It’s often bemoaned that Hollywood has turned into a factory for remakes, reboots, sequels and adaptations. The shift is unpopular, but also cynically understandable. It’s easier to predict profit margins and divvy out shares when you deal in films whose source material is familiar, and box office performance predictable. Why take a risk on a film that has a small chance of doing amazingly when you can go with a film that’s probably going to do okay?
In 2020, we’re starting to see the reason. Audiences are starting to favour streaming services and video content from sites like YouTube and TikTok, which represented a problem even before coronavirus shut cinemas. Audiences are apparently getting tired of the new way business is done in Hollywood, and are becoming less content watching two hours of weaponised nostalgia. They want more. If studios want to give it to them, the answer might not lie in a sequel to The Emoji Movie, or a dark reimagining of Teletubbies. Arguably, audiences want to see something entirely new, so if studios insist on sticking to familiar source material, they might have to try something different. Here’s why risk should be put back into Hollywood, by hiring newer, less experienced creative leads who don’t give a shit.
Start by considering this: a lot of great art comes from risk. Look at Star Wars. It’s a melodrama about a space Buddhist who kidnaps a farmer to defeat a robot dictator and destroy a giant evil egg using magic. It borrows from WWII movies, the Japanese genre of jidaigeki, German expressionism, Flash Gordon, Zoroastrianism and the Presidency of Richard Nixon.
What I’m saying is it’s a mess. It’s a mess that works, though, because – for all its influences – it has vision. It took George Lucas over three years of writing and four screenplays before he arrived at something he was happy with.
Of course, risk-taking on the scale of A New Hope doesn’t always pay off: new, unfamiliar films can flop, including ones that are critically lauded. Wes Anderson’s debut feature Bottle Rocket barely made back a tenth of its budget. Mulholland Drive frequently appears on lists of the greatest films of the 21st century, and failed to break even in America. The Cotton Club was helmed by directing titan Francis Ford Coppola, received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and flopped.
Studio executives know this, so the temptation to go with the familiar hangs over each of their heads. Interestingly, though, we’ve already seen risk-taking pay off from newer creative leads working on big, well-respected properties. With no prior involvement in a franchise, they tend to have less interest in making a film that’s ‘like the original’, facilitating genuine creative flair.
Taika Waititi didn’t care much about Thor before doing Thor: Ragnarok
After a couple of critically acclaimed films, Taika Waititi was trusted with his first big-budget feature with Thor: Ragnarok. A relative newcomer, he decided to make a superhero comedy. The same year, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 attempted much the same thing, with the more experienced director James Gunn. Both were critical and commercial successes, but Waititi’s effort edges out as the best received by audiences. By 2002, Alfonso Cuarón had made a couple of Hollywood films, but not all of them were well received. When asked to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, though, he oversaw a change in tone that shaped the rest of the franchise. An IMDb poll puts Prisoner of Azkaban as the best Harry Potter film in the series.
However, when Cuarón was first approached about Prisoner of Azkaban, he hadn’t read the books, and thought they were silly. Taika Waititi seems to hold the tropes of a superhero movie in contempt, and is determined to subvert them at every turn. After years of Marvel movies begging to be taken seriously, the marketing for Ragnarok took the risk of embracing the colourful campiness of the comics. Not giving a shit can pay off.
Instead of trying to continue the often unwieldy legacy of a franchise, new filmmakers tend to focus on simply telling interesting stories. With less previous commitment to the franchise or cinematic universe, they seem more likely to be willing to ‘break rank’ to convey the ideas that matter to them.
These new, risk-prone filmmakers are likely to come to studios’ attention by making smaller budget films that are critically acclaimed. In hoovering up artists who can capture the zeitgeist, remakes and sequels have the opportunity to regain social relevance. Instead of being derivative of what was once popular, reboots and adaptations can acknowledge contemporary issues. For example, queer, gender and class struggle can come to the forefront of cinema. This might inspire eye-rolls from the cinema-going right, but issues that matter to conservatives are also likely to get more attention.
Films engage an audience by tapping into what bothers them as a people, in ways that are more subtle than one might imagine. Action films took on a gritty realism after 9/11, which sobered audiences up to the realities of violence. Before that, Fight Club was able to tap into the frustration and ennui of the 1990s.
Hiring people who don’t care about a franchise doesn’t always work
Now, in an age of accelerated discourse, it’s becoming costlier for films to relive the past rather than acknowledge the present. The live-action remake of Mulan faced a boycott campaign following a sclerotic studio response to the lead actor’s views on Hong Kong police brutality.
Employing inexperienced writers and directors who don’t care about a franchise or its box office performance won’t always work. Original doesn’t always mean good, and good doesn’t always translate into cash. As it stands, though, the ecology of reboots and sequels needs originality to resuscitate itself. Hollywood seems bent on using audiences’ familiarity with the source material to stop telling engaging and captivating stories. If we want audiences to care about big blockbuster remakes again, we need creative leads who don’t.
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Do you think movie sequels would be better if studios hired people who don’t care about them?
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