These days it's a pretty standard thing to hate Hollywood, and at times it does seem like about 30 years ago it chased the last original thought out of town with a shotgun. Now it's all sequels and reboots and gimmicks like cheap 3D.
A lot of people say they miss the good old days, when the entertainment industry was a bullshit-free zone, and we're here to tell you that that time never existed. Everything we think of as a bad modern trend in Hollywood can be traced back pretty much to the beginning of recorded history. Trends like...
We Think It Started With:
The 1980s, particularly blockbuster action franchises (Rocky, Rambo, Jaws) and slasher movies (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc).
Of the top 10 movies of the 1970s, not a single one was a sequel. You won't find one even in the top 15, in fact. But fast forward to the decade of the 2000s, and you find that seven of the top 10 were sequels (The Dark Knight, Shrek 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Transformers 2, Star Wars Episode III, LotR: Return of the King and Spider-Man 2). And of the three others, two were adaptations of existing material (the first Spider-Man and The Passion of the Christ -- but more on that later). There was exactly one original film on the list: Avatar. And we're being so charitable with that word that we should be able to deduct this whole article from our taxes.
You just have to watch it with the sound off.
The point is, the sequel/remake machine seems to be a phenomenon of the last 30 years or so; after all, we never saw a Casablanca 2: The End of a Beautiful Friendship.
It Actually Started: In 460 B.C.E.
To find the beginning of this kind of creatively bankrupt money grab, you need to go way back, before the patch of land we know as Hollywood featured so much as an adobe hut.
One of the oldest existing works of Western literature, Homer's The Iliad, has a slew of sequels attached to it -- playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides each cranked out stage performances about the days and years after story of The Iliad, following the heroes' exploits after the Trojan War. Hell, one of the sequels, The Oresteia, spawned its own franchise that itself got multiple sequels.
Via Wikimedia Commons
Don't worry, buddy -- we had the same reaction when we heard about Fast and Furious 5.
That's right: All the way back in biblical times, mankind had already invented goddamned spinoffs.
But if we want to talk about beating a series to death, let's look at the king of Western literature himself, William Shakespeare. The man was the Sylvester Stallone of playwrights, pounding out no fewer than seven plays chronicling the stories of the various King Henrys throughout history. The immortal bard eloquently labeled them: Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3 and Henry VIII: The Henryocalypse. There would have likely been many more, and probably a gritty reboot, if the theater hadn't burned to the ground after a fire started during a performance of Henry VIII.
After that, all of his explosion scenes were done with CGI.
Even the haughty medium of opera isn't above the urge to pump out sequels. Richard Wagner's The Ring of Nibelung from the 1860s was a series of four epic operas, oddly described as "a trilogy, with a prelude," apparently because the word "quadrilogy" just isn't classy enough for opera. And yes, it was originally written as a single opera, then Wagner decided to go back to the well. And what's more, the characters weren't even his own -- they were borrowed from Norse mythology.
Are we saying that Wagner's work is no better than a Pirates of the Caribbean-style money grab? No. All we're saying is that if tie-in merchandising existed at the time, there would have been Ring of Nibelung action figures all over the goddamned place.
We Think It Started With: The comic book movie craze that kicked off in the 1990s, and the "everything must be an adaptation of an existing property" rule of the 2000s.
Take a look at the highest-grossing movies for each year going back to 2000. There are 15 movies to pick from here, because of approximate ties. Of the nonsequels, count how many aren't based on an existing book or character:
Here, you can borrow our calculator.
2000: Tie: How the Grinch Stole Christmas / Mission: Impossible II
2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
2002: Tie: Spider-Man / The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004: Shrek 2
2005: Tie: Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith / Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
2007: Tie: Spider-Man 3 / Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
2008: The Dark Knight
2010: Toy Story 3
Again, it's just Avatar and nothing else. On the list you have one film based on a children's book, one based on a TV show, two based on novels, two based on comic books and one adapted from a fucking amusement park ride. Though we probably shouldn't get mad at Disney for that, considering that TV is airing at least one show based on a Twitter feed.
It is exactly as interesting as you think it is.
As with the sequels, it's no secret as to why. With skyrocketing budgets and marketing costs, it's much, much safer to cash in on an existing brand or character you already know the audience likes. It's pure greed, and the process has gotten to the point that it seems like we will never again see an original movie like, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca.
It Actually Started: Before recorded history.
Hold on -- those stories weren't original, either. Casablanca was based on an unstaged play, and Citizen Kane was based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. The Godfather was based on a novel, and Apocalypse Now was based on the novella Heart of Darkness. And if you think of Disney classics like Cinderella as old stories, you have no idea -- there are versions of that story that predate the freaking New Testament.
Though in earlier versions, the abuse she endured was actually considered a reward.
In other words, we're guessing the first writer who decided it would be easier to just borrow somebody else's story was probably, say, the second or third person to ever try to write something.
Not that this is all the work of hacks. Let's go back to Shakespeare for a moment. We mentioned how much he liked sequels, but that's nothing compared to the man's love of borrowing other people's plots and characters. The Greatest Writer Ever could boast only four completely original plays (Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Tempest). All the rest of his 36 plays were based on existing material.
Via Wikimedia Commons
Even A Midsummer Night's Dream was based on real events.
The world remembers the Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare gave us in 1595 but has long forgotten The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet -- which came out more than 30 years earlier -- possibly because of that stupid title. Hamlet was taken from a centuries-old legend, and some think the play we know and love was just purchased by Shakespeare's company and that Shakespeare just gave it a rewrite. And so on.
Just don't tell that to Kenneth Branagh.
Not that we're trying to pick on Shakespeare -- the point is that as long as humans can put ideas to paper and sell them for money, most of what they turn out will be rehashed, or copied, or a variation on a familiar theme. If anything, Hollywood is just figuring out what the masters knew centuries ago -- audiences like to be told the same story over and over again. We're kind of like children that way.
Not that we're pretending to be any better over here. We never get tired of hearing different ways that Batman punched The Joker.
We Think It Started With: Illegal downloading and DVD ripping.
Illegal downloading has been a thorn in Hollywood's side since the advent of peer-to-peer sharing, and as we all have undoubtedly seen in the pre-rolls for DVDs, downloading is the same as stealing somebody's car. Studios treat the issue as a modern phenomenon, claiming they are now losing millions because of this new technology that suddenly lets people consume entertainment without paying.
It's hard to compete with this.
But we should have known that man's desire to get something for nothing predates BitTorrent by a long shot.
It Actually Started: In the 1500s.
During Queen Elizabeth's reign, theater saw a huge boost in popularity, since the queen herself was a huge supporter of the arts.
Via Wikimedia Commons
And a huge supporter of pumping iron, judging from her massive biceps.
An established theater company's most valuable assets were the complete copies of its plays. Copyright laws didn't exist yet, so if another theater troupe got a copy of the whole play, there was nothing stopping them from performing it as their own. As you can imagine, this took a bite out of profits and prestige for the original company.
To protect their investments, theaters instituted what were essentially the first strict DRM measures. Theaters gave actors only copies of the scenes they were in; the only people with full scripts were the senior company members.
George Lucas adopted this policy and added further security by writing scripts so shitty that no one would ever want to steal them.
But as with any DRM system, pirates found a way around it. The demand for complete plays led to the publishing of pirated copies called "bad quartos," created when somebody would sneak into the play with quill and paper and frantically write down the lines as they were spoken. Or sometimes, they'd just pay off actors from the troupe to write down the lines from memory. Then the bootleg script was sold to the highest bidder.
But even back then, you took a chance buying bootlegged copies of anything. Just as movie downloads can never be as good as seeing it in a theater, bad quartos were never as good as the originals. The problems ranged from erroneous lines to entire scenes or characters disappearing. Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has three surviving versions, all of which involve different characters in pivotal scenes and subplots that are left dangling. It'd be as if 400 years from now, the only surviving copy of The Lord of the Rings was one shot with a cellphone, with some dude's head in the way the whole time.