Do you ever get the impression that most films these days are sequels and remakes?
Well I’ve got some good news — it’s not just your imagination. According to a chart tweeted out this weekend by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, original films really are dying out:
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the share of sequels in Hollywood didn't change.
Since 1999, it's basically been more sequels, remakes, and adaptations every year.
WHAT HAPPENED IN 1999? pic.twitter.com/498jY4XI1x
— Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) October 23, 2021
Here’s the original source for the chart, which covers the top 50 highest grossing films each year. One can quibble with precise methods and suggest alternative measures, but there’s little doubt that sequels and movie ‘franchises’ have come to dominate Hollywood’s output.
The question is why? Are we living through a collapse in creativity? If even the Hollywood dream factory is struggling to come up with original ideas that can’t be a good sign for the vitality of western culture.
Those who resist the idea of civilisational decline point to TV shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Less highbrow offerings like Game of Thrones and Succession also stand out as some of the best television ever made. So on the small screen, the 21st century doesn’t look too shabby. The fact that this golden age coincides with the rise of the Hollywood sequel suggests that originality hasn’t disappeared, it’s just moved to a different medium.
Thompson suggests some other potential explanations. For instance, the “Phantom Menace theory” — a reference to the 1999 Star Wars prequel that was savaged by the critics, but which made a heap of money. It turns out that there’s a huge market to be exploited at the intersection between spectacle and familiarity. And, for that, the sci-fi, fantasy, horror and superhero genres are ideal.
One factor that Thompson doesn’t mention is globalisation. The opening of new markets in China and elsewhere has created a demand for films that are effortlessly cross-cultural in appeal. This means lots of special effects, action-driven plots, archetypal characters and no problematic politics. Again, it’s the same sequel-ridden genres that benefit.
Martin Scorsese got a lot a flak when he compared superhero films to theme park rides. But the parallel is a useful one. A literal rollercoaster is primarily a visceral, sensory experience. It is readily transferable between cultures and customers will come back to experience much the same thing over-and-over again.
Globalisation was meant to enrich us culturally. On one level it has — by providing access to the finest products of cultures other than our own. However, the problem comes when we try to make products that appeal without effort to every culture at the same time. That isn’t enrichment, but a slide towards the lowest common denominator.