How We Can Reverse the Recent Rise of Movie Remakes
Between this year’s Dumbo, Aladdin, and now The Lion King, it’s safe to say that Disney remakes have gotten a little out of hand. We’re already aware of the upcoming Mulan and The Little Mermaid, and there’s no shortage of remakes in the works. But Disney isn’t the only studio pumping out an endless stream of remakes, reboots, and sequels.
In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, writer Alan Moore observed, “Every film is a remake of a previous film. Or a remake of a television series that everyone loved in the 1960s. Or a remake of a television series that everyone hated in the 1960s. Or it’s a theme park ride. It will soon come to breakfast cereal mascots.” He may have been kidding, but last year General Mills built a website soliciting pitches for a movie about their monster cereal mascots. No, that’s not a joke. With movies like The Angry Birds Movie 2 and Playmobil: The Movie coming out next month, this should come as no surprise.
Many people attribute the onslaught of sequels, remakes, and reboots to a lack of originality. But that’s not the real problem. Plenty of filmmakers are still creating original movies. This month brought us original films in the form of The Farewell, The Art of Self-Defense, Stuber, Crawl, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood among others. One can argue that some of these movies don’t qualify as original. Stuber is poorly written and formulaic. Crawl isn’t exactly creative. The Farewell is based on a true story. And Quentin Tarantino proudly admits to borrowing ideas from other filmmakers. But these are all far more original than rehashed intellectual properties.
Part of the problem is that we are far more likely to scrutinize something original. We’re also much more forgiving when a movie is part of a franchise that we’re already fans of. If a movie has a creative premise but the plot is too predictable, then we’re quick to dismiss it. If a movie has an original screenplay but the storyline is similar to that of an older film, then it’s criticized for ripping off another movie’s plot.
There’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from previous films or other art forms. It’s nearly impossible to come up with an entirely original idea that was never done before. As Jim Jarmusch once declared in MovieMaker Magazine:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
Since the dawn of cinema, movies haven’t been 100% completely original. Many filmmakers turned plays and books into movies during the early days of cinema and remakes have been around for a very long time. It’s difficult to determine which movie is the very first remake, but remakes have existed for over a century. One of the earliest examples is Segundo de Chomón’s 1908 film Excursion to the Moon, which is an unauthorized remake of Georges Méliès' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.
The best remakes justify their existence by updating the story for a new generation. One of the best examples of this is Brian De Palma’s 1983 film Scarface. The original 1932 film directed by Howard Hawks took place during the Prohibition era. In the 1983 film, Tony is now a Cuban refugee who becomes a drug lord instead of an Italian immigrant who sells illegal beer to speakeasies. De Palma’s film is an updated version of the narrative as opposed to a shot-for-shot remake or a butchered retelling of the same story. As John Waters advises in his book Mr. Know-It-All, “Remember when you are trying to cash in on a successful previous work, the concept must change or the Xerox copy gets weaker and weaker until you can’t read it at all.”
Contrary to popular belief, remakes are not more prevalent today than ever before. In their report on 100 years of remakes, musicMagpie discovered that the 2000s had more remakes than any other decade, with a whopping total of 189. According to their findings, the year 2005 saw more remakes than any other year with a total of 33.
So, more remakes were being released a decade ago than there are today and remakes have been around since the beginning of cinematic history. Thus, the current state of remakes, reboots, and sequels isn’t due to a lack of original ideas.
The real issue is how moviegoers choose to spend their money. On top of the fact that we’re more forgiving of movies that are part of a beloved franchise, we’re also less likely to take a chance on an original movie. When deciding on a movie to watch, it’s easy to argue, “I liked the original, so maybe I’ll like the remake, too.” Or “I saw the last two films, so I’m naturally going to watch the next installment in the series.” Even when moviegoers express their annoyance over a remake or sequel, they’re still likely to watch it just to find out it’s any better than the first.
We can complain about the absence of creativity, but we can’t ignore the fact that the film industry is still a business. And businesses need to make money to survive. If we’re flocking to the theater on opening night for the newest Marvel movie but waiting for an indie film to hit Netflix before watching it, then we’re perpetuating the problem. Whenever a business sees financial success, it’s only logical that they’ll try to recreate that success. Even if we don’t like all these unoriginal movies, they’re an easy way for studios to rake in profits because they already have a dedicated fanbase. Why would a company want to take a gamble on an original idea that might be a box office failure when they could play it safe instead?
Studios are also more likely to take a chance on an original movie idea if it has the potential to spawn sequels. Franchises are dominating the box office, so they’re not interested in anything that can’t be turned into a brand. They want to keep people coming back for more.
Again, the problem boils down to what movies we decide to spend our money on. Studios know that nostalgia is a safe bet. But there’s a fine line between creating something new that’s familiar enough to induce nostalgia and simply telling the same story time and time again and hoping for the same results.
More often than not, audiences believe the original is better than the remake. So maybe a better way to generate nostalgia would be to put classic movies back in theaters. Fathom Events already does this, but they’re very limited screenings. Part of the problem is that unless people pay attention to everything playing around them, it’s not always easy to know when a movie is being re-released. If Disney put 1994’s The Lion King back in theaters and advertised it even half as much as they advertised the 2019 remake, people would probably go to the theater to see it for nostalgia’s sake. Of course, many prefer to watch movies from the comfort of their own home so they may not rush out to see a movie in theaters that they could easily watch at home. But if we’re leaning into feelings of nostalgia, then the actual act of going to the movies to see a classic is much more nostalgic than watching it at home.
The main reason why unoriginal movies keep getting made is that people continue paying to see them. But part of the problem is that the more original movies are often subjected to limited releases. It’s the superhero movies, remakes, and sequels that screen in theaters everywhere. When a movie receives a limited release, it needs to do well in those markets before it can successfully expand to a wider audience.
One thing that moviegoers can do is make more of an effort to seek out original movies. If you don’t live close to a major city, this can be challenging. But if you have to drive further out of your way to go to a different theater to see something original, it might be worth it. If you have no idea when that movie you’ve been anticipating is finally going to play in your area, then it might be worth your time to frequently check which movies are playing near you so you don’t miss an opportunity to see it. If you don’t live in New York or Los Angeles, seeing indie movies at a theater isn’t always the easiest task.
Whenever you do have the opportunity to see an indie film in theaters, you should jump on it. If everyone has the same attitude of waiting until a movie is available to stream for free, then we’re only going to make the problem worse. These lesser-known and more creative films need to make money if we want things to change.
In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant argues:
When we bemoan the lack of originality in the world, we blame it on the absence of creativity. If only people could generate more novel ideas, we’d all be better off. But in reality, the biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation—it’s idea selection. In one analysis, when over two hundred people dreamed up more than a thousand ideas for new ventures and products, 87% were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They’re constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas.
The big film studios are going to continue rehashing the same intellectual properties over and over until the money stops pouring in. Conversely, all the indie movies with novel premises aren’t going to play in more theaters unless those types of movies start making more money. We have the power to make a change. When you buy a movie ticket, it’s like you’re voting for the types of movies you hope to see more of in the future. The bottom line is that if you want to see more original movies, then you have to be willing to spend more money to see the independent films that are out there.