The Era of Reflection

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Movie aficionados have it good these days. Compared to any other time in the history of cinema, today’s movie-going audiences get more of what they want. Production studios are no longer pitching ideas to audiences. Audiences are pitching ideas to movie studios. People want to see their favorite characters from books, comics, and TV shows come to life on the big screen. They don’t want to visit an unfamiliar world, they want something familiar. They want to see their favorite characters of the past reborn with all of the realism that today’s computer generation can offer. This is a time when new ideas aren’t really celebrated as much as new interpretations of old ones. This is the Era of Reflection.

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Retro is in. Our favorite TV shows take place or are based in the past. Folk rock, 80’s new wave, and (thanks to Daft Punk) disco are popular again. Plaid shirts, wool sweaters, and Ray-Bans are considered stylish. Sports cars like the Jaguar F-Type, Ford Mustang, and Corvette Stingray all make nods to their stylish 60’s counterparts. Broadway shows are revisiting past successes and now it’s cool for adults to watch cartoons. If something is old and out-of-date, it seems like it only takes a slight tweak or fix to make it relevant again.

Such is the current pop culture environment. We are simply fascinated with the past. If anything, new ideas feel old. More specifically, new movie ideas feel old and old movie ideas feel new. If it has been done before, surely we can do it better now. What’s more is the fact that it doesn’t require as much popular support as it once did to get the heavy wheels turning in Hollywood. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Google have made it very easy for a limited number of avid fans to voice their opinions about what they want to see next. Kickstarter is yet another avenue, giving fans the opportunity to throw their own money at a project they want to see. Movies like Riddick and Serenity would not have gotten off the ground if it wasn’t for the huge amount of fans calling for them to be made.

Production studios have been listening, and for the most part fans have been putting their money where their mouth is. Novels/books are HUGE in this regard. Back in the 90’s it wasn’t uncommon for a movie to be based on a book, but not to the extent that they are today. Today’s Hollywood knows that if a book is popular among a certain demographic, surely the movie will be popular among that demographic as well. Books offer a lot of incentives to film makers too. They have fully developed characters and storylines, but because of the story being written on paper there is still a lot of room for directors to push their own visual style. If it is a classic story/novel the focus of the film will be on the interpretation. If it is a contemporary story or novel the focus is usually on preserving the story, characters, or themes.

The movie-making gold mine has been young adult novels in particular. The nature of a young adult book is such that it can showcase heavy emotions but still be fun to read. Therefore, unlike a more traditional novel, it will appeal to a larger audience. Furthermore young adults, aka teenagers, are a very important demographic to Hollywood. Not only are they very adept at using social media to spread word of mouth, but they will frequent movie theaters more often than anyone else. Parents intrigued by their teens’ interests may pick up the book themselves and start reading. Teenagers simply have the ability to influence more people than any other demographic. Maybe that’s why production studios are now listening to what they want more than they have previously.

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Comic books seem like the only bullet-proof genre in cinemas these days, but that wasn’t always the case. In the late 90’s the comic book movie was all but dead. This can be blamed mostly on the poor quality of those films (Batman & Robin, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), or more accurately the inability or unwillingness for Hollywood to maintain a franchise. Unlike today, movie franchises in the past often got lower and lower budgets for each successive film. The idea was that if you could make a big profit with a $100 million budget, surely you could work the same magic with a $80 million budget. This was a time before summer blockbusters required every movie to outdo the one that came before it. Back then, a sequel was a chance to make fans of the original film pay more money, not necessarily continue the story in a manner that would draw more people in.

Today the comic book movie is a sure-fire way to not only have a dedicated audience, but also an easy way to make an exciting movie. All of the ingredients are there waiting to be assembled in a way that is palatable to movie-going audiences. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in the 40’s movie studios recognized the cash cow of a comic book hero. Serials, as they were called, were feature length versions of popular television and short film comic book-based adventures. The stories that these serials utilized translated well to the big screen and gave audiences the excitement and fun that other films of the time, even action films, couldn’t deliver. Today, the reasoning behind comic books is no different. The ideas presented to audiences are relatively easy to come up with, and because of our devotions to certain characters, more exciting too. Furthermore, now that recycling previous ideas is “in”, there is not as much concern about overexposure, or over-milking particular characters and stories.

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 Speaking of recycling old ideas, the remake is also very popular these days. Not only does it give audiences something “old” to revel in, but like novels or comic books, an audience will already exist. If the remake is chosen carefully, there will be a loyal audience willing to pay money to see the new version. Plus, it doesn’t even have to be a film that resonated particularly well with audiences at the time of its release. Cult films are ripe picking. These films, for whatever reason, were too ahead of their time or too outside the box to be understood entirely on opening night. But through the years, people have begun to appreciate it more and more. Eventually, you have an incredible loyal fan base who considers the original film a sacred artifact. Those folks will definitely want to see what new Hollywood has to say about their beloved movie. Just don’t mess it up.

I suppose that is the biggest problem with today’s Hollywood. The stakes are higher than ever. What happens when you mess up? What happens when the remake or reboot or even the sequel doesn’t get favorable critical reviews, or worse, gets slammed by its own fan base? Certainly a sequel or reboot that misses its mark reflects badly on the original if only by association. Loyal fans of the original will only like their film more, but casual fans won’t quite remember it as fondly now that they have the new version swirling around in their head. Recently, a trend has begun where remakes are being used to try and erase the bad taste of inferior sequels. The Amazing Spider Man, the upcoming Terminator reboot, and even Man of Steel are examples of this phenomenon. If anything, this only shows us how influential fans’ opinions are and how much is at stake to get it right the first time.

Hollywood tries to protect against such occurrences. They plant big name stars whose box office success has been nothing short of miraculous. They use directors who proved they could be profitable, or at least show that they understand the material and can translate it according to what fans want to see. They also hire big-name writers who’ve made their careers writing other big-stakes movies or have proven their worth in television. Yet, despite all of these efforts to make a movie a big hit, we seem to be having more and more flops. The Lone Ranger is the perfect example. Disney hit it big with Pirates of the Caribbean and thought that they could use the same formula again. No such luck. They missed the mark and now they’re in trouble. Now they need a new idea. Back to the drawing board.

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Now is a critical time for the industry. It has been mining the past for ideas over the past decade and while there are still plenty of gems out there, it has dug out some lumps of coal too. Comic books will continue to be a viable source of easy money, but only as long as fans have the patience for the typical Hollywood tricks to make more money. Reboots are one way to fix past mistakes, but they risk the chance of alienating a loyal fan base, and with today’s fascination of everything vintage, will never be able to repeat past glory.

 

It may quickly become apparent that what Hollywood needs is a new direction. The Age of Reflection has maintained profits and has been able to keep the industry busy, but for how long? 2013 has shown plenty of hiccups in the plan, but these trends only appear to be getting more and more prevalent. 2015, for example, is turning up to be an epic year for movie releases. It is chock-full of remakes, sequels, reboots, and comic book films. Are audiences going to be receptive to such an onslaught? One film in particular will be the litmus test; Star Wars Episode 7. Even if all the other remakes/reboots/sequels of 2015 fail and Star Wars  succeeds, Hollywood will continue its push for more recycled material. If, on the other hand, Star Wars doesn’t meet its monetary or critical aspirations, production studios will need to take a hard look at what they are doing, even if some films that aren’t Star Wars are a success. Star Wars is the pinnacle of movie franchises, the strongest and most profitable. If it can’t survive in The Age of Reflection, nothing can.