In a 2016 study conducted at the Manchester Metropolitan University, the top 100 worldwide grossing films of 1996 were compared to their 2016 counterparts by originality. Out of the films that were selected from 1996, just under 60% were based on an original concept. Fast forward to 2016, and that number has dropped to around 45%. So, is creativity in Hollywood dead? While I am not opposed to the sequel, spin-off, or reboot where there is an interesting story to tell, or where a new spin can be applied to an old classic, there are countless cases where it just isn’t warranted.
While Hollywood’s fascination with big-budget franchises is a relatively new phenomenon, the film industry has a long history of producing sequels. In the 1930s, episodic serials such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon drew moviegoers week-after-week. Universal Studios’ horror movies of the same decade also spawned numerous sequels, with famous characters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster experiencing varying degrees of box-office success. In the 1970s, however, Hollywood’s attitude towards sequels completely changed. After The Godfather: Part II (1974) became the first sequel to win an Academy Award, studios saw an opportunity to capitalise, and squeeze their successes for all they were worth. The numerous follow-ups to hits such as Rocky (1976) and Jaws (1975), each one arguably worse than its predecessor, highlighted a growing unwillingness to end stories, establishing a clear trend that is followed today, most notably by the films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Lynda Obst, producer of Interstellar, one of 2014’s rare original hits, explores Hollywood’s sequel mania in her book Sleepless in Hollywood. Obst argues that technological change and the rise of the international market are to blame for today’s oversaturation of the film franchise. In the past, film studios were able to rely on profits from DVD sales to finance original ideas. However, as DVDs have been ‘obliterated by new technology’, studios have had to look elsewhere for profits. The overseas market, particularly China, has become increasingly important. It is financially unviable, however, to pay for television advertising in every country in the world, so pre-awareness of films is necessary. As Obst puts it, the way to create this pre-awareness is by making sequels:
‘In Hollywood, familiarity breeds success, not contempt.’
Unfortunately for the everyday viewer, this model has arguably come at the cost of creativity. Media Studies professors Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson state that media companies ‘are more closely attuned to the financial imperatives than they are to the subtleties of creative endeavor or the nuances of audience taste’. They further go on to discuss the impact this has on original ideas. At all stages of production, content is market-tested, resulting in a creative process that begins and ends with positioning itself against competitors. This has seemingly led to the end of a concept that most are not familiar with: the ‘auteur theory’.
The ‘auteur theory’ has its roots in French Cinema. Filmmaker and theorist François Truffaut is often cited as the original source, and his 1954 article ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ endorses the notion that those who both write and direct belong to a high echelon of filmmakers, having more control and artistic input in their work. The perfect modern day example of the ‘auteur theory’ in practice is Quentin Tarantino.
Throughout his career, Tarantino has been granted complete creative control over his films, leaving them with a very distinct style that countless others have attempted to follow. When Reservoir Dogs hit theatres in 1992, it was unlike anything audiences had seen before. The use of theme, stylistic violence, and extended dialogue scenes helped coin the term ‘Tarantino-esque’.
It’s interesting to wonder, however, whether he would have experienced the same degree of success if he had started out in the Hollywood of today. Would he even have been given the chance to succeed? In a world where a film’s worth is based just as much on its ability to generate sequels and spin-offs, as it is on its overall quality, I would argue no. Creatives just aren’t given the same amount of freedom as they once were. As stated by English film professor Justin Wyatt, Hollywood is focused more on commerce than art, and places an emphasis on marketable stories, rather than original ones. While this doesn’t mean that films today aren’t of a high quality, it is difficult to see where the next Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen will come from.
Hollywood still makes good movies though, so why should we care?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a superhero film, for example: the vast majority of them are vastly entertaining. However, like many big-budget blockbusters of today, they have a tendency to play it safe: re-hashing old plots and dumbing down the more complex characters. Without wanting to sound like a complete snob, they lack a certain ‘innovation’, along with a sense of risk, which is necessary for the progression of film as an art form. This quote from Winston Churchill probably better sums up what I’m trying to say:
“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.”