Welcome to 2016, and another year of overpriced popcorn. Off the back of an Oscars season to rival the very best in the Academy’s history, 2015 will live long in the memory. But 2016 is already casting a shadow on the cinematic horizon. A critical mass of reboots, sequels and unnecessary adaptations is coming to spoil the party, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. It wouldn’t be the first time – I shudder to recall the glut of live-action fairytales that enveloped 2013 – but 2016 may be the year you finally have to put ‘the original’ after all your favourite movies.
So, what’s the damage?
First up we have Marvel’s continuing campaign to rehabilitate that most marginalised and oppressed of society’s demographics: the comic book fanboy. The latest superhero tsunami is spearheaded by Captain America and X-men, but also features solo debuts for Deadpool, Gambit and Doctor Strange. Long-time followers will be delighted to see Spiderman finally join the Avengers (with Tom Holland set to be the third iteration since 2002). Those who have tired of the Marvel monopoly, don’t expect it to end anytime soon: their commercial calendar is already planned until 2026.
But it’s DC that is set to provide the crowning turd in the water pipe: awaiting us in 2016 is a Batman vs. Superman movie that will not be the one we deserve and certainly won’t be the one that we need right now. Alien vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla; the cautionary tales are endless.
Next we have an avalanche of sequels and spinoffs, including but not limited to: *deep breath* Zoolander 2, Bridget Jones 3, Bourne 5, Star Trek 3, Rocky 7, Independence Day 2, Divergent 3, Alice In Wonderland 2, Kung Fu Panda 3, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Snow White and The Huntsman 2, Olympus Has Fallen 2, Ice Age 4, Finding Nemo 2, and add-ons for both Star Wars and Harry Potter. Though some of these are undeniably legitimate (Divergent has every right to finish its trilogy), the 20-years-late Independence Day 2 stands out as the sequel that no-one asked for. I await with bated breath the announcement of Blade Runner 2: Return of the Replicants.
The much maligned remake category is also well-represented. The Jungle Book receives a live action makeover, The Magnificent Seven gets the treatment too (the 1960 version is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), and we even have a re-imagining of Point Break (it only came out in ’97!) I reserve particular bile for the remake of the 3-and-half-hour Charlton Heston 1954 best picture winner, the all-time great, 10,000-extra Ben-Hur. Incidentally 1954’s Ben-Hur had been a remake of the 1925 silent-film Ben-Hur, which in turn was based on a novel. Timur Bekmambetov takes the helm; the esteemed director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Throw in an Angry Birds movie and that is about your lot. Oh dear.
I am aware that incessant complaining about Hollywood remakes is something of a remake in itself – drop it in at a dinner party and expect rolled eyes and stifled yawns. But the million-dollar question beneath the shrugging acceptance of the status quo is why? Why, with so many talented individuals (Scorsese, Tarantino, countless others) still trailblazing as strongly as ever, are all the institutional movies becoming so horribly derivative?
A lot of it comes down to risk. In the post-credit crunch world where risk-assessment forms and corporate controls dominate big financial decisions, fringe films targeting niche audiences are being ironed out. Where a decade or two ago you had around 25 big-budget movies in a year, the number is now down to 10 or so, as with audiences spread from Hawaii to Shanghai marketing budgets are through the roof. With so much invested in each movie, risk is a commodity that very few Hollywood bigwigs are still willing to trade in. Thus panicky studio executives who have only just recovered from John Carter fall back on proven formulas, profitable franchises, and familiar characters. Crucially, every movie mentioned above has pre-existing brand awareness. A few proven directors still get to push new ideas, but only because they themselves are reliable brands.
Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, popcorn blockbuster royalty, have publicly lamented this trend in an interview with CNBC. “The pathway into theatres is getting smaller and smaller” says Lucas, “marketing is the biggest issue…you can’t take a chance on small groups of people. If I make a movie for $1 million dollars, it costs $15 million to market it”. “Lincoln was this close to being put on HBO” chimes in Spielberg, holding his fingers just an inch apart, “Ask them. It was this close”.
A lot of this is in the nature of global filmmaking. It is not only marketing budgets that are affected by globalisation, content is too. With China now the second biggest global box office, Hollywood’s biggest releases cannot afford to displease the Chinese consumer. Trying to be all things to all men tends to stifle creativity; when a movie’s success relies upon finding its niche in North American, European and Asian cultures, filmmakers must be cautious to only use tropes and ideas that seamlessly span national boundaries. Classically ‘dumb’ action movies work everywhere.
Technical ‘progress’ plays a part too. Think back to the days of ‘the pictures’ – the ‘Golden age of Hollywood’ when everything was still made in black and white – there was very little space for ‘lazy filmmaking’. The ‘Production Code’ viciously enforced by the infamous censors, stopped filmmakers from dazzling their audiences with sex and violence. Alfred Hitchcock famously fought a clandestine war against these censors for most of his career; in Psycho (1961), they took issue not just with the notorious shower scene, but with the unmarried status of two characters shown in bed together, and the ‘aural and visual presentation of a toilet’. Unable to hypnotise their viewers with pulse-pounding action or lascivious thrills, directors were forced to rely on story, character and script. Certainly movie making could be ‘systemic’ then too, but it’s become progressively more so.
But the smokescreen of sex and violence has been used since at least the early ’70s. The new smokescreen is CGI; films can now wow an audience with a vast fireworks display of visuals and action that delivers basic thrills without resorting to plot. In most Marvel movies for instance, the last 40 minutes or so is usually the same – practically no script, very little real acting, lots of explosions. The advent of CGI has allowed studios to create simple winning formulas that sell bags of popcorn time and time again, without the effort of, say, dramatising an original screenplay.
The fundamental problem is that originality requires effort and risk; executives no longer need to put in the former, and are afraid of the latter. It’s possible that what is really ruining Hollywood (relatively speaking), is bigger budgets, more tech, and global audiences.
And so unfortunately 2016 may prove to be the year to catch up on all those foreign movies you should have watched years ago, but never really expected to get around to.
Maybe 2017 will be better: I predict a remake of Casablanca, the complete works of Lars von Trier re-imagined by Michael Bay, and perhaps an M Night Shyamalan adaptation of Mario 64. At least we’ll all have a good laugh.