Reboot, Refresh, Rinse, and Repeat: Hollywood’s Safety Net
Movie-going is becoming increasingly “event” driven. What do I mean by this? That people today go to the movies not to watch something they enjoy, but to partake in an event they don’t want to miss out on. This shift feeds into the giant machine that is the Hollywood industry: 3⁄4 engineering and ¼ creativity. This is also essentially why you’ll hear complaints like “they’re really doing another one of those?” You should know from the get-go that I thoroughly enjoy silly mega-flicks as much as I love powerful auteur pieces (my favorite movies of 2018 were Roma and Mission: Impossible - Fallout), but the lack of diversity in the types of entertainment making up our collective popular culture needs to A. be acknowledged, and B. understood. Here’s my take.
In a Theatre Near You: How Movies Getting Safer
Every few weeks a new trailer will drop for a film based on an IP (intellectual property) that is either pre-existing (sequels, prequels and reboots) or exists in the universe of a pre-existing IP (the spin-off). That IP might be something as specific as a fast blue hedgehog that was once famous in the 90s but whose target audience is somehow 13 (this movie is an early contender for flop of the year) or something as vague as a new Marvel superhero, which begs the question, is Hollywood out of ideas? Probably not, but you’d never be able to tell and they (studios) couldn’t care less. While prestige films positioned as award bait in late-fall and winter have actually become more diverse (The Shape of Water was called the “fish-fucking movie” and it fucking won), the other 8ish months, and more importantly, the big make-quantic-fuck-tons-of-money summer months are become homogeneous.
Check out the most popular films of the last few decades and watch the blue disappear.
Now that we’ve done the acknowledging, we need to understand how we got here.
It is no coincidence that Hollywood’s apparent fascination with rehashing content started around the same time as the media piracy boom of the early 2000s: Napster (1999), Kazaa (2001) and Limewire (2004). Now I’m not here to point a finger at pirating, but I think it’s important to understand the correlation.
The most important change that occurred in Hollywood in the booming years of pirating is, I believe two-fold. Firstly, one no longer needed to know jack-squat about programming to be able to download and watch, for free, films that were still in theatres, you just needed a really good dial-up (some of us still remember!) This meant that for the first time, going to the theatres was no longer the only option for viewers. Choice introduced insecurity, and insecurity, when hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs are on the line, makes producers think twice before green lighting a project that might not seem like a hit. Consider this, at the time of getting The Matrix (1999) greenlit, the Wachowski siblings had two writing credits (Assassins, 1995 & Bound, 1996) and one directing credit (Bound). The Matrix was anything but safe, and would probably never (ever) get made today, at least not the way it was in 1999. It would probably be a Netflix series, which brings me to...
On-Demand (or, how we get everything we want, when he want it, how we want it all the time)
At the most basic level, media piracy equates less butts in theater seats, and the same is true of on-demand streaming services. Today we have *deep breath* Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV, HBO Now (Crave TV if you’re Canadian), YouTube TV, Philo TV, and a handful more, and if that wasn’t enough, two more giants are entering the arena in 2019: Disney+ and Apple TV+. Each streaming service is taking up another piece of the pie and effectively flooding us with lazy, Friday night options.
With Disney deciding to create exclusive prestige IP (Star Wars, Marvel, Disney Classics) content for their streaming service we have to ask what the future of movie-going will look like. In the last decade, Disney has proven incredibly savvy and forward thinking in how they deliver content: the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) films (short-form narratives) are structured like a TV series (long-form narrative). In the coming years, Disney, via Disney+, will be releasing several mini-series, animated series, as well as more MCU movies. Creating a blockbuster, or an “event” experience, out of original IP is incredibly hard (unless you’re Christopher Nolan or Jordan Peele), and Disney might actually be shifting some of its IPs to on-demand, effectively limiting what they translate over into events (theatres).
Movie theatres are clearly no longer our main source of mass entertainment. That said, we, as viewers make the effort and pay money for event experiences (often times, even if we don’t really care for them). This is why tentpole superhero movies are what we see topping the box-office every year, but what happens if those IPs start to shift out of theatres?
This might go one of two ways: movie-going becomes a rarer experience with less theatre houses playing less movies that all look and sound the same, or with the giants of the industry leaving more of the pie to take up the digital space, more small-to-medium sized original films make it into the marketplace. I’m of the belief that the latter seems very likely, but they’ll need to sell tickets for it to matter and getting people to buy tickets is, uh, difficult.
Buy a Ticket
So, where does this leave us? Well it leaves us with truly terrific long-form content, which is where a lot of the most effective directors and creatives are starting to gather, but it also leaves us with some self reflecting. If you don’t like the swath of reboots, remakes, prequels, and sequels, then take a chance on a weird Science Fiction like Annihilation or an imaginative horror like The Witch. Your purchase is a vote, you want original, interesting, challenging cinema? Vote for it.
Jorge Chaparro is a Montreal based writer.