Back to the Past: Why Movie Studios Keep Recycling Stories, and Why We Keep Paying to See Them
Baylor film expert discusses the challenges for original storytelling and the future of the film industry
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WACO, Texas (June 3, 2015) – Jurassic Park first appeared on the big screen 22 years ago. Next week, audiences will flock to the franchise’s third – and highly anticipated – sequel, Jurassic World. Mad Max returned this year after a long hiatus. Reboots and sequels to Ghostbusters, Point Break and Independence Day are in the works. And 32 years after saving the Ewoks and hanging up their blasters, a weathered Han Solo and Chewbacca are jumpstarting the Millennium Falcon for a Christmastime joyride.
Classic characters. Classic storylines. Big box office dollars.
Is there any hope for the original story?
It boils down to audience and marketing, said Chris Hansen, M.F.A., independent filmmaker and chair of the film and digital media department in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences.
“One of the biggest considerations in determining which movies get made, from the studio’s perspective, is marketing,” Hansen said. “That process is made much easier if the intellectual property already exists in the minds of the general public. People know who Batman is. People know who The Avengers are. Half or more of the marketing work is done. When the intellectual property is original, the studio’s marketing arm has to spend a lot more time and money acquainting viewers with the concept and generating interest.”
Is there a market for something that’s not time-tested for 30 years?
“Take Disney’s Tomorrowland as an example,” Hansen said. “Even though Tomorrowland as a concept originates from part of the Disney theme parks, the movie’s connection with it was somewhat tenuous, so it mostly operated as a piece of original intellectual property. And people didn’t flock to it. You might make the argument that people didn’t flock to it because the movie wasn’t as good as people hoped it would be. But the studios will point to how difficult it is to launch original stories as the primary reason for Tomorrowland’s failure to catch on.”
Are movie-going audiences only interested in recycled material, or do they want to see original stories?
“It’s hard to say what people are really interested in seeing. They say one thing, but they often vote differently with their box office dollars,” Hansen says. “This sometimes comes down to an economic decision for audience members. They have less disposable income than they used to, so they see fewer movies in the theater. And if they’re going to have to choose between several movies to see in an actual theater, they’ll often choose the one that has more spectacle, because there’s a feeling that it’s more ‘worth it’ to see something like that on the big screen, and that smaller movies won’t suffer from being seen on the TV in your living room.”
Are original scripts even being read?
“In past decades, studios were more committed to making some smaller serious films for the prestige factor while allowing the large blockbusters to protect the bottom line. We’ve been trending away from that over the past 10 years. Studios are making fewer films overall, with a larger percentage of films being spectacle-driven blockbusters,” Hansen said. “Personally, I’d like to see both types of films exist. I liked the studio model of the 1970s, when they were taking more risks with the types of films they made while also making big blockbusters.”
Regarding reboots, can studios afford to tinker with the classics? What’s the gamble?
“I suppose the gamble is that you can ruin the appeal of the original,” Hansen said. “But it’s a very small gamble, because what generally happens is that, in the worst case scenario, if people hate the new movie you made that’s based on an existing intellectual property, they’re hating it because it doesn’t match their expectations of the original, and it makes them revere the original even more.”
What can we expect to see in theaters in the coming years?
“Box office performance – along with other related factors – are what the studios are using to determine what gets made. So if Avengers: Age of Ultron makes $1 billion at the worldwide box office, we’re going to see more of those movies, and not more original dramas,” Hansen said.
ABOUT CHRIS HANSEN
Chris Hansen, M.F.A., chair of the film and digital media department in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, is an award-winning writer and director. His feature films have screened at festivals throughout the United States and Canada, have been released theatrically in Los Angeles and New York and have been reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, Village Voice and LA Weekly, among many others. His films include The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah, Clean Freak, Endings, Where We Started and Blur Circle.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.
ABOUT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES
The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 24 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit www.baylor.edu/artsandsciences.