How Two Decades of Film Remakes Have Impacted Creativity in Cinema
Take a look at the Top 100 grossing films of all time around the world, and you’ll find that almost every title is part of a franchise or inspired by comics. From Avengers to Jurassic World to Harry Potter to an array of superheroes, the trend is clear: Hollywood studios find success in adapting and repeating existing material.
This landscape is not entirely new. “Since the first days of the film industry, there have been remakes, there have been sequels, there has been taking an idea and making a movie about it,” says Amanda Ann Klein, professor of film studies at East Carolina University and co-editor of the 2016 book Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots: Multiplicities in Film & Television.
But commentators do point to a blockbuster-oriented “franchise era” that’s taken hold in Hollywood in the past couple of decades.
“There’s certainly been a shift—and Disney, of course, has really led this, with the triumvirate of [Lucasfilm], Pixar and Marvel,” says Alisa Perren, associate professor and co-director of the Center for Entertainment and Media Industries at the University of Texas at Austin.
Alex Stevens, host of the weekly SUCCESS Movie Rewind podcast, points to Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man as a starting point.
As average budgets for films have exploded and Hollywood has become increasingly reliant on the international market and—especially post-pandemic—streaming subscribers, studios have attempted to lower their risks as much as possible. The easiest way to do that? Go with a known quantity.
Enter the remake—and the prequel, sequel, spinoff and reboot.
Hollywood reboots are hotly contested among fans and critics. Are they cross-generational, multimedia phenomena that live on because they’re just that good and fans are already so deeply connected to them? Or do they represent the death of creativity, a sign that there are simply no new ideas? Or is the answer somewhere in between?
Creativity in Complexity
There has long been a certain amount of highbrow criticism, if not outright snobbery, directed at commercial-oriented Hollywood, particularly fantasy, comic-inspired and superhero fare.
But Klein notes that these movies can actually take a lot of work and knowledge on the part of fans to “go deep into them and find connections.” Perren adds, “You’re building on nostalgia and generations of memory and access to content.”
It’s a challenge for fans and artists alike, Klein says, to keep the canon straight across franchised cinematic universes. Fans notice errors, and creators must match stories and characters across interlocked products and platforms: “Is the TV show supporting the movie, which is supporting the comics, which are supporting the video games?”
Perren points to the emerging “multiverse” concept, or “the idea of creating multiple universes or story worlds that allow stories and characters to fracture into different dimensions,” as an opening for new flexibility in storytelling, casting and tonalities.
All that complexity can feel inaccessible to some. How do you sustain what Perren dubs the “casual fans” as well as the “completists?” And when is it too much, even for diehard fans? When does “franchise fatigue” set in?
According to Stevens, “Audiences are sophisticated and smart and looking for something new.” Even the latest Spider-Man “won’t work right if you have to know everything about Spider-Man before you see it. That’s not really a successful movie.” At the same time, “You can only kill Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben so many times and expect people to be moved by it. And they did a great job.”
Does it demand more creativity to make a sequel? Not necessarily, Stevens says, “but I think it’s an opportunity for more.”
Creativity in Constraint
In her 2021 study The Disneyfication of Authorship: Above-the-Line Creative Labor in the Franchise Era, scholar Shawna Kidman argues that brands are more valuable to a company than the “fundamentally replaceable” creators contributing to them—the writers, actors, artists and even directors who often work for scale wages (minimum union-set pay), no backend profits and no ownership of the brand, creative or otherwise.
Comic writers and artists recently began speaking out publicly about how little they are compensated. One told The Guardian last year that he received $5,000 and a thank-you note for contributions used in a Marvel film that earned $1 billion at the global box office.
“Stars used to be one of the main attractions back in the big-budget days of paying $20 million to Jim Carrey or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, not to mention selling on the basis of the director,” Perren says.
“And these days, it really does increasingly come down to often finding pretty useful, fresh—aka cheap—talent that can sort-of conform to the larger vision that often these producer figures—almost showrunners, in effect, for these franchises—are trying to realize. That does seem to be a pretty dramatic shift.”
She points to examples of talents who can conform to the model (like Guardians of the Galaxydirector James Gunn) and those who can’t and simply don’t last (like the team fired midway into directing 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, reportedly over “creative differences”).
“A lot of filmmakers wince at the constraints or shackles that are thrown on them for having to conform to the formulas or the characters,” Perren says.
But “they can still play with genre and play with style in fun ways. Certainly, it’s not total freedom, but the history of genre cinema is obviously a history of creativity within constraints, so to a certain extent, it’s an extension of that.”
A Sure Thing
If it all feels familiar, well, that’s exactly the point.
“Part of this is related to wanting a sure thing,” Klein says. “If you know that a certain character or story or cinematic universe is already popular and accepted in an audience that you want to target, then it’s kind of a no-brainer to do again.”
“If it’s your intellectual property, you’ll want to make as many products out of that as you can, exploit it as much as possible or as much as the audience will allow you to,” she adds. In short, “it’s a financial model that works well for studios.”
What would happen to Hollywood if the kind of films topping the box office charts suddenly lost their audience? Could the studio model implode?
“It’s certainly possible,” Perren says. “My suspicion is that they’ll just pivot to other types of franchises and dig deeper into their libraries for things that have gathered a little dust,” as Paramount did recently on Top Gun: Maverick.
According to Stevens, “The show has to go on—there’s so much money at this point in that atmosphere” that the idea of studios changing their current strategy is unlikely, despite some criticism from fans, critics and creators alike. “I can’t imagine in California what would happen if something were to happen to Marvel.”
Klein agrees. “Overall, I don’t see Hollywood’s reliance on multiplied texts—texts that are repeating things we’ve seen and watched before—I don’t see that really ever changing. I think that’s just how it works.”
Who’s Squeezed Out?
Back to those Top 100 grossing films of all time. The list looks eerily similar to the top-budgeted films of all time. The No. 2 top grosser, Avengers: Endgame, had a reported production budget of nearly $400 million, capping a building trend of blockbuster Hollywood movies with budgets upward of $100-300 million.
What’s discernibly missing from the list of top grossers are films with small and mid-sized budgets. And there are almost no non-English language films in sight.
The teen-targeted fare, superhero franchises, event movies and family films filling theaters often explode with action and effects that command a big screen. As the aerial coordinator on summer blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick told The Hollywood Reporter in May, movies like this are “built” to be seen on a “massive screen”—“It’s the only way you’re going to get that visceral thrill ride.”
In contrast, small and mid-sized, character-driven and international movies with more narrative nuance and less action might play just as well on a small screen. At least, that seems to be the logic of theaters struggling to attract audiences, especially post-pandemic when global box office revenues were widely reported to have dropped 50% from 2019 to 2021.
Commentators and international producers have looked at streaming platforms—particularly “independents” such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+—as potential saviors for small, mid-sized and international movies.
Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO and chief content officer, suggested in an April 19 call with investors that producers and filmmakers around the world can be more “risk-tolerant” with the streamer’s backing, which “creates an ecosystem for something like Squid Game or for like a Lupin or La Casa de Papel [Money Heist] to exist.”
Yet that may be changing. Netflix has had to cut back this year after a poor first-quarter earnings report, and smaller productions could get the ax. On that very call, Sarandos pointed specifically to the streamer’s success with “big movies” such as Don’t Look Up, Red Notice and The Adam Project.
“Just a few years ago, we were struggling to out-monetize the market on little art films,” Sarandos said. “Today, we’re releasing some of the most popular and most-watched movies in the world.” Perren notes that Netflix had already been “gesturing” they’d follow the studios’ lead on franchises with acquisitions on properties such as The Old Guard and the rights to comic writer Mark Millar’s Millarworld library.
Ultimately, today’s movies are a high-risk business whether they’re released in theaters or online. “You’re not going to see a movie in the movie theater that someone somewhere didn’t think was going to make some money for someone,” Klein asserts.
“I’m not saying people can’t be completely creative and also sell their work,” she concludes. “I’m just saying that if we end up seeing it, it’s because it’s sellable.”