What was the last film you saw that told an original story based on original characters?
Genuinely new films are getting rarer and rarer. In 1995, only three of the 10 highest-grossing films were sequels – several others were based on novels or TV series, but were new to the movies. In 2005, six of the 10 biggest films were sequels, prequels, reboots or remakes. In 2015, that had risen to eight out of 10.
In 20 years we’ve gone from about three quarters new material to about three quarters used material.
The most successful film of last year was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh installment in a franchise that’s knocking on 40 years old. In 2014 it was Transformers: Age of Extinction – part four in a franchise that’s in its early 30s.
Movie studios just won’t take a punt on anything new anymore. Why? Because it’s a massive risk, whereas once a popular franchise is established, every new installment is guaranteed to make money.
So are the film any good? Well, The Force Awakens, pretty much everyone agrees, was great. Transformers 4 on the other hand, was shit. Doesn’t really matter. They both made piles of cash.
OK, so I’m only talking about the biggest films commercially – there’s plenty of exciting and original stuff going on further down the charts. But this is where the big money is spent, and where the grand, epic stories are told.
The original Star Wars may have borrowed liberally from other works and storytelling traditions, but the story, settings and characters were essentially new. No one had seen a lightsaber before, or met Darth Vader, or heard the phrase “Use the force, Luke”.
Would the original Star Wars film get made if it were pitched today? I don’t think so. Ghostbusters is about to be rebooted – would such a film have been green lit without the popularity of the original to build on? Probably not. Why bother, when you could just make Fast & Furious 14 or James Bond 97?
Talk to people who saw that film in the cinema back in 1977 and they’ll tell you it was like nothing they’d ever seen before. That’s not the case with The Force Awakens – it’s very, very like something we’ve all seen before. It’s little more than a remix. An enjoyable remix, but still a remix.
Retelling old stories is a proud tradition, of course. What’s worrying is that it has become so pervasive, we’re forgetting how to get excited about new things.
All of which is yet another reason why I love Pixar. Not only are the Disney-owned animation studio’s films consistently excellent and commercially huge, they’re also mostly original.
Of Pixar’s 16 films to date, only four have been sequels (Toy Story 2 and 3, Cars 2 and Monsters University), and none took their stories from books, comics, fairy tales or anything else (unlike Disney whose modus operandi is to rework familiar stories). Pixar takes risks on fresh material rather than cashing in on reworkings, reboots or re-whatevers (although as a result of its success, the studio’s brand is now so strong that the risks aren’t as great).
Take the six-year period from 2003-2009, when Pixar brought us six films: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up. All truly original and all (OK, almost all) classics. Wow.
Pixar has more sequels slated for the future, but they still plan to produce twice as many original films as follow-ups. They’re a shining exception to the trend of recycling material.
And when I think back to the original films I loved in my childhood, it makes me wish there were more Pixars out there today.