Sex in the City 2. Predators. Iron Man 2. Jackass 3D. Saw VII 3D. The Twilight Saga: Whatever. A Recurring Nightmare on Elm Street. Toy Story vs. Shrek, round 2. Harry Potter and the Please Kill Me Now. Do you ever feel that the movie industry plays it too safe? I admit I do. There is always a pressure to rehash the same old ideas. Nobody wants to finance a box office flop. But am I being fair? Am I only doing what the movie industry expects me to do: to notice the follow-ups to the biggest grossing films, and to ignore everything else? There is good reason why the industry puts its biggest advertising budgets behind the remakes, sequels and franchise films. Surefire hits make money, which in turn pays for riskier movies. Sequels and remakes count for 7 of the top 10 all-time highest grossest films. 44 out of the top 100 are. 116 out of the top 400. In short, people can be relied upon to pay to see films where they already know the characters, and maybe know the story too. But notice the trend – as you go down the grossing list, there are fewer and fewer rehashes. To illustrate, between 391 to 400 on the all-time gross rankings there were three franchise-perpetuating movies: Jaws 2; Clear and Present Danger, sequel to Patriot Games; and Red Dragon, part of the Hannibal Lecter series. Between 381 to 390 there is only the loathsome Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls that cashes-in on previous box office success.
It would be daft to suggest that there is no imagination in movies any more. The mind-bending surrealist thriller Inception illustrates that new movies can be truly unique. To measure movie-making conservatism, we need a fair and objective measure. We need a demagination index – the opposite of an imagination index. It needs to apply a simple repeatable numeric rule to tell us how many movies directly lever previous movie successes. So here is the metric:
– Score 1 for a film if no other film went before it, 2 if first sequel or remake, 3 if second sequel etc.
– Add up the scores for all films released in a year (I use the date of release in the US)
– Divide the total scores by the number of films released in the year
Using this basis for calculation, the lower the score, the more imagination. The higher the score, the less imagination, and the more demagination. The lowest possible score is 1, if not a single sequel or remake was released in a year.
Calculating the demagination index for 2010, we find that 329 films have or will be released by the end of the year, the total score worked out at 429 and the index comes to 1.304. 297 of the films were one-offs, but this includes a lot of films with more limited releases. There were 17 films that were the first follow-up to an earlier movie (such as the remake of Clash of the Titans). A further 15 films were extensions of longer franchises, like as the latest in the Harry Potter series. The scores were skewed by Robin Hood, because this particular character has inspired no less than 36 movies, starting with Robin Hood and His Merry Men in 1908.
But is the movie industry getting worse? On the face of it, not in the short run. In 2009 there were 276 releases and the index came out at 1.399. The lower number of releases mean that new films in long-running franchises like Halloween, Star Trek and St. Trinian’s were watered down by fewer creatively unique productions. 2009’s figures were also subject to one big skew film, with the CGI version of A Christmas Carol, the 21st film to be based on Charles Dickens’ story.
Here are is the demagination index for every year since 2004.
I could go on… but there seems to be no obvious trend here. The overall feeling is that there have always been franchises. Some are short-lived, and burn out after a few years. For example, Blade: Trinity features in the stats as it was released in 2004. Whilst vampire movies remain as popular as ever, Wesley Snipes has been on the wane; his career has turned predominantly direct-to-DVD. Longer running franchises are best exemplified by James Bond and Zorro; the release of The Legend of Zorro messed up the numbers for 2005. Adaptations of ‘classics’ like Oliver Twist keep coming around every so often. Movie-making keeps mixing imagination with demagination, looking for the right balance between the new and the familiar. These sometimes get reborn as reimaginations or reboots. Perhaps that should be no surprise. King Kong and Batman have been around for a long time; I am sure we will see them both again in future. Stories about King Arthur have been around longer still. And as noted above, 2010 saw the release of Ridley Scott’s version of Robin Hood, who once again used a bow and arrow to pursue his own brand of progressive redistribution. Some stories just want to keep being told.