Hollywood is Out of Ideas, and We Are in Trouble




One of the more humorous moments of “Back to the Future Part II” occurred when the (holographic) shark from “Jaws 26” “eats” Marty McFly in 2015. Through this scene, director Robert Zemeckis was more than likely poking fun at the “Jaws” franchise, which at that point included four films. Yet, this scene’s significance extends beyond its comedic value.

Zemeckis has stated that “Back to the Future” was not meant to have a sequel, but the enormous returns of this film raised the question as to why not. So Universal funded the creation of two more films, not to mention a theme park ride and a television show. What the previously mentioned scene illustrates, then, is precisely how the contemporary Hollywood system operates—it consumes material, and reproduces such material over and over and over again. This point is further reinforced by the fact that although Marty was “eaten,” he was still nevertheless allowed to continue about his business in 2015. And such business will continue, as a planned “Back to the Future” musical is currently in the works.

At the same time, this scene also demonstrates excellent foresight on Zemeckis’s part. While we have not yet had 26 Jaws films (surprisingly), Hollywood has nevertheless managed to produce 24 James Bond films in the meantime— not to mention eight Harry Potter films, seven Fast and Furious films, six Lord of the Rings Films, five Transformers films, four Hunger Games films and countless other remakes, sequels and prequels. Therefore, by 1989, Zemeckis foresaw a 21st century industry trend. More strikingly, though, Zemeckis, perhaps unintentionally, pinpointed the year that will be seen as a turning point in Hollywood’s history: 2015.

Seven of the highest-grossing films of 2015 were based on pre-existing content. While this number is lower than it was in 2012, in which 10 of the highest-grossing films, according to Box Office Mojo, came from some other content 2015’s significance lies with the film that not only helped Hollywood have a record year at the box office, but also the film that is currently on track to, according to The Hollywood Reporter, become the second highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation): “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Negative reception of “The Force Awakens” is generally attributed to the fact that the film is one big reproduction of George Lucas’s original space opera from 1977. A droid is installed with valuable information and is stranded on a desert planet. An individual of this planet finds said droid and is propelled into a life-changing adventure as a result. Did I mention there is also a giant planet-destroying weapon as well?

While I enjoyed seeing what I believed was the best “Star Wars” film since 1983, part of me cringed when the Resistance acknowledged that the aforementioned planet-destroying weapon was just “bigger” than the original Death Star. In the same moment, I came to grips with the meaning behind this scene: that it was the template for “Star Wars,” and more broadly, Hollywood, going forward.

Sure this is the same story, but it’s bigger. Bigger characters, bigger cameras, bigger explosions, bigger screens—and all for a bigger ticket price. And this latter point is most salient. Hollywood executives may employ the box-office receipts of franchise films, such as “The Force Awakens,” as justification for the constant reproduction of the same storylines, characters and themes. However, when we adjust these returns for inflation, none of these films place within the top 25 highest-grossing films of all time. The one that comes closest is “The Avengers” at 28. Thus, although people are spending more money at the movies, this does not mean that more people are going to the movies.

This is not to suggest that Hollywood has only recently begun to lack originality. One of the “Big 5” awards handed out by the Academy every year is Best Adapted Screenplay, which is given to, as the title indicates, the best screenplay that is adapted from another source. This award has been part of the annual ceremony since its inception, and the presence of this category suggests that Hollywood has always acknowledged its deficiency in regards to originality.

But we are living in a time of hyper-unoriginality, where the same antagonists re-emerge—the Dark Side and the First Order—with the same goal—capture a droid and defeat the protagonist—and the same means to their end—a planet-destroying weapon. And that, my friends, is scarier than Darth Vader—or Han Solo—being your father, as fewer and fewer original voices will be given the opportunity to be heard.