By Matt Kyle | Staff Writer
It seems almost every movie that comes out is part of an already existing franchise. Of the top 20 films at the domestic box office in 2021, only “Free Guy” and “Encanto” were original films not based on something that had already been released; the rest were remakes, reboots and sequels.
Going back, the last top-grossing movie in the U.S. that was not a sequel or based on something that already existed was 2009’s “Avatar.” The last original top-grossing movie that wasn’t a part of a franchise was 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Forty years ago, original films made up most of the box office hits, but now the script has flipped. So what happened?
According to James Kendrick, professor of film and digital media, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Kendrick said this trend grew out of adapting written stories to film, with some of the earliest movies ever made being adaptations of biblical stories and novels. He said remakes of movies happened as early as the 1930s.
“Film as a medium has always been about adaptation and using pre-existing properties because they already had name recognition,” Kendrick said. “Hollywood as an institution, what they typically do is find something that works, and then they try to do it as much as possible. Innovation is not always one of their driving ambitions.”
Kendrick said the shift in the film industry that he has seen is an increase in the number of prequels and reboots. He said this started with horror films, which were also some of the first big movie franchises.
“The horror genre has always been one of the leaders in sequels,” Kendrick said. “All of the slasher films in the 80s — ‘Halloween,’ ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’ ‘Friday the 13th’ — those are some of the first modern franchises where you had six, seven, eight films in a series in almost as many years. Additionally, a lot of those have been rebooted. In the last 20 years, virtually every major horror film from the 70s and 80s has been remade or rebooted.”
Chris Hansen, film and digital media department chair, said the name recognition of major franchises means the films have a ready-made audience who will likely see the movie. By having a built-in audience, the movies are a safe bet for studios to invest in.
Hansen said the Harry Potter franchise and the Fantastic Beast movies are a good example of this.
“[Audiences] know what that is, and they want to see more movies in it,” Hansen said. “As long as there’s an appetite, people will go see it.”
Hansen also said original movies typically make less money at the box office than franchise movies, making them a bigger risk for studios to produce. As an alternative, Hansen said he sees streaming platforms as being the home of original films in the future.
“While I wish that all movies would release in theaters because I like the theatrical experience, I’m glad that movies that might otherwise not get made in the current climate of Hollywood can get made, because they don’t have to make the same kind of money on streaming that they have to make at the box office to justify their existence,” Hansen said.