s no guarantee that it’ll take off. I also know that I haven’t sunk a lot of money into a writing project or my games, at least not on the scale of a big Hollywood budget. I’ve got the same software I use as the background for most of my game engines and graphic design, and Scrivener as well as Pro Writing Aid (not using either right now) are still serving me well when it comes to writing, and if I write something that bombs, if this article doesn’t get a lot of acclaim, or if it bombs when I release my Perseus point-and-click adventure game on Steam, I may have to put in a lot of time for nothing, but I’m not considerably poorer for it.
I realize that Hollywood is different. Not everyone has the philosophy of George Lucas, who put a ton of his own money into the production of the Clone Wars series, knowing that he wouldn’t make it back. Most studios want to profit consistently, and passion projects are largely out of the question.
But how long can you realistically expect to keep up profits by doing this? Ghostbusters showed us that fans will not be content to rewatch the same film with different actors and more up-to-date special effects, and the way that Solo bombed was an eye-opener to Disney that slapping the name Star Wars onto a movie and setting it in the OT isn’t a guaranteed money machine. But at the same time, people are perfectly content to rewatch classic Disney movies that just happen to be live-action.
Granted, part of the reason for that might be because so many children will go and see these Disney remakes, and they aren’t picky enough to realize that they’re rewatching films that are already on DVD and are superior to these remakes in almost every way.
Some people might be thinking, “But it’s a trend, and we’ve seen trends come and go throughout Hollywood since the birth of the film industry!”
True, but there’s a difference between what’s happening today and what the trends of yesterday were. Be ready, because I’m about to pick on Disney again.
Let’s take the Disney Renaissance period, which started with The Little Mermaid and continued through Tarzan. The formula for most of these movies is the same:
- We’re introduced to a character who’s an outcast for some reason. She’s too well-bred, he’s too clumsy, she’s too obsessed with something she probably doesn’t really understand, this one is homeless, that one is deformed, this one thinks he’s killed his own father, etc.
- That character will sing a song about what it is he or she thinks they want, often called the “I Want” song.
- We’ll be introduced to a host of side characters that will either have you laughing or rolling your eyes and cringing. Sometimes they’ll get their own ear worm song.
- We’ll also be introduced to an obvious villain who likely, but not always, gets his or her own ear worm song. I’m looking squarely at you, “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”!
- In order for the character to come to the conclusion of his or her arc, they’ll realize that either what they want and what they need are two different things, or that what they thought they needed to do to get what they want and what they actually have to do to get what they want are two different things.
Each movie has a lot of similarities, yet it’s totally possible to think Beauty and the Beast is a timeless masterpiece but also think that Pocahontas was a problematic and boring movie. Despite following a formula throughout its ten year heyday, it’s definitely possible to enjoy some films more than others, because the characters, themes, and other aspects of the story (the “meat” of it) is different from one film to the next.
For a while historical movies were also a trend, yet it’s possible to love Agora and hate Kingdom of Heaven. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ kicked off a trend for Bible-based films and TV, but, again, not all of them were created equal.
Musical movies have also been a trend that has come and gone, but My Fair Lady is way different from Sweeney Todd.
To a certain extend, such trends in film provide the studios with safe bets, yet they still allow room for a lot of originality and variety. They hit the genres audiences want while still bringing something new to the table. You didn’t have to be someone like Jim Henson and decide to do something outrageous like make a variety show run by puppets, or a sitcom whose major characters were all animatronics to bring something fresh to the table.
So, What Should Hollywood Do?
Isn’t the answer obvious? Start making something original! Riding a trend is fine and dandy so long as you aren’t doing something to bank solely on the nostalgia factor. Nostalgia is fine, and revitalizing old franchises or stories isn’t bad in and of itself, but when you’re only doing it because it’s easy money, it becomes stale and repetitive.
Instead buying up all of your competition, if you focus on creating new stories, maybe taking a look at stories that really could use an update or improvements, or even going so bold as to start a new trend (Pirates of the Caribbean was considered a huge risk, yet look at what it did for Disney), then maybe you’ll hit gold.
As Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, once put it, “The pursuit of making money is the only reason to make movies. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our obligation is to make money, and to make money, it may be important to make history. To make money, it may be important to make art, or some significant statement. To make money, it may be important to win the Academy Award, for it might mean another ten million dollars at the box office.
“Our only objective may be to make money, but in order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies. And if we make entertaining movies, at times we will make history, art, a statement, or all three. We may even win awards.”
This is how Hollywood thinks. Art comes second to money, but the problem comes from the fact that Hollywood has managed to just use nostalgia as a way to make bank. Studios no longer have to make history, art, or a statement to get their ten million dollars in the box office. As much as Eisner was hated at Disney, his philosophy regarding film seems to have been adopted by the entire industry.
Again, I get it. Writers, game designers, and even YouTube creators don’t have as much to lose if their work doesn’t catch on. But I don’t enjoy rewarding Hollywood for their lazy work because they refuse to do sometimes significant unless they absolutely have to to get another blockbuster.