Scraping the Bottom – Has Hollywood Truly Run Out of New Ideas?


Check your local theater listings and see if you can spot any movie on there that sounds wholly original and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.  That’s becoming a rarer sight nowadays.  Sure, you’ll see something at your local art house cinema that’s certainly different and groundbreaking, but independent cinema runs by a different and less risky set of standards than the big studios.  Hollywood seems caught in an endless loop of recycling everything that has worked in the past.  Sometimes it has worked out to feed upon an audiences’ sense of nostalgia; just look how well it worked for Jurassic World (2015) this year.  But for every sequel, remake and reboot that does hit it’s mark, there are a hundred or more that don’t.  A lot of factors can play into that; either Hollywood is just cashing in on a name brand and nothing else, or an experimental re-imagining goes horribly wrong and stains a franchise, or the product being remade just doesn’t have any relevance left to ever be taken seriously again.  And yet, with all the failed attempts to capitalize on old ideas, Hollywood is still very eager to invest in them anyway.  All this has led many to speculate whether Hollywood has truly, unequivocally run out of ideas.  While this complaint has been made for years about Hollywood, even through some really trans-formative and ground-breaking periods, it actually feels more and more like the case.  We are now in a period where Hollywood has become, for better or worse, “nostalgia” crazy, with remakes and reboots being favored for production over new and bold ideas.  As a result, Hollywood is able to capitalize on the reliability of a built in audience, while at the same time stalling any chance that their yearly products will ever have any impact outside of their era.

One thing that Hollywood is missing out on right now is the chance to make movies that can define an era and redefine the rules of cinema.  Every decade or so, we’ve seen trends and cultural movements reflected back in the movies made within the same time period.  This has helped every decade feel unique, whether it is the classiness of the 50’s, the psychedelia of the 60’s, the grittiness of the 70’s, the excess of the 80’s, or the digital revolution of the 90’s.  But, with the advent of the internet age in the 2000’s, and the increased accessibility to media from all eras, entertainment suddenly has become less grounded within it’s own era, and instead began to focus more on the nostalgia of past trends.  With online social networking becoming an increasing reliable way to gauge the likes and dislikes of an audience, Hollywood picked up on the fact that nostalgia played a significant part in determining what people choose to watch in the theater or on TV.  As a result, long dormant franchises suddenly were revitalized in order to capitalize on audiences’ awareness and their long held attachments to them.  Sometimes a revitalized franchise is welcome, especially if there is new territory waiting to be uncovered in it’s cinematic world (Star Wars Episode 7, being a prime example).  But, when Hollywood decides to capitalize on a brand name without exploring new ground, it ends up being rejected by fans of the old while loosing any chance of gaining any new audiences.  This has unfortunately happened to too many beloved franchise and singular films that have succumbed to the “reboot” bug in Hollywood, and this over reliance on nostalgia has unfortunately made the last decade or so become a characterless era in film-making.

This year, in particular, has been flooded with remakes, reboots, and sequels.  In fact, the three highest grossing movies of the year are from already established franchises (Jurassic WorldAvengers: Age of Ultron, and Furious 7).  But, sequels have the advantage of continuing an on-going story, which makes their presence far more expected.  But, even with these successful films, I don’t think anyone would consider them ground-breaking either, especially when compared to their predecessors.  Of all the big studio tentpoles released this summer, only one could be considered an original idea (Inside Out).  In most cases, animated films seem to be the only venue open to new ideas in Hollywood, and even here we find an increasing trend of sequel-itis.  Overall, the danger of relying too heavily on established brands is that it creates a less diverse output.  That’s why if you are only in the business of marketing around a singular intellectual property, you will also be subjected to the pitfalls of that same property once it’s relevance has run out.  Hollywood needs to continually replenish itself with new ideas in order to keep audiences interested long term, but sadly new ideas in Hollywood can be viewed as not worth the risk.  That’s why we see more original ideas develop in the independent market, because Hollywood would rather work with what they know than what they don’t know.  And thus, if you’re filmmaker with a vision, you’d better find an investor outside of the studio system, because Hollywood is looking for more Transformers and less Ex Machina‘s.

Very little of this reliance on nostalgia has actually helped Hollywood either.  Most of the time, audiences whole-heartedly reject remakes.  I think that there’s a misconception in Hollywood that remaking a past film and updating it to our time period is going to make it relevant once again.  But, as is almost always the case, updating a beloved classic will strip away part of it’s original charm.  A dated film has it’s own kind of entertainment value, ad the reason we love some of these movies is because they are so steeped in their time period.  A perfect example of this is the 1990 Paul Verhoeven sci-fi classic Total Recall.  Despite being set in the future, Recall is an undeniably late-80’s early-90’s film based on the styles of the era and the limitations of the visual effects.  And you know what; it’s what audiences embrace about the movie.  In fact, Total Recall has aged quite well over the years as an entertaining time capsule of it’s era while simultaneously looking absurdly out of date.  The reputation of the movie remained strong over the years, leading it’s distributor (Sony/ Columbia/ Tristar) to believe that there was potential in the name itself that could be exploited with our improved technology and revised visions of the future.  Thus, we got the 2012 remake starring Colin Farrell in the place of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The remake sticks more closely to the source novel by Philip K. Dick and features the latest in CGI visual effects, but you know what it lacked; entertainment value.  Gone was the goofy charm of Verhoeven’s original in favor of a sluggish, more serious tone that completely drains it’s story of any charm whatsoever.  As is with the case of many pointless remakes, newer doesn’t always mean better, and some classic movies are better left untouched, even if they look cheesy and dated.

But remakes are one thing when they can be easily dismissed and forgotten about in favor of the original.  Reboots on the other hand can run the more dangerous road of ruining the legacy of a beloved franchise.  Now, if done well, some reboots are welcome.  The recent resurgence of Planet of the Apes for example has proved to be successful, because it honors the roots of where it began while at the same time doing something new and different with the franchise.  But, there are other examples where Hollywood tries to squeeze every last ounce out of a series that should have been laid to rest years ago with a pointless reboot, meant to restart a new chapter that doesn’t need to be explored.  A perfect example of this is the recently released Vacation (2015).  The Vacation series started off with the 1983 original from National Lampoon, starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, which followed the Griswold family on a road trip across America to a popular California amusement park named Wally World, complete with hilarious mishaps along the way.  An excellent stand alone comedy on it’s own, National Lampoon’s Vacation spawned 3 sequels; one a genuine classic (Christmas Vacation) and two that were bland and forgettable (European Vacation and Vegas Vacation).  Now, long after the series has run out of steam, the Vacation franchise is being rebooted as a starring vehicle with Ed Helms, here in the role of Griswold son, Rusty.  While 2/3 of the Vacation sequels were not very good, they at least tried to take the series in different directions.  This reboot on the other hand just rehashes the plot of the original, minus the originality and the charm.  I just know that this reboot will fail, because you can’t replace the brilliant writing of John Hughes and the peerless direction of Harold Ramis with gross out humor we’ve seen a million times before.  But, Hollywood seems to still believe that name recognition is worthy enough of investment, and that’s why they want reboots to take hold and extend franchise out longer than they need to.  I really hope that this doesn’t happen with this Vacation reboot, because a Christmas Vacation remake would absolutely destroy me.

But, the primary reason why sequels, reboots and remakes continue to dominate the Hollywood landscape today is because of one simple fact; movies are expensive to make and established brands are more reliable investments.  Any studio can put it’s money behind a huge, epic scale production that’s based off of an original idea, but whether or not it makes them any money is determined solely by us, the audience.  Sometimes we forget that Hollywood is a profit based industry that must continually produce hits in order to survive and not a artfully driven enterprise; so, it’s not all that strange to see so many of them turn away from newer ideas.  Movies are million dollar investments, and the safest bet will usually be the best bet.  But, Hollywood’s reliance on safe bets must also have to contend with changing trends in the markets.  Sometimes, what proved to be a profitable franchise one year will suddenly be old news in the next.  Not only that but production turnaround is notoriously sluggish, especially on big tentpoles, so if audiences have lost interest in your film by the time it’s released, you’re completely out of luck.  Movie audiences have a much more diverse and evolving taste for movies than many might realize and those unpredictable swings in audience preference can have unexpected effects on the industry.   Disney capitalized on it’s audience’s sense of nostalgia when it turned one of their theme park rides into a profitable franchise with Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), but several sequels later, the novelty wore off and audiences were no longer interested in seeing theme park ride-inspired movies anymore, shown clearly with the box-office failure of the ambitious Tomorrowland (2015) this year.  And it’s the wearing off of novelty that really shows the negative effects of continually trying to recycle ideas over time.

What really worries me about Hollywood’s play-it-safe attitude and their absence of originality is that it’s making this millennial era we’re living in devoid of character.  Say what you will about how dated some of the movies made in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s looked today; at least their time period helps to define them long after they were made.  When you look at movies like Back to the Future (1985), or Saturday Night Fever (1977), you can’t help but see the markings of their era in full display, and that’s what has helped them endure all these years later.  Today’s movies don’t reflect our contemporary society as much anymore, because it seems that many of them are trying too hard to avoid the stigma of becoming dated.  But, the unfortunate by product of this is that those movies will neither age well nor will they leave an impact on the era they exist in.  Honestly, the only movies that I can think of today that could actually be fondly remembered decades from now are the ones that touch upon contemporary issues or trends; like a movie that addresses the social ramifications of online networking or the advancements in LGBT rights here in America.  Sure, years from now, we may look at social and political movements of today as quaint and ridiculous compared to the issues of the future, but movies would provide a great cultural touchstone for what this era of time was like for us, as it has in so many decades before.  Rehashing old ideas just wipes away any defining cultural touchstone that we might have.  Of course, the other major way to bring originality back to Hollywood is to have producers willing to stick their necks out for something bold and new.  Every now and then we get a visionary director who manages to build up enough good will in the industry to make their dream projects a reality, with a budget substantial enough to make it work; like when Christopher Nolan was allowed to make Inception (2010) for Warner Brothers.  Hollywood needs to be in a groundbreaking mindset, much like how they were in the 70’s with the rise of New Hollywood.  But, of course, it involves taking risks and in that era too you needed to go through a couple of movies like Heaven’s Gate (1980) before an Apocalypse Now (1979) could emerge.

So, is Hollywood completely out of ideas.  If their current trend of appealing to audiences’ nostalgia continues, than it might actually be the case.  There are only so many ideas that can be done over and over again before audience grow bored with it, and new ideas are absolutely necessary to keep the business alive.  Unfortunately, studios aren’t looking towards long lasting impacts that their movies could hold; they just want to maximize what they already have because it’s the less risky option.  And sadly, the upcoming slate of movies in the near future looks more and more like everything we’ve seen before.  Superheros are less likely to be reborn so much as recast; franchises will continue to rehash the same plot points as opposed to extending off in a new direction; and beloved movies of the past will be given watered-down updates that remove all the charm that the originals had.  I am seriously dreading that Point Break remake, as I’m sure that many more of you are as well.  It’s really up to us, the audience, in the end to determine the direction of this trend in Hollywood.  Ideas are out there, they are just not getting championed highly enough to get the attention of the people at the top of the industry.  If audiences reject half-assed attempts to appeal to our sense of nostalgia by exploiting established brands, then the industry will start looking for other properties they can use to base movie productions around, and that may even lead some of them to take risks once in a while.  Sometimes it can result in failure at first, but even failures can turn into successes in the long run; look at Blade Runner (1982), or The Iron Giant (1999), or Fight Club (1999), all box office failures that are now considered masterpieces.  So, for your own survival Hollywood, you need to procure those rising visionary filmmakers, skim through that list of “black list” screenplays, and find the next great big idea that could extend your impact on the industry and leave a cultural impact for future generations to come.