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Original Material? Be Careful What You Ask For, Hollywood

So, it appears that Hollywood has finally realized that there’s only so many old toys, cartoon shows and comic books worth making into movies (And somewhere, Marvel and DC are aggressively disagreeing with that last one, I’m sure), and is looking for the movie machine to start churning out original material. Which raises the question: Is anyone really ready for that?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m as eager as the next person – Well, as long as the next person is Grumpy McFedUpWithCinemaRegurgitatingMyYouthBackAtMeson – for moviemakers to concentrate on coming up with new ideas again, but I can’t help but feel that the supposed call for all-original material is doomed to failure, and it’s all Hollywood’s fault.

The problem, as I see it, is twofold. Firstly, I’m not sure that audiences really know how to deal with characters and stories they’re not already familiar with. We’ve been trained, in a sense, to gravitate towards the familiar, with focus given in terms of both marketing and budget, and it’s taken. Given the choice between, say, The Dark Knight or Hancock, audiences eagerly picked the devil they knew, even thought Hancock featured the most successful movie star on the entire planet, and it’s not just because they thought that Heath Ledger looked scarier than Jason Bateman (Although, let’s face it, he did. Mind you, Bateman wasn’t really giving it his all at the time). I’m tempted to say that this is, in part, because the people in charge of advertising movies these days have lost the knack of actually introducing new concepts to people; consider the trailers for Inception, for example, which are visually stunning but, in terms of actually giving out information about what the movie is about, not so impressive. Maybe it’s like a muscle that has atrophied because it’s been so much easier to offer explosions, spectacle and a familiar name or two when the logo appears at the end.

Secondly, new things need time to grow. It’s really, really unlikely that something that no-one has ever heard of will have the kind of opening weekend that, for example, an Iron Man 2 or Dark Knight or whatever will have, if only because people are going to be less likely to spend their hard-earned dollars on something unless they have a strong feeling that they’re going to get something approaching their money’s worth. On the one hand, that’s not a problem; letting something find its audience, build its reputation through word of mouth, is a great thing, and is likely to make its fans love it even more because they won’t feel as if it’s been crammed down their throats, but instead “discovered” by them. On the other hand, that’s not the way that the movie industry works. Now, it’s all about the opening gross, and if a movie starts slow, it suddenly has the reputation for underachieving, disappointing, and all manner of words that shout at the unconvinced “GO AWAY! THIS IS NOT AS GOOD AS YOU’D WANT IT TO BE!”

There’s a counter-argument to all of this, of course, which goes like this: Avatar. But that’s a freak, a happy accident; yes, it was original material that wasn’t adapting any known property, but on the other hand, it was James Cameron’s first movie since Titanic and had an insane reputation based on that alone. How many other movies could really have that kind of pull at all, never mind on a regular basis?

Like I said, I want to be wrong about this, because… Well, I’d like mainstream cinema to do more than just tell me stories I already know. I grew up with Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Back To The Future, and while none of them were entirely, 100% original, they all had their own take on things that I couldn’t really find anywhere else, and that was exciting, and new and different in a way that I don’t think mainstream movies know how to do anymore. But in order to get back to something approaching that (undoubtedly clouded by nostalgia) heyday, both audiences and the movie industry will have to unlearn the lessons of the last few decades and start to redefine what “success” means… and as long as there’s fast and big money to be made making Stretch Armstrong and MASK movies, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.


  • Sbab20

    I think your take on the Inception trailer completely misses the point. The trailer gives very little sense of the plot because Nolan specifically wants to keep as much of the plot as possible under wraps, and the movie does an excellent job of selling an interesting basic premise without giving away any real plot developments. Given Nolan's past films, most of the enjoyment of Inception will derive from letting the mysteries play out unspoiled. I'd argue that Inception is an example of trailers done right, exciting audiences while still using restraint in dishing out the actual details of the plot, whereas too many trailers nowadays give out the the film's entire plot structure.

  • nicholaswest

    Why do we have to know what a movie is about before we see it? I miss the old days of being surprised.

  • Mythos

    I would argue that Hancock failed because word-of-mouth warned people to avoid it, whereas the critically-acclaimed The Dark Knight found success by, well, being awesome.

  • percane

    we've reached a point where very little is truly “original” most stuff is highly derivative. first of all, the analogy of the dark knight vs hancock is horrible. audiences flocked to the dark knight over hancock not because batman was a more familiar character, but because it was a far better movie.

    avatar is a good counter argument to your thesis. there were almost as many people hoping avatar would be a flop as were wanting it to succeed. it succeeded because it gave us something very different, while being derivative at the same time, much the way star wars and indiana jones did.

    originality paired with success has never been the forte of hollywood. go back to the beginnings. gone with the wind? adaptation. wizard of oz? adaptation. this is nothing new. what's more of a problem is that right now hollywood isn't adapting so much as remaking. the remake trend is the troubling one.

  • Da_illest1

    avatar original??? please

    original effects yes….but its the same story as pocahontas, the last samurai and so's a story we've seen before, probably told better as's the effects that made people flock to it..

    I would love to see a original movie, something that actually makes me think afterwards and discuss it with friends.(the first matric movie anyone?)

    there's nothing wrong with a new take on things, but moviemakers should make sure they add something to what's alreadybeen established,not mindlesly do the same thing over and over..because what they're really doing is shooting themselves in the foot.They repeat the same thing so often, that no one gets to forget what came before.And more and more people will go :hey, didn't i already see this movie, just with other actos in it?

  • Comicsaredead

    this scared for me a sec..thought it was BTTF reboot…

  • Kaskratiski

    Hancock failed? In what universe? It grossed 624 million dollars worldwide, and grossed 100 million dollars in dvd sales, all on a 150 m budget. How in the hell is that a “failure”?

  • Kaskratiski

    Did you read the article? AVATAR was original in the same way STAR WARS was…it took an all too familiar story and archetypal characters, and presented them in a visually striking new way. That's what most films are.

  • Kaskratiski

    “audiences flocked to the dark knight over hancock not because batman was a more familiar character, but because it was a far better movie.”

    If it were that easy, then THE HURT LOCKER and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would've outgrossed NEW MOON and TRANSFORMERS. The reality is that people are comfy with the familiar.

  • Thalya

    Could you explain the success of The Hangover then, please?

  • Zagreus

    This is a terrible article. Nobody but geeks (like me) know who Iron Man or Green Lantern is. And Iron Man did well, and I'm sure Green Lantern will do well. Sorry. Fail

  • Mike

    People were familiar with Dark Knight and Iron Man 2 because…dun dun dun…they were sequels, sequels that built on the buzz of success of their first movies. And comparing Dark Knight to Hancock is a stretch. There are some other reasons (like quality) suggesting the difference in attitude between the two. You'd have to wait for a superior Hancock sequel before comparing the two.

  • Kolymar

    I want to see a Teddy Ruxpin live-action movie. :D

  • VanGoghX

    May your dreams never come true. ;-)

  • Kolymar

    Because one usually wants to get the most out of the money and time spent on a movie. Taking that into consideration and the fact that there are several options offered all the time, any given person always wants to make the best possible choice. Knowing what the movie is about doesn't necessarily have to ruin the surprise if the right information is given in the proper dosage.

  • Da_illest1

    read the article, didnt agree.The only thing that avatar did was create new visuals..beyond that it didnt add anything

  • Frequentcontributor

    Got to agree with Sbab20 that Inception is a bad example; Nolan purposely keeps his plots under wraps.

    As far as new material failing due to audiences wanting the familiar (or studios feeling more comfortable financially backing proven entities over unknowns…), I feel like there's a breaking point with the toy/tv show/etc. retreads: I very typically walk away from those types of films immensely unsatisfied. GI Joe was utter garbage, and I didn't even bother with the second Transformers, simply because I know what total crap it was going to be. Lots of those movies are bad because our nostalgia for them obscures the fact that they weren't all that strong of stories to begin with.

    Things I'm excited about now: Expendables, Machete, Cabin in the Woods, Super 8… Not really “franchises” (unless Super 8 had direct ties to Cloverfield…), but original material that isn't relying on appeasing the lowest common denominator fanboys…

    I'll still go see comic/tv show movies (A-Team was big dumb fun, I thought…), but I just want more out of them that won't typically ever happen. Dark Knight is one of those rare moments of genius that, say, a Fantastic Four or Knight Rider movie will never be…

  • RodimusBen

    I largely disagree with the notion that audiences would not be receptive to new material. As someone pointed out in another comment, Avatar's success proves that it's not familiar franchises that people pine for, it's familiar stories. That was the beauty of Star Wars– it was every fantasy myth we had ever seen or read as a kid wrapped up in an appealing new package. Avatar is the same way.

    We shouldn't be dismayed by the fact that people like familiar story plots. It is human nature to enjoy a few basic archetypes when it comes to storytelling– the coming of age, the redemption, etc. These tales are as old as dirt and will be told long after we are all dead and the medium of cinema is hundreds of years obsolete. The creativity comes not from inventing a new plot, but in reworking how it's told. THAT is how artists have been shackled in Hollywood for the past fifteen years or so.

    True, right now Hollywood is obsessed with the “front-loaded” structure of box office returns. That's why they like familiar characters via either sequels or adaptations– because they can always guarantee at least a big opening weekend. Just as important, even if they make a movie they know is a piece of crap, as long as they can get a big return on opening weekend, maybe they can break even with the $250 million they invested.

    Today, despite advance reviews, Internet spoiler leaks, mass media campaigns, merchandising and product tie-ins, word of mouth remains the single most influential factor in the success of any film. If people like it, they take their friends to see it again. If they don't, even an impressive opening weekend number can't prop up a bad movie for very long. We've all seen 2nd weekend drop-offs as big as 70% on lousy films. People still want to see GOOD movies, but the industry has changed so as to fool as many people as possible into seeing bad movie quickly, before they find out they are garbage.

    However, we still love an underdog. These days few remember the LEGIONS that were predicting that Avatar would be the worst financial disaster in film history. I myself thought that it would do about as well as today's average CG blockbuster– make about $300 million or so– then be able to break even in the foreign markets and on DVD/Blu Ray. Even that was wrong, and as the Avatar phenomenon grew, more and more I stood in amazement of it. And I don't even LIKE the movie.

    Whereas front-loaded crap films become little more than memories of a wasted $10, sleeper hits become a cherished prize to be shared with friends and family who may never have gone to see it if someone they know didn't tell them how awesome it was. That effect is multiplied when it's an original creation and not based on a franchise they already know. THAT is what Hollywood should be shooting for if it is indeed heading into a new era of original film concepts. However, with the recent release of the Smurfs teaser, I'm not so sure that's the case.

  • Guest

    District 9

  • Keniam

    Um. Avatar?

  • Sijoy2k5

    In my case, I've been disappointed -even disgusted- by so much stuff that I'd rather know ahead what I'm getting, especially “twist endings”. There's very few media these days that I trust enough to watch from the start without knowing how it will end.

  • Dacl

    I had a similar thought a while back, as movies become more dependent of CGI the risk of gambling on an unknown property becomes greater, so we're probably less likely to see more original material as far as blockbuster films go.

    I saw some of the potential advantages of this. For example Warner, which owns DC Comics, may become more willing for them to make less profit if they lay off the established franchises that already have movies and vigorously try new properties which they may be able to make into films one day. And then you might get some more original comics :D

    Or, the amount of adaptations grows to a level where audiences want nothing to do with them studios may decide to just get as many new filmmakers with new ideas and just leave them alone to make movies. More original movies with less studio interferece :)

    But hey, what do I know?

  • Phos

    Mm. I should bring up Pixar, if only because the vast majority of their movies are original ideas, and all are incredibly successful, mostly due to the emphasis on the quality of the story and the pruduction, and also Disney's explosive advertising budget.

    Should I also add that Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, Spirited Away, and Happy Feet were all either original stories, or based on fairly obscure sources. I should, shouldn't I? It turns out that when you let the talent do what it does best, results are generally palatable.

  • Z Herring

    Are we really going to lay Hancock's failure on a lazy audience? Because I'd be quicker to switch any blame-train's tracks to point towards “Crappy-Movie” station.

  • Alex

    The problem with Hollywood is that many of them are stuck in the politics of the late 70s. Not to bring downt the mood, but after the World Trade Centers were destroyed by terrorists from the middle east the first inclination of the Hollywood was to lay blame on the vicitims or namely 'us'. They phoned in telethons for the victims like 'it was terrible that we made that horrible thing happen'. Marvel and DC did honest tributes. Given, Captain America still doesn't bash in the heads of terrorists the way he did so joyfully to Adolph Hitler back in 1939. Hey, we weren't even in the war yet. Not really. Truth be told I can't even recognize Cap these days. He went from being Cap to that bizarre character in Civil War to a guy who just gives up (for some unforseen reason).

    The Hollywood people were hoping the Afghanistan war would soon be followed by an Iraq invasion that hopefully go bad. It did and I hope they're happy. Then, they started churning out anti-war movies like hotcakes. Hotcakes that people quickly decided not to see. The movie industry wanted Iraq to be Vietnam and George W. Bush to be Nixon. 9/11 still isn't mentioned much, I guess they want to erase it from our conscousness.

    I don't see Hollywood making original movies they haven't made a thousand times before starring an overpaid actor and really about how bad the people who see the stupid films are. I think the entire industry is just incredibly tired. Just worn out.

    As for comics. Hell, even after the abysmal Civil War nonsense that I have to say was the worst crosssover I have read from Marvel, I would still read the Red Hulk or the Avengers or even Green Lantern over at that great DC than make Will Smith's kid more money.

  • Kaskratiski

    Again…why are people saying that HANCOCK “failed”? Sorry, but HANCOCK was a 150 million dollar film that grossed 624 million , and kept Will Smith firmly entrenched in his A-list perch as the most bankable actor in the world.

  • Kaskratiski

    And you would be wrong. STAR WARS did the same. Took a whole bunch of tropes, narrative conventions, and archetypes into a whole new level of dazzling storytelling. And people responded, and connected. Just like what happened to AVATAR. You may not like the film, but you can't change the fact that audiences took to it because as “familiar” as the story was, it was an experience they had not seen before, just like STAR WARS. And that's why Avatar grossed almost 3 billion dollars.

  • Z Herring

    Good point. I read the article and replied, didn't bother to read the comment section nor do any fact checking.

  • Bret

    This article is kind of silly to be honest. There are SEVERAL original and new movies that are produced each year. Remakes are just a fad that's been going on as of late that just stand out a bit more because theyre more recognizable. Everyone's familiar with Freddy Keruger and Tron, so those trailers will stand out more than Shutter Island or No Country For Old Men, both which intridyced “new” characters to the screen. Are you forgetting Pixar? Every movie they make (other than sequels) introduce something new and each are money makers. You dont even have to dig deep for them, theyre right there, you're just paying attention to the remakes and rehash becuase that's what you know.

  • Z Herring

    Both “successful” movies you listed had far broader markets then the two “good” movies. They might be excellent films, but they're hardly accessible to a wide range of demographics. Also PG-13 movies tend to outperform R rated movies.

  • demoncat_4

    mask is headed to the big screen. Hasbro made it known. as for original material its way over due instead of remaking old films that really should have been left alone ad nausum.

  • mfan

    avatar was and will always be and awful movie. it dosn't matter how much money it made, its still bad, its story was stupid, its characters were lame, and its cgi was weak. success of a film has nothing to with quality. Blade Runner floppd, so did Children of Men, Sci-fi is hard to sell period.

    Quality can only be trully understood by how the movie holds up over the long term. Avatar is going to be liked by alot of people as their first 3d movie, thats just how its going to be, but that does not make it a good movie in its own right.

    the same year avatar came out I saw UP which had better 3d and District 9 which had a similar story but told it much better. those movies will be remembered as quality products, even if they didn't make a billion dollars

  • Anon

    The inception trailer was vague and pretentious.

  • Not Alex

    Alex , you need to come out of your Tea Party closet. Hollywood ,even if the actors are anti-war, don't make financial decisions based on their political beliefs. They make what will sell. The fact of the matter is that their global audience isn't interested in pro-America bullshit. Hollywood isn't “mentioning” 9/11 because there's no way they can address a terror attack intelligently, accurately, and with respect .By respect, I mean non-patronizing. I'm not saying that there's anything patronizing about Captain America punching a Muslim terrorist in a face especially if you think Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden conspired to destroy America. Oh, I'm sorry, Obama Bin Laden. Well, I leave your quality reading of man-baby literature.

  • JAHart

    Even without the nostalgia factor, it helps when the concept has already been field tested in another medium. A lot of the creative problems are worked out, and there is a tangible artifact to present to the studios. I can't imagine how hard it is to sell an all-new concept to a movie studio nowadays, especially sci-fi/fantasy. Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim, Y The Last Man, etc all started as comics and were optioned as movies based on that work. It's hard to imagine that any of them would have gotten any attention from studios if the comics didn't exist to demonstrate the idea in action.

  • Stabcomics

    That is, without a doubt, the stupidest load of I don't know what I have ever read. People picked Dark Knight over Hancock? Dark Knight was a better fricking movie! And using Avatar as a counter point? Avatar was terrible! It just had a monster of a marketing machine. It's not the marketing, the opening gross, the first weekend or any of that bull that brings people in. It's a good film. Look at District 9 for example. Paranormal activity. The Hurt Locker. These were all original material, and they brought in the crowds because they were good films.

    I am completely dumb founded at the stupidity of this. I would gladly pay full fare for all those shitty, painful rehash films that sucked and were a waste of my time, just to have not have read this drek.

    Graeme McMillan, you are an idiot.

  • Atomic Kommie Comics

    Green Lantern (Silver Age) has been around since 1959, the Golden Age version since 1940.
    Iron Man's first appearance was 1963.
    While “geeks”, like me are the primary audience, anyone exposed to video game, cartoons, and comics in the past 50 years knows their names, if not their specifics.

  • TwinPistols

    Dude, what the hell are you talking about? Seriously? Because you're making zero sense right now.

    Marketing does “bring people in”. The whole point of marketing is to sell the movie. Who cares how good the movie is if no one knows it's out there? Plus, the opening weekend, or gross, is *everything* to a movie. That is where the bulk of the money is made. Audience attendance doesn't go up after a movie's release release, it goes down. The only question is, how sharp is the drop?

    It's funny to me, how you included The Hurt Locker as one of those films that “brought people in” due to quality, since it made a whopping 16 million dollars in the US. That's peanuts guy. Don't get me wrong, piracy gutted that film's gross, but did the quality of the film bring people into the theatre? Nope.

    If you really want to use your time wisely, stop replying to articles when you obviously don't know what you're talking about.

  • Dave Ziegler

    An even better example than Dark Knight vs. Hancock is The Wild Wild West vs. The Iron Giant. WWW was terrible and sucked up the bulk of Warner's promotional budget, while IG was an amazing film that, had it been given some/any promotion would likely have done MUCH better at the box office.

  • TheFourthMan07

    Didn't the Matrix have the same concept as far as the trailer went? The lest you give in a trailer, the more you gain in the whole movie watching experience. Who wants to know the entire plot of the movie before they watch it?

  • Thomhunt

    Like, for instance, Legion, which I thought was a semi-decent film but the previews ruined much of the enjoyment for me by giving away key plot elements and showing scenes that would have worked much better had I not known in advance what was coming.

  • Polrua

    …in terms of actually giving out information about what the movie is about, not so impressive.

    See now, I think that most trailers do the opposite. I'm getting sick to the gills with seeing a film trailer and thinking, “Well now, I don't have to see the film.”
    If a trailer can give me a general idea of the overall tone of a film, I can pretty much decide if I want to see it or not. It's the equivalent of the one-line pitch.

  • Andre

    I gotta agree, The Matrix gave away little actual plot in its trailers, relying on the innovative visuals to interest the public. And that became a monster.

  • Sephy

    Saying Avatar is as original as Star Wars is a slap in the face to the legacy of Star Wars. Star Wars uses the most basic of tropes, Good vs Evil, and uses it to tell a very entertaining science fiction story set in its own living breathing universe. The characters might fall into “roles”, but thats what characters are supposed to do in movies.

    Avatar was a completely unoriginal and boringly predictable movie that succeeded only because of 2 things; fancy special effects (that weren't as great as hyped, in my opinion), and by throwing around other bits of Cameron's Legacy (name ONE Avatar preview that didn't have the words “Cameron”, “Titanic”, or “Terminator” in it). Storyline wise it heavily paralleled Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, Last Samurai, and so forth to “rip off” proportions.

  • Derrick

    Sadly, defining success and failure don't require things like “facts” or “information” in this, the fanverse. Usually, the writer actually liking something is the prime defining factor in determining success or failure.

    Hop in the not-so-wayback machine and read all the reviews and articles online that talk about how “The Incredible HULK” was more successful than Ang Lee's “HULK” financially. I read article after article in the weeks after that films release where writers touted that that particular type of revamp proved that such a thing could be done so soon following the other films “failure”. And while there's certainly an argument that this might be true from a creative standpoint or from the perspective of being more pleasing to the fanboy palatte, I don't see how this makes a LICK of sense regarding true, financial success. (Keeping in mind that the majority of these articels came out while the film was still in theaters, therefore disregarding futue DVD numbers.)

    But look at the final box office numbers and you see two films that did almost the same business at the box office. The budget to intake ratio is not drastically different and down the line, the numbers are fairly close. Heck, by Hollywood standards where things seem to be counted in the hundreds of millions, they're practically identical. (…)

    At the end of the day, the majority of folks who frequent boards like this don't pay much attention to reality and prefer to live in a fantasy world where one's personal opinion is greater proof of success or failure than something as silly as actual information.

  • Derrick

    Then I suppose I'll have to add to the slapping of the face of the legacy of Star Wars, then, because I completely agree with the prior assessment. STAR WARS was in no way an original story. It wasn't using “basic tropes”. it was taking it's entire narrative framework for the writings of others and George lucas not only ADMITS this, but is quite proud of it. (Read the “Star Wars and the Power of Myth” book for a POINT by POINT comparison of everything Star Wars took from something else.)

    You're making personally motivated distinctions between what you choose to define as inspiration and rip-off. Your bias based on personal preference couldn't be more obvious if you declared it in giant neon letters. The fact that you and countless other can site SO MANY different sources that you charge AVATAR ripped off shows that it could not have ripped them all off equally. What it if all reality DID, in your words, was use “the most basic of tropes.”

    And on another note, If you really believe that it's true that the ONLY two things that contributed to that films success are the special effects and Cameron's legacy, then you're being naive to the level of wanton self-delusion. NO movie makes the kind of money AVATAR has made based simply on special effects and a filmmakers rep alone. Hype doesn't work like that. If all a movie required to make BILLIONS at the box office was a previously successful filmmaker and “fancy special effects”, then wouldn't “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief” be in the billionaires club too?

    The pure and simple fact of the matter is that AVATAR succeeded because people liked it. They liked it enough to see it more than once AND tell their friends how much they liked it. And those friends saw it more than once most likely and then told THEIR friends. You can see the proof just by seeing how little the film dropped in box office take week after week.

    Sorry, but Star Wars WAS an unoriginal story told in an original way. So was AVATAR. So was the original MATRIX and countless other successful Sci-fi/fantasy stories.

  • GuestReader

    This article is a completely self-contradicting and cynically depressing. You think the “Inception” trailer is the wrong direction to go in? There's a reason they were called Teaser Trailers. They aren't actually supposed to lay out the entire plot for you. You miss the golden age of Spielberg, but you don't think audiences can handle original stories anymore? They chose the Dark Knight over Hancock not because it was the “devil they knew,” but because Hancock was garbage and the Dark Knight was a class act which actual character emotional depth and a story. We HAVE to get back to supporting original content because the alternative is the complete downward spiral of Hollywood as a storytelling industry.

  • Definately Not Alex

    ” We HAVE to get back to supporting original content because the alternative is
    the complete downward spiral of Hollywood as a storytelling industry. . “
    That has already happened. Hollywoood is still reaping profits. What does that tell you? No one cares about storytelling. Moviegoers just want that “boom boom pow”