Originality Is Overrated: What Independent Filmmakers Should Learn From Hollywood’s Love of Remakes and Sequels
“Risk aversion has really paid off, and studios and production companies have noticed this…Recently the industry has seen a solid string of success born out of rebooting or upgrading content from the past. This is a risk-averse strategy. You bank on content where people already have a sense of the characters, they have a sense of what the plot is, what the story is.” — Walt Hicky of FiveThirtyEight
Consumers are risk averse, preferring something that is known over the uncertainty of something that is new. Because of this, suppliers are also risk averse providing known and familiar products instead of opting for things that are new and different. This is true across products, even salt. Salt is textbook example of a commodity yet consumers overwhelming buy the brand Morton Salt over any other, despite a higher price than generic options. This is because people know and are familiar with Morton Salt and do not want to take a chance on a different brand, even when they know it is the exact same thing. This applies even more so on where consumers choose to spend their discretionary funds on entertainment.
“They already know these brands, and these combinations have worked on one generation and, if written properly, will work again…It’s why movie sequels really began. Tried and true and lessens the risk, as these companies are very risk averse and with millions of dollars being spent. — Anita Busch of Deadline
Looking at the top ten films by box office numbers, all but three are a sequel/franchise film. And those three non-sequel/franchise films are all new versions of previously told stories, one being a direct remake of a film that was already a new telling of an old story (The live action remake of The Lion King, which is just a retelling of Hamlet)
While there may be some evidence that the domestic U.S. market is souring on the constant remakes and sequels, the same does not hold true internationally. The International market is a huge consumer of media and makes up a large component of the total earnings of a film. Movies like The Fate of the Furious, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Transformers: The Last Night saw almost 80% of their box office come from the International market, while movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-man: Homecoming, Logan, and Dunkirk all saw more than half of their total box office come from foreign markets.
Regardless how much some consumers, domestically and internationally, may say they want to see new and different films, they tend not to put their money where their mouth is. Even poorly made films build on familiar brands and premises can turn a profit for the filmmakers. Point Break (1991) is a classic action movie starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze that earned a respectable $83million at the box office and still holds at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. This movie has taken on cult status and is seen as providing the blueprint for the original Fast and the Furious movie (to be discussed later in this series). In 2015, it was remade in what Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian calls a “lifeless reboot”, and with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 11%, the audience seems to agree. Then why make it? The reboot had a box office of $133million (significantly more than the original’s $83.5million) on a $105million budget, meaning that a movie that is almost universally seen as bad still earned $28million.
Consumers are drawn to the comfort of known stories and brands so that is where they choose to spend their free time and money. Trying to fight this demand for familiarity and produce content that is wildly different will not be accepted as something fresh and new that consumer flock to. Instead it will be avoided by the consumers. Large studios have figured this out which is why they continue to produce remakes, sequels, and franchises. Independent filmmakers who are looking to profit from their art would benefit from understanding the wants and demands of the consumer base and learn from Hollywood’s love of sequels and remakes.
Independent filmmakers should not fight the risk aversion of consumers. In order to increase the chance that consumers choose to watch their films, independent filmmakers should package their projects in a familiar way. The comfort of familiarity should not limit the filmmaker’s vision, but should act as a starting point to get the consumer’s attention and play to their risk aversion so that they sit and watch the film, instead of passing it by.