[Analysis] – Intellectual Property, The 20-Years-Later-Sequel, And The Creative Constipation Of The Film Industry

In which nostalgia, greed and a touch of laziness make for profitable garbage.

The last ten years have seen a proliferation of the old made new again, with every studio mining their intellectual property in order to bank on established familiar products and turn them into franchises. From a business perspective, this is a cheaper, easier and potentially more profitable means of making money than investing time and resources into new, original, and untested material. However, creatively it is hollow and unfulfilling, and by and large the resulting products undermine the integrity of the original IP. Or, at least, that’s what the issue feels like. The truth is actually this: this is nothing new. What gets lost in the hyperbole is any sense of perspective, and the refrain that “it’s the worst thing ever” tends to only mean “it’s rather upsetting, within the framework of the last five or ten years.”

As long as there have been popular stories, there has been the endless recycling of those stories. Even focusing only on cinema, this is as old as the medium. While some might hold the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz in high regard, and dismiss any attempt to remake, reboot or sequelize the film as sacrosanct, it is important to realize that the 1939 film was at least the fourth adaptation of the Oz stories to film. It is also important to note that it is nothing new for film studios to run a property into the ground in the name of selling a familiar brand. The Charlie Chan series produced dozens of films in the 30’s and 40’s; the Pink Panther series of the sixties includes several reboot attempts, alongside a sequel made featuring a dead star; the Universal Monsters series saw each monster get at least a pair of sequels during the forties, not to mention the “monster rally” films under the “House of” titles before culminating in encountering Abbott and Costello (possibly the first shared universe that, beating Marvel by sixty years).

The reason for this is, as per usual, money. Production companies own the IP of the films they make, unless contractual obligations limit them. These IPs become less profitable over time, as most films get made, are released, and generate less and less revenue. The studios have no emotional ties to these properties; they are only looking to maximize their ability to profit off them. A profitable film can mean a promotion for a producer; a contract renewal for a studio head; a star-making turn for an actor. Everyone profits from making one film into a series of films. Of course, a bad film can mean getting fired, being replaced, and having your reputation damaged. But at the core of the product, the producer doesn’t care about any of that (except their own job). What they care about is that they already own something, and stand to make more money off it. And right up front, it is cheaper to use a property they already own then is it to buy something new. This is true in any industry. Honda is far more likely to tweak the design of the Civic rather than start from scratch and build a whole new car. Likewise, in film, hiring a writer to doctor a cookie-cutter project takes far less effort than tracking down a new, brilliant idea. And, there is less risk of the writer fighting the studio because of an emotional attachment to the integrity of the script. A writer for hire is expected to get in, write the lines as instructed, and get out. If they add in flair for their own artistic satisfaction, the studio doesn’t care so long as the finished product is still marketable.

Potential profitability increases with familiarity. As long as there have been movies, there have been adaptations of books for precisely this reason. In fact, it might have even been a way to convince people to go a see these crazy moving pictures. As early as 1900, Sherlock Holmes was adapted to film. Jules Verne, The Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland all saw adaptations within the first handful of years into the twentieth century. The top five of the ten highest grossing movies of the 1930s are all based on books. In fact, the ratio of original-to-adaptation in the top ten of each decade remains pretty much fifty-fifty until the eighties, when it is overtaken by the staggering success of sequels. The first time a sequel appears in a decade’s most profitable list, it is a James Bond film (two actually, Thunderball and Goldfinger, in the sixties). Since the eighties, sequels have routinely placed among the decades highest money makers. Half way through our current decade, there is only one non-sequel in the top ten: Frozen, which will have a sequel sooner rather than later. Three of the others are the third in a franchise, and two are the fourth entry.

The more recent twist to the sequel formula is the emergence of the 20-Years-Later sequel. This is a trend whose start is hard to peg down. Movies like Escape from LA, Crocodile Dundee 3 and Blues Brothers 2000 all fall into this category, but have all mostly been forgotten due to being terrible. And at the time, being terrible was enough to guarantee financial failure, as these movies experienced. The first glut of the modern flood appears around 2006, with Basic Instinct, Rocky, Terminator, Die Hard and Rambo all getting sequels long after the release of the originals. The king maker of the modern trend though has to be Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in 2008. While much was made of the return of franchise stars in those earlier examples, this was the first high profile film series to return from apparent retirement with all original creators in tow. The film, despite baring all the marks of people not giving their full passion to a project, was well received and made three quarters of a billion dollars during its run. Despite public opinion of the film tarnishing very quickly, the performance was enough for the studios for the studios to realize that this was a viable source of income. No longer fodder for the direct to video bins, suddenly hauling the old properties off the shelf was acceptable, tent-pole practice. And has, ten years later, become the linchpin of the studio’s annual revenue streams.

Dr. Jones opened up the gates, allowing Wall Street, Tron, Toy Story, Scream, Dumb and Dumber and others to find themselves suddenly continuing their stories, and bringing back the original casts to do so. It was in this environment that Mad Max finally got out of development hell, Jurassic World became a reality (despite Kathleen Kennedy having previously proclaimed that the project had died with Crichton), and Disney plunked down $4 billion for Star Wars. In fact, largely thanks to their acquisitions of LucasFilm, Marvel, and Pixar, Disney is fueling this entire trend, and has blanketed the release schedule until the end of the decade with as many sequels and franchise pictures as possible. This, in turn, forces the other studios to follow suit, though without nearly as many IPs to salvage. Warner Bros, who have spent the last five years desperate to find a way to match Marvel’s output of films, has, in the wake of a year of disappointing box offices (including Batman v Superman: The Phantom Menace, which was expected to be a billion dollar hit, and hasn’t been), now committed their entire studio to producing less original films and put more money and more attention on mining their IPs. This means more Harry Potter-related films, more DC Comics films, more feature films under the Lego banner, and likely more remakes and sequels. But Disney leads the charge, with intimidating schedules involving a new Star Wars movie every year, three Marvel films (though I’m sure they would love to get that up to one a quarter), a couple Pixar movies every year (of which, four of the next five are sequels), and a slate of announced live action adaptations of their classic animated movies. And, as previously stated, they’ll be bringing Henry Jones Jr out of retirement again in 2019.

Director Jon Favreau, while promoting The Jungle Book, made this knowing statement: “You’re not remaking the real movie, you’re remaking the memory of the movie. Most people have contextualized the movie based on how old they were and what they remember now. And in that regard, it’s very, very difficult to compete with that.” And that is the real problem with all of this. From a business perspective, remakes and sequels are cheaper to make, but promise big return on the back end because they are driven to market in a carriage made of nostalgia. The studio demands a marketable film, and the writers and directors craft ideas based, by and large, on their own nostalgia of the franchise. The studios love this perspective: nostalgia builds the product, nostalgia sells the project. The problem with nostalgia is that it clouds the needs of the story with the love of a story already told. The audience doesn’t help, obsessing over details on the internet, and launching “campaigns” when their favourite characters don’t return, or when something is perceived to “ruining their childhoods forever.” What no one seems clear-headed enough to notice is when they say “they’re childhood is ruined forever” what they really mean is, their memory of that thing from their childhood is being threatened by an actual physical product. This is, of course, not in their best interest. What they should want is to see what comes next – the whole point of a sequel – not that exact thing again.

The culmination of the modern marketing theory leads to trailers like the most recent Star Wars, Jurassic World, Ghostbusters, and pretty much every latter-day sequel of the last decade, present very heavily even in that first trailer for Crystal Skull. It pushes the iconography, and uses sense memory to bring on an avalanche of nostalgia. Glaze the modern take with enough of the originating material that audiences are too inundated with memories of the old thing they love, that they don’t really recognize the current product for what it is. They’ve even nailed down the exact sequence of how to pull this off. Use a slow, piano version of the theme music. Include lots of slow pans and wide shots of footage that recalls the original. Edit footage (or, in many cases, just use footage straight from the film) that involves direct lifts or familiar staging to footage from the original. Make as much of a point of making the new film look like the old film, regardless of subtly. We might as well call this the “New Coke” plan. People are familiar with what they like, so give them something new but similar. If that backfires, just give them back the thing they liked in the first place. In the case of Ghostbusters, the trailer has two different remixes of Ray Parker’s theme, shot-clones (and accompanying paraphrased dialogue) of the ‘busters encountering a ghost in a library, revealing the Ecto, Slimer floating by the camera, and art-deco designs calling to mind Gozer’s temple. The ‘busters themselves are introduced in ways that set them up as murky analogues for the originals.

The end results of these films are often something that is very similar to the original, either mandated by the studio because if they are going to all the trouble of selling people their memories back, the product might as well look like the thing they remember. Or, far more troublingly, the writers and directors just can’t see beyond their own nostalgia. With the Force Awakens, it seems that Michael Arndt had a fairly original story in place, which J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan threw away on day one, replacing it with an inorganic mash-up of scenes and dialogue largely from New Hope, but aping elements from Empire and Jedi in kind and time. And Disney not only approved of this approach, they preferred it, and were more than willing to push back the release and fracture the very carefully calculated production schedule they had in place not just for one film, but a film a year for the next half decade. And that paid off upon release, when audiences ate it up. "It’s a pale imitation of that thing I love," said the audience. "Give me more." The second in the new Star Wars series, Rogue One, provides what will likely be unnecessary detail to a bit of exposition from New Hope: the stealing of the Death Star plans. I cannot imagine that this is a story that demands telling, but rather is an excuse to apply the iconography and aesthetics (and even characters and sets) from the original film. In fact, reports appearing earlier this week suggest that Disney is demanding extensive reshoots, to bring the tone of the film further from an original piece of story telling and closer to New Hope.

The quality of these ventures is ultimately and largely shallow, marred by this adherence to yesterday rather than trying to build anything impressive for tomorrow. Happily, it appears that the shelf life of these titles is short and sour. Of all the examples I’ve listed already, how many do you actually remember? How many have left a positive cultural impact? Of the seemingly endless list of remakes that has defined millennial cinema, how many have proven to be more memorable than the original? The only one that comes to mind is Ocean’s Eleven. Years from now, people will still be quoting “clever girl,” but what will be the lingering value of Jurassic World? Jokes about running in heels, the dino-equivalent of nuking the fridge? Also, happily, despite these movies making absurd amounts of money, audiences seem to be getting out of the spectacle-induced hypnosis sooner. It was most of a decade before opinion over Phantom Menace was uniformly negative, but it’s less than a year after Jurassic World broke the bank, and it seems that most people are admitting that, in the brighter light of day, the film fails to hold up to scrutiny. Batman v Superman: The Search for More Money seems to have floundered straight out of the gate, amassing negative reception and dwindling box office, to the point where it was beaten in its third week by an equally uniformly despised Melissa McCarthy comedy. In terms of reception and performance, the nearest comparison to BvS is probably Sony’s Amazing Spider-man 2, which despite making $700 million, was enough of a failure for Sony to nuke their decadal franchise plans and turn to the MCU for creative assistance.

This is the point where we get philosophical: are studios producing reboots and sequels because they know the audiences will turn out in high numbers, or are audiences turning out in high numbers because that is what the studios are producing? The answer, it would seem, is a bit of both. The dog wags the tail that wags the dog, as it were. The studios hide behind the adage of “giving the audience what they want,” and the box office returns certainly suggest that the audience want in-roman-numerable sequels. But at the same time, studios routinely spend as much marketing a film as they do making them, if not more, in order to convince the audience of what they want (in the modern day, when film “bombs” it is far more likely that it was because it couldn’t recoup its marketing costs rather than the actual production cost) . And thanks to social media, that level of marketing is more pervasive and long lasting than ever. It used to be that in the months leading up to a film’s release, there might be one or two trailers released before other films, a couple posters put up in theaters and in bus stops, magazine ads and interviews during the final push. Now, all of that is joined by Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Instagram posts and more that document the minutia of pre-production, filming, reshoots and every bit of drama in between. News feed sites gripe and obsess over every exigent detail and spoiler, posting baseless rumours and cellphone set pics, on the off chance that it might provide some glimpse of a hint of an insight into a film that they can’t seem to just wait to see as a finished product. This level of expectation combined with marketing has led to billion dollar expectations for nearly every tent-pole release, and when something goes wrong (like the product they are selling is shit), even greater failure. Disney has experienced this twice in the last five years, first with John Carter, then with The Lone Ranger. Both movies that ultimately made back their production costs, if barely, but were considered huge bombs because their marketing budgets were as large as production. If either of these failures had happened at other studios, there would have been job loss, possibly even risk to the studio. But because it came from the Disney Corporation, they absorbed that cost and waited for the next cartoon to arrive to recoup their losses.

The audience does have good judgment and taste. Unfortunately, they are too slow on the uptake. Yes, Anchorman and Zoolander sequels both recently passed by with minimal attention or return, but for the most part audiences are still turning out in droves, week after week, to see films that the studios have pumped into their brains is going to be the greatest thing ever because it was a thing from when they were kids. The upcoming TMNT sequel exemplifies this tactic, opting to make a direct live action adaptation of the early nineties cartoon, complete with man-rhino flunky and brain-alien in the stomach of a robot. Disney is banking entirely on memory to spur cinematic turnout for the next ten years, with sequels to Mary Poppins and Enchanted; Pete’s Dragon and Fantasia are getting remakes; and live action versions expected of Dumbo, Mulan, Sword in the Stone (this to compete with Warner's Guy Richie directed Knights of the Roundtable series), Winnie the Pooh, AladdinBeauty and the Beast, and Peter Pan (this despite the release and subsequent failure of a live action Pan movie last year, and Universal having put out a live action Peter Pan film 13 years ago that followed the Disney cartoon's interpretation pretty closely) . A week before the release of Favreau’s Jungle Book, Disney announced that it will be getting a sequel. Marvel’s MCU is entirely predicated on people turning out for any movie with Marvel’s name associated with it (and really, so is Fox with the X-Men franchise). Star Wars seems to be self-perpetuating. The Disney division with the most originality is, ironically, the animation division, whose output since Lassiter took over has been a string of largely original hits that stand on their own merit. Zootopia will likely emerge as one of the best movies of 2016, animated or otherwise. But, the fact remains that the sequels and remakes keep making money, and the studios keep making more. Until a string of films of this magnitude fail (which, at this point, is very difficult to achieve), the trend will continue to dominate the cinematic schedule.

The easiest way to break this cycle would be for the movies to be made better. This would require writers and directors and producers willing to stand up for the sake and value of the story and the characters, and deliver an original and worthy successor under the guise of a marketable franchise. This isn’t as rare as it might seem. More original movies are released per year than franchise films, they just get less attention. While existing within the larger framework of a company’s IP, Pirates of the Caribbean, Guardians of the Galaxy and most recently Deadpool all proved to be surprising (from the studio perspective) critical and financial successes. And original films on which there were no expectations, like Taken or Olympus Has Fallen, provided a strong enough box office that the studios decided that they would, in turn, become franchises. Because, the logic being, if people liked seeing it once, they’ll like seeing it over and over again. What studios seem to forget that the most vitally important element in creating a franchise of any kind, especially one that will still be viable 20 years later, is that it must originate from somewhere. Indiana Jones and Star Wars were original ideas once. Unfortunately, 20 years later, the inefficient photocopying of that originality has led to significant image decay, and all the modern audience is left with is blotches and smears under a familiar logo.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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