By Matt Kyle | Personal editor
It seems like almost every movie that comes out is part of an already existing franchise. Of the top 20 films at the domestic box office in 2021, only “Free Guy” and “Encanto” were original films not based on something that had already been released; the rest were remakes, reboots, and sequels.
Going back, the last highest-grossing movie in the US that wasn’t a sequel or based on something that already existed was 2009’s “Avatar.” The last highest-grossing original movie that wasn’t part of one franchise was 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Forty years ago, the original films made up most of the box office hits, but now the script has flipped. So what happened?
According to James Kendrick, professor of film and digital media, this is not a new phenomenon. Kendrick said this trend grew out of the adaptation of written stories to film, with some of the earliest films ever made being adaptations of Bible stories and novels. He said film remakes had been happening as early as the 1930s.
“Film as a medium has always been about adapting and using pre-existing properties because their name was already recognized,” Kendrick said. “Hollywood as an institution what they usually do is find something that works and then they try to make it as much as possible. Innovation is not always part of their driving ambitions.
Kendrick said the change in the film industry he’s seen is an increase in the number of prequels and reboots. He said it started with horror movies, which were also among the first major film franchises.
“The horror genre has always been a leader in sequels,” Kendrick said. “All the 80s slasher movies – ‘Halloween’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Friday the 13’ – those were some of the first modern franchises where you had six, seven, eight movies in a series in almost also many years. Plus, a lot of them have been rebooted. In the past 20 years, pretty much every major horror movie of the 70s and 80s has been remade or rebooted.
Chris Hansen, chairman of the film and digital media department, said name recognition from major franchises means films have ready-made audiences who are likely to see the film. By having an embedded audience, movies are a safe bet that studios can invest in.
Hansen said the Harry Potter franchise and the Fantastic Beast movies are a good example.
“[Audiences] know what it is, and they want to see more movies in it,” Hansen said. “As long as there is appetite, people will go see it.”
Hansen also said that original films generally made less money at the box office than franchise films, making them a bigger risk for studios to produce. Instead, Hansen said he sees streaming platforms as the home of original movies in the future.
“While I want all movies to be released theatrically because I love the theatrical experience, I’m glad that movies that otherwise couldn’t be made in the current Hollywood climate can be made, because they won’t don’t have to make the same kind of money on streaming that they have to make at the box office to justify their existence,” Hansen said.