Playing it safe
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.)
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:
|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|
Max: 23 in 2007
Max: 15 in 2006
Max: 72 in 2007
Max: 25 in 2006
Max: 79 in 2007
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|
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|
|43%||% of all releases||57%|
|38%||% of all positively-reviewed films||62%|
|52%||% of all negatively-reviewed films||48%|
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.
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.
|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|
|Based on a TV series||4.1%||49.8|
|Sequel or prequel||11.8%||47.9|
|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|
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*|
|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|
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 $|
|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|
Here's how the average movie performed in each category (average grosses are in millions):
|Sequels||Remakes||Adaptations||True Stories||Original Ideas|
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.