Hollywood, we need to talk.
And when I use Hollywood, I’m referring to pretty much all U.S. television and movie production. It’s easier to use the one word than to list production companies, locations, and whatnot.
In the communication and media courses I’ve taught for at least the last decade, I have borne witness to profound dialogue on the state of creativity within mainstream entertainment. Many refer to the experience of consuming the last two decades’ worth or so of TV and movies as “weathering a drought of imagination and originality, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” Others bitch about too many sequels and unnecessary reboots, usually based on significantly older movies. Over the span of my teaching career, I’ve listened to students wax eloquent on this topic, but now, I need to speak up.
Hollywood, you’re blowing it.
What was once a powerhouse of the American economy and a bastion of unbridled creative imagination has become a bland, hollow shell of its former brilliant self, and if y’all don’t do something about this soon, then someone else will. That ‘someone’ may be a film industry in another country (i.e., South Korea, India, Nigeria, China, etc.).
To examine this trend in more detail, let’s take a little trip back to the 1980s (where’s McFly and his Delorean when you need him?). As I was drafting up a tongue-in-cheek article on what I consider the best year for family movie night flicks from the 80s, I noticed a pattern emerge. Here some bar charts from that article:
In the first chart, you’ll note that subjectively ‘good’ movies peaked in 1985 and then start to trail off. When I compared the first chart with the second, which shows the number of sequels released per year, I did not see the same trail; in fact, sequels increased after the peak of creative, original movies in 1985.
Could there be a correlation? My gut tells me yes, but I’m not alone. One of the most common conversations I see in social media comments on new movie trailers for reboots of 80s movies (and even some 90s movies) or sequels to movie franchises that should have remained buried in recent history, is that theater patrons are growing frustrated with the lack of creativity coming out of Hollywood.
There were 43 sequels released in 2017 alone, and of those, 21 of them were the third movie in the franchise or higher. Four of the 52 release dates of 2017 (which were major movie-going weekends) saw nothing but sequels on the agenda.
Look at that pie chart, Hollywood. You know what kind of pie that is? That’s a shame-berry pie, and you’re going to eat every last bite. While you chew on this delicacy of self-induced humiliation, we, your viewers, want you to think about what you’ve done.
A mere one-fifth of the highest grossing movies of the last year were original story lines. That’s 20% for those of you who freak out about fractions.
One. In. Five.
In other words, if I mortgage my house once a month so I can take my kids to the movies and maybe have enough left over for us to buy popcorn, then I might average seeing roughly TWO original movies a year! In the mid-1980s, arguably one of the best eras for movies in modern history, audiences had the option to see 84-88% original content, while today, we have 20% or less.
Pardon my French, Hollywood, but you’re kind of an asshole.
You’re the drunk at the bar, retelling the same stupid high school football story every night. You’re the uncool dad who tells his kids’ friends the same knock-knock joke every time they come over. You’re the lousy Facebook friend who somehow posts the same dumb-ass memes day-in and day-out.
Up until now, we’ve been the bar mates who let you slide because we feel sorry for you, the kids who’d rather go over to their friends’ houses instead, and the Facebook friends who unfollow but don’t unfriend you because we still think you might have a sliver of decency left in you somewhere.
There are 330 MILLION people alive in the country as of now. Each and every person has a story to tell, and I’d wager we could find something fascinating and interesting in every one of them. I found a statistic that suggested 55% of all the Americans who have ever lived since 1776 are alive today, which means that, if the number is accurate, then we also have an additional 300 million interesting stories to tell of Americans throughout history.
Let’s place that in a context. Sixteen million people alone served in WWII, and of them, roughly half a million are still alive. Think of the amazing stories they have to tell! And if you think war movies are overdone, then what about women like my wife’s grandmother who welded ships in San Francisco during the war? If the idea of a badass woman welding in a shipyard isn’t interesting enough, then do a bit of research on other American events that have yet to have their stories told with a reasonably decent budget: the Trail of Tears, escaping slavery in the pre-Civil War South, settling California and life during the gold rush, the building of Las Vegas, completion of the transcontinental railroad, and the list goes on and on.
That’s only nonfiction historical stories, which means that’s only ONE BLOODY GENRE! We have yet to explore the power of the human imagination in fiction. A quick Google search tells me that there have been nearly 130 MILLION books published throughout history. Each one could potentially be made into an interesting movie, thereby ruining the experience for those who originally read that book.
The cynic in me reminds me that not all those books are good and that I’ve read some really crappy books. I’d even wager the vast majority are not suitable to make into movies, but if we assume a mere 1% of all books have a story worthy of telling, that’s still 1.3 million stories to pick from. Even at 0.01% (1 in every 10,000 books), that’s still an overwhelming number of original stories from which to choose.
So, why then, dearest Hollywood, do you keep turning the sausage crank on a machine that continues to churn out an utter crapfest of rehashed, stale ideas, year after year?
Most of us know what’s up—you’re scared. When you invest millions of dollars with the hopes of making enough to recoup the investment and still make a decent income, that’s scary. We get it – it’s a business, and sequels and reboots seem safe. But y’all have been taking the safe route far too often, and that fear of failure is seriously hampering your ability to provide your adoring public with the good stuff.
On the other hand, we easily recall the last-straw movie that probably pistol-whipped you into this fear:
But consider Howard the Duck a hard lesson learned. Business is a gamble, and in a subjective taste-based business like film and television, not all creative ventures are going to work.
In the 1980s, movie production was just as risky a business (I laughed way too hard when I typed that), but those risks were taken willingly and knowingly as part of the game. Simply put, original content was prized over sequels and reboots, or at least, so it seemed. Somewhere along the line, I think studios lost their nerve, sense of adventure, and embrace of the unknown.
I think it’s fair to suggest that I speak on behalf of pretty much all the moviegoers in the U.S. (and maybe even abroad) when I state that it’s well past time Hollywood started taking risks again. You have plenty of talent, gobs of budget, and MORE than enough source material from which to draw inspiration. Simply stated, no more excuses.
It’s not too late to walk away from the reboot of Big Trouble in Little China, and you don’t need to follow through on making a sequel to The Goonies. After all, Stranger Things more than proved you can recapture the spirit and feel of a beloved film like The Goonies without having to dig up the exact same characters and risk something even more heinous: ruining the franchise.
It’s time to give originality a shot, like you did in your past, Hollywood. It’s okay. Forgive yourselves for Gremlins 2, and please, enough with the sequels and reboots.