Are Original Movies Really Better than Derivative Works?

  • Publish Date: April 21, 2011
  • Comments: ↓ 16 user comments

Playing it safe

ImageA failed re-branding effort

It appears that no existing concept, however tenuous, can escape the reach of Hollywood studios, who will seemingly devote every resource they have to avoid developing an original idea. In recent years, it has been difficult to find a major summer or holiday movie that doesn't have a number attached to the end of its title. Many of these "franchises" (a word that itself doesn't conjure a sense of quality or individuality) appear to be interminable (seven Saw movies, 23 Bond films, even five Pokemon movies), and those that don't go on forever increasingly end only because they are being "rebooted" (Spider-Man, Superman) -- sometimes, even before the current run hasn't even finished yet (Batman).

In fact, according to research conducted by Box Office Mojo, Hollywood will release an all-time record number of sequels in 2011: 27, beating the previous high of 24 set in 2003. But it isn't just sequels that are clogging the multiplexes. A look at this year's release calendar -- which includes titles like Conan the Barbarian, Arthur, The Thing, Fright Night, Footloose, and a Muppet movie -- is enough to make a movie fan wonder if he accidentally slipped into a hot tub time machine and landed in the 1980s. (At least the Total Recall remake is still a year away.)

ImageThat's Conan, but that's not Arnold

And when the studios aren't pillaging from their own back catalogues, they turn to other media as a source for ideas. Since the early days of film, Hollywood has been adapting books to the big screen, and the practice is prevalent today -- in fact, nearly one in every four movies still originates in a book, story, or article. But the studios have increasingly turned to other media as well, whether it is comics, videogames, TV shows, or even simplistic board games (we know you're looking forward to Battleship in May 2012).

Judging from the surfeit of complaints about Hollywood's obsession with sequels, remakes, and adaptations, conventional wisdom has it that movies based on original concepts are better than derivative works, and that the studios are producing too many of the latter and too few of the former. But is that really true?

To find out, we have analyzed five years worth of box office and critic review data for all films released between January 2006 and December 2010. Please keep in mind the following notes:

  • Only wide release films (those playing at 600 or more theaters simultaneously) are included in our analysis.
  • If a film opened in limited release at the end of one year and then opened wide the following year, we treated the year it opened wide as the year it was released. (Thus, our analysis does not include a few 2010 films -- such as 127 Hours -- that didn't open in general release until 2011.)
  • Documentaries are excluded.
  • Films with fewer than 7 reviews are also excluded. (Only a few wide releases failed to meet this requirement).

Let's begin by determining just how many original films were released in the past five years. ...

It's true: Most movies are based on existing works

Over the past five years, only 43% of all wide release films have been based on original ideas -- meaning that 57% of releases were sequels, remakes, and adaptations. And the percentage of original films has been declining in the past few years, as you can see below:

2006         2007         2008         2009         2010
40,60 43,57 48,52 44,56 40,60
40% original 43% original 48% original 44% original 40% original

Here's a more detailed breakdown of the different categories of releases:

Sequels       Remakes       Adaptations*       True Stories       Original Ideas   
per year
19 Average
per year
12 Average
per year
57 Average
per year
17 Average
per year
Max: 23 in 2007
Max: 15 in 2006
Max: 72 in 2007
Max: 25 in 2006
Max: 79 in 2007

Note that films can belong to more than one category.
* Of any non-film media (e.g., books, TV, videogames, comics, plays, etc.)

While the ratio of original to derivative works doesn't vary too dramatically from month to month, the best time of year to catch an original story at the multiplex is in the spring, when 52% of releases are "original" stories. The summer months and the December holiday season, unsurprisingly, are packed with the highest percentage of films based on preexisting material.

What is a bit more surprising, however, is that the major studios aren't the only ones to blame for this flood of recycled material. As expected, the six majors released many more derivative works than original concepts, by a ratio of 58%-42%. But smaller studios didn't show much more creativity in their choice of projects; only 45% of their wide releases were original stories. As for the major studios, Sony took the biggest risks on new concepts, with 56% of their releases falling into the original category over the past five years. (They were the only distributor to top the 50% mark.) Playing it safest were Fox and Paramount, with just 31% and 34%, respectively, of their films introducing new stories and characters.

So should we be upset that Hollywood is producing more derivative works than original films? Maybe not, thanks to an unexpected finding.

Critics seem to prefer derivative works to original concepts

As you know, on Metacritic, we use the Metascore -- a weighted average of individual critic scores on a scale of 0 (bad) to 100 (good) -- to represent the critical consensus for each movie. And what these scores tell us is that, over the past five years, movies based on existing concepts have been reviewed slightly more favorably than films based on original ideas.

All Films         Original Ideas         Derivative Works*
Average Metascore: 50.3 Average Metascore: 48.0 Average Metascore: 52.1
28,43,29 25,41,34 31,45,24
% Good:
% So-So:
% Bad:
% Good:
% So-So:
% Bad:
% Good:
% So-So:
% Bad:

Good/so-so/bad groupings are determined by each film's Metascore; good is 61 or higher; bad is 39 or lower.
* Includes, any film based on existing material/concepts, including adaptations, remakes, sequels, true stories, etc.

In fact, movies based on original ideas accounted for fewer good movies -- and more bad ones -- than derivative works, even after considering the edge in quantity of total releases held by the latter group.

Original Ideas   Derivative Works
bar 43% % of all releases 57% bar
bar 38% % of all positively-reviewed films 62% bar
bar 52% % of all negatively-reviewed films 48% bar

We should take a step back at this point and note that our use of the term "original" is only to differentiate those films from movies based on existing properties and concepts. One reason these "original" films may not be scoring as highly as you might expect is that they really aren't very original at all, in the conventional sense of the word.

ImageNot the same old thing

In fact, even though they aren't based on any one specific existing film, many of these "original" movies may simply re-hash tired genre tropes that audiences have already seen countless times in prior films. One of the reasons a movie like Inception resonated with audiences and critics last summer is that not only was it the rare big-budget event film not to be based on another property, but it also incorporated a storyline and visual style that were relatively unique. That's why many movie fans are also excited about upcoming films like Super 8 and The Tree of Life, and less so about not-so-original "original" films such as Friends with Benefits, which seem far more common in recent years.

So perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised that derivative works have an edge on these "original" films. Some types of derivative films are better than others, however. In fact, as we break down the average Metascores by category in order from best to worst, we can see that basing a movie on other types of media (except, rather notoriously, for videogames) results in better-quality films than using another movie as the source of inspiration.

Average Metascore by Type of Film, 2006-2010
Type % of All Releases Average Metascore
Based on a true story 10.6% 60.5
Based on a play or musical 2.1% 58.2
Based on written material (book, story, article, etc.) 24.1% 57.1
Based on a comic, graphic novel, or comic strip 4.1% 52.3
Reboot 1.5% 50.9
(ALL FILMS) 100% 50.3
Based on a TV series 4.1% 49.8
Sequel or prequel 11.8% 47.9
Other * 0.7% 47.8
Remake of foreign film 3.0% 45.8
Remake (any type) 7.2% 44.0
Remake of American film 4.2% 42.8
Based on another film or film characters (but not a remake or sequel) ** 2.1% 40.6
Based on a videogame 1.1% 30.4

Note that percentages do not add up to 100% because non-original films can belong to multiple categories.
* Includes all movies based on other material not specifically mentioned above, such as toys, radio shows, etc.
** Examples include spoofs like Epic Movie, as well as films like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which is inspired by a segment in Fantasia.

It's not just the critics

Intriguingly, it's not just the critics who seem to prefer derivative works to original concepts; the average user rating for original films released over the past five years is 5.9 (out of 10), while that for films based on other works is 6.3. And Academy voters seem to share similar preferences:

All Releases         Oscar Nominations*         Nominated Films*    
43,57 29,71 30,70
Original concepts accounted for 43% of all releases ... ... but just 29% of Oscar nominations from the past five years ... ... and only 30% of all Oscar-nominated films

* Only nominations for wide release, non-documentary films are included here.

ImageThis really happened

Among the individual categories, it was book adaptations that accounted for the most nominations (40%) and nominated films (41%) over the past five years. And 21% of nominated films were based on a true story, even though such films accounted for under 11% of all releases. Of the past 10 best picture winners, by the way, just two -- The Hurt Locker and Crash -- were original stories (though the former was loosely inspired by actual events, and the latter is considered one of the worst best picture winners in recent memory). This year's best picture winner, The King's Speech, is just one of numerous Oscar recipients to depict real-life events and people.

Sequels and remakes also perform better at the box office

Finally, here's one conclusion that is utterly unsurprising: derivative films collect more money at the box office than original ideas. This is a no-brainer; not only is it easier to sell an existing concept to an audience than a completely new story, but studios also are more willing to spend money on derivative works in the first place, both on the production side and the marketing side. Still, the numbers are striking:

All Releases         20 Top Grossing Films         Total Box Office $    
43,57 26,74 36,64
Original concepts accounted for 43% of all releases ... ... but just 26% of the 20 highest-grossing films each year ... and only 36% of all box office grosses

All box office figures are domestic grosses only; source: Metacritic research,

Here's how the average movie performed in each category (average grosses are in millions):

Sequels       Remakes       Adaptations       True Stories       Original Ideas   
$123 bar $47 bar $69 bar $41 bar $49 bar

So even though the average derivative work grossed $67 million to just $49 million for a movie based on an original concept, original films did gross more than certain types of derivative films (remakes and movies based on true stories). Will that deter the studios from producing more pointless remakes? Did we mention there is a new Footloose coming later this year?

What do you think?

Are you tired of the endless parade of sequels, remakes, and adaptations at your local cinema? Or do you trust the studios to do a better job with proven ideas than they do when attempting something different? Let us know in the discussion section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (16)

  • DavidS  

    I think these statistics are deceptive. Sequels and remakes are in the great majority of cases noticeably inferior to the original film. On the other hand, literary adaptions are often excellent, as they have something proven to work with, but are not simply copying another film's success. Many literary adaptions are among the finest films ever made. In the Average Metascore table above literary adaptions are at the top, but original concepts still score higher than sequels, prequels, and remakes. Therefore, excluding literary adaptions, original films are indeed better than derivative works, contrary the the conclusion of this article.

  • Julian Ambler  

    Due to the requirements of film, namely the number of individuals it takes to create a film, it does not surprise me that better films are created when there is a shared point of inspiration, a preexisting source material.

    Additionally much purely original material is created as vehicles for particular stars. Scripts are often completely reworked and sometimes entirely written after stars attach themselves to a project. Because original films are often sold by stars and not concept it is not hard to believe that these films are often duds. Storytelling is not an emphasized component of the process.

  • Gustavo Acosta  

    I'd be interested in seeing the analysis get expanded to include NET income on the films rather than just the grosses. The article states that "studios also are more willing to spend money on derivative works in the first place, both on the production side and the marketing side." But will the NET income of these films erase the income advantage that the derivative films have over original ones? We'll probably never know because I doubt the studios would be willing to open up their books so transparently, but if Metacritic can pull off the research, I'm all ears.

  • A.C.  

    Thanks to sequels and garbage remakes, I get forced to most of this drivel by people whon I question why I am friends with them in the first place. The score of original films are brought down by romantic comedies and teen films, and the score of sequels/remakes are risen by critics from Entertainment Weekly and other such publications that eat CGI up with a spoon. With the exception of films like Inception, I can pretty much write-off going to summer films b/c they are all remakes, unless I really feel like not using my brain for 2 straight hours. Dave, you are the winner for best opinion, could not have said it better myself.

  • Al Harron  

    "That’s Conan, but that’s not Arnold"

    You do realise Conan had been around for 50 years before Arnold came on the scene, yes? You might as well put a picture of Daniel Craig and say "that's Bond, but that's not Connery."

  • ned b  

    one thing i might point out is that many of the best 'original' concepts for films come out as small scale or limited release indies, which are usually of a very high standard. if metacritic had included limited releases, then we might get very different results

  • Felipe Rico (a.k.a.-  

    There's not even one good movie that is spectuclar good or spectuclar bad it is. I see that those movies get better originals than the new ones that rehash everything in sequels, reboots, and remakes. I'm not that sure that even those new sequels or remakes will too good at this year and I agree that what you just said about the newer ones, it's just not the same. Here's some films that are good this year that are new and I'll give you the movies that weren't as good, but fair okay by any means.

    (3 New Films that are good, but give them a chance)

    1)Super 8 (This is the J.J. Abrams film and it's very intresting to see the new crossover between the older Spielberg films into a twist supernatural flick.)

    2)The Tree of Life (Terence Malick's new film with wide-angle close ups where the movie shows that everything in the world is universe. This looks pretty good for a new film.)

    3)Cowboys & Aliens (This one is low, but the movie gets kick-butting action film with aliens fighting with cowboys along with James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).)

    3 New Films that are okay, but not the same as now

    1)The Hangover, Part II (The original stays to the top, but the sequel has the same formula as the original. Even I saw two trailers are based on the exact same movie and disappointed for no casting Mel Gibson.)

    2)Cars 2 (I like the Cars movie, but not top to the best Pixar films ever. The trailer just spoiled where cars are going in top agents to save the world with bunch of cool cars. Really? It's not what the fans where expected to see.)

    3)Thor and Captain America (Nothing wrong with them, but it's not same as superhero characters get along with other great superfilms like The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. It gets me disappoint where gonna see in 3D and those characters are .... well stupid. There's no where Thor is not exactly look like in the comics and he looks like super model. Captain America shows that he's skinny when we saw in super bowl teaser and the trailer. I rather watch X-Men: First Class than the new ones.)

  • Mewtwo465  

    Well in my opinion it depends on the idea. If an original is a good idea, and gets brilliant reviews from the critics and the public, then surely a sequel should be necessary. If the sequel is good then people will always be asking for more. Look at the Fast and Furious franchise. There's five films now and not all of the films have been good. But they make loads of money and as a result Hollywood gets richer. It's all about money guys. But then let's look at older franchises such as The Neverending Story. The first film was great, the second film was a flop and the third film was absolutely atrocious. But why did Hollywood make the trilogy? Money. They all got bucket loads of cash. So at the end of the day, and this goes for every single film ever made, it's all about money. So you could say Hollywood are just greedy.

  • Ate  

    Cool article but could you provide the lists of movies you used and their MC scores?

    I just ask because that would the easiest way to compare scores since the site's search tool is very primitive.

  • Danny  

    It would be interesting to see the standard deviation of the grosses of these movies. I would guess that remakes have a smaller standard deviation than original ideas, thus convincing studios to fund a movie for which they have a good idea what the gross will be.

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