Some major franchise players: Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Spider-Man
Here’s a trivia question: How many of 2014’s top 10 box office performers so far are completely original stories? Hint, it’s fewer than one. Anyone who has paid attention to Hollywood’s recent obsession with sequels, franchises, and comic book characters can’t be surprised by that. Nor will they be surprised that the obsession shows no sign of waning. As Warner Bros. recently announced, it plans to squeeze every possible drop of content out of DC Entertainment over the next decade, with occasional breaks for Lego movies and Harry Potter spinoffs. Disney, meanwhile, will be distributing Marvel movies from the already-in-progress Avengers franchise to the soon-to-be-in-progress Inhumans franchise, until the end of time. (Or at least until 2019.)
Things weren’t always like this. For moviegoers of a certain age, it’s easy to remember when major studios defaulted to original scripts rather than source material. We decided to dig into the actual numbers and find out just how original Hollywood used to be — and how unoriginal it’s become. The stats we came up with were startling.
We started the analysis with 2014, including movies already released and those that are set to be released by the end of the year, then we jumped back 10 years at a time until we got to 1984. We tallied the major studio movies in 2014, 2004, 1994, and 1984, so every film distributed by Universal, Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. is included in all four samples. For the three most recent samples, Disney joined those five studios. In 1984, Disney released only two films and wasn’t yet a major studio. MGM, on the other hand, was in its last years as a major studio, so its 18 releases are in our 1984 sample. We excluded the indie arms and other subsidiaries of the majors.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the chart:
The takeaway is at the bottom of the chart, and it’s dramatic. The number of original stories told by major studios dropped from nearly 59 percent in 1984 to about 51 percent a decade later. In 2004, original movies made up about 38 percent of films, which looks like a lot compared to today’s less than 25 percent.
Here’s how we managed the big list of movies for each year. We dropped each title into a bucket based on whether it was an original story, a remake, part of franchise, based on real life, based on a novel or nonfiction book, or based on another source such as a comic book, TV show, toy, or play. That was harder than it sounds. Many films, especially those released in 2014, fall into several categories. (Transformers: Age of Extinction, for instance, is part of a franchise that’s based on a TV show that was based on a toy). For those, we looked at the most recent previous work produced. So sequels were counted as franchise films, because the most recent previous work was the first film. If that first film in a series was based on an original idea, it would be categorized as such, regardless of future sequels. Any remakes were counted as remakes, without considering the original’s source material. Films based on TV shows, comic-book characters, plays, or other films (the rare spinoffs) were counted together.
Just for fun, let’s walk through one year from the analysis. In 2004, the six major studios distributed 90 films. As the chart above shows, 2004 was a remake bonanza. Every studio got in on the act with Fox leading the pack with four (Catch That Kid, Taxi, Flight of the Phoenix, and Man on Fire). Franchises were also becoming a bigger deal, making up 12 percent of major studio releases in 2004, compared to 9 percent 10 years prior, and 6 percent 10 years before that. It’s not hard to see why either. Of the top 10 grossing major-studio releases of 2004, four were franchise films (Spider-Man 2, Meet the Fockers, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and The Bourne Supremacy) that combined to earn more than a billion dollars. One other, National Treasure, would go on to spawn a franchise. Even the two non-major-studio releases that made the 2004 top 10 weren’t originals: DreamWorks’ Shrek 2 was a franchise film, and the independently produced The Passion of the Christ was based on one of the oldest, and most frequently adapted, source materials.
As for movies based on original screenplays, major studios released 34 in 2004. Of those, only two, The Incredibles and the aforementioned National Treasure, made enough money to sneak into the year-end box office top 10. So while the major studios certainly deserve your ire for their reliance on unoriginal stories, the lack of box office success for original screenplays indicates there’s another group of people who bear some responsibility: all of us.