Do We Get the Movies We Deserve?

Fed up with sequels and reboots? Andrew wonders if there's something we can do about it...

Cinema isn’t often thought of as a democracy, but it’s very representative of people and their choices. Films are more likely to be greenlit if there’s evidence of a potential audience based on what people have gone to see before. Plus in contemporary UK politics, claims and counter-claims are being made that voting for a smaller party will actually enable an opposing one to come into power. It therefore makes sense – according to the bigger parties anyway – to play it safe and vote for a party that doesn’t entirely represent you, but will prevent a worse one from getting in.

Jupiter Ascending has not had a good critical reception but under this site’s review was an undercurrent; a rallying cry of ‘Stuff the quality, we’re seeing it anyway.’ The reason offered was simply this: even if it isn’t good, it’s a film in a genre we want to see more of.

The best way to guarantee this – and provide a foundation for better films in the future – is to go to see the sub-standard product, provide it with enough box office revenue to turn a profit or – more likely – limit its losses. If it bombs, then the fear is that studios won’t develop more original science fiction movies. Jupiter Ascending might not be exactly what we want, goes the argument, but maybe it’s best to back it for now.

Fantastic Four and the forthcoming Ghostbusters reboot have had the opposite reaction to Jupiter Ascending from some cinemagoers. Commentators are stating that they will avoid these films on the information that they currently have, but all with the aim of lowering the films’ revenues and deterring similar future projects.

Ad – content continues below

This demonstrates that there’s a willingness to act against films in certain circumstances. Reboots of beloved movies have to be better than average to overcome the negativity (see Robocop for details), and usually made in proximity to a stuttering franchise to avoid this being overwhelming (e.g. Spider-Man. Twice). Otherwise the cry goes up: Novelty. Original films. That’s what people clearly want instead, right? Box Office takings, though, would suggest otherwise.

Sequels, prequels and adaptations are obviously not a deterrent to an audience. If we look at last year’s highest grossing films there are sequels and reboots, and it’s not until the tenth on the list – Interstellar – that we find an original story. This made less than the franchise stymying total for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In 2013 there was only Gravity(assuming you count Frozen as an adaptation of The Snow Queen), and in 2012 there was nothing original in the top ten, but one reboot (The Amazing Spider-Man), one sequel to a reboot (The Dark Knight Rises) and one sequel to/sort-of-reboot-of a reboot (Skyfall).

Last year Transformers: Age Of Extinction made over one billion dollars despite being rated similarly to Jupiter Ascending on Rotten Tomatoes (by both critics and audiences). In fact, barring the 2007 franchise starter, audiences aren’t rating Transformers films highly at all. Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth in its series, wasn’t apparently rated by audiences who had enjoyed the previous three films (even if all the sequels got a critical mauling), but still made over a billion dollars worldwide. There’s going to be a fifth one.

Ratings websites and aggregators suggest the audience is split for these films, but generally the consensus is increasingly negative. This begs the question: why do people keep watching them? Are we responsible for perpetuating franchises we don’t even like that much?

There’s an aspect of brand loyalty to this. A lot of people enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers films (Shia LaBeouf was described as the next Tom Hanks in 2007, which to be fair made more sense at the time), and so this initial enjoyment generates a lot of optimism that the series might regain its initial quality. Once an audiences is hooked this seems to override common sense regarding later films.

Blockbusters also come out at roughly the same time each year just to reinforce the behaviour, e.g. ‘Oh it’s Christmas, there’ll be another Hobbit film out’, and for many films their marketing capitalises on the regular behavioural pattern of ‘Do you want to go to the cinema? That thing that’s been advertised everywhere is on.’

Ad – content continues below

The marketing teams are covering every base. They have eyes on global markets, and this influences casting, location and producing partners. In Transformers’ case, they have a lot to work with: the emotional ties to previous versions (including bringing in characters from these), the lingering feeling of ‘well, the first one was good’, and a constant stream of new teenagers to aim the trailers at.

Plus, it doesn’t actually matter too much if the film is good. In fact, if it’s bad that means people will still be talking about it. I suspect, without having seen the film at the time of writing, that some people might go to see Kingsman – which has enjoyed strong reviews – on the basis of wondering what all the fuss is about regarding the ending.

As with Fifty Shades Of Grey (yes, we mentioned it again. We’re not sorry, now go watch Secretary) the film, the issues raised and the reactions become part of many conversations. It can become difficult to avoid, and you end up not knowing what people are talking about, and you end up seeing it just so you can become involved. People see films just to be informed and take part in conversations.

So, juggernauts have momentum, and are seemingly unstoppable. This gives us substantially less time to see smaller movies. Not only are bigger films targeted with drones-from-the-future levels of precision and budget, but they’re also bloody long. They’re also not the only films people see despite themselves. The Taken films don’t cost that much to make, so their worldwide gross of $250-$350 million is plenty, but it’s hard to shake off a feeling that for all the people who enjoyed Taken 3, there’s also a vocal part of the audience who saw it and hated it, despite the clues that this might be the case.

As we’ve seen recently people can make the decision to avoid a movie on less information. The reaction to Ghostbusters and Fantastic Four demonstrate a willingness to act against a film, although in this case it’s partly because the films are breaking away from a previous version that people have much love for. Based on that logic, though, it sounds like people should have boycotted Man Of Steel, and that wasn’t an issue. It’s not as straightforward as ‘reboots are bad’, being more subjective and inconsistent than that, but there are general patterns of consensus.

Trends such as 12A rated action movies, or tired franchises being dragged on due to sheer profitability are notable for their ability to produce ire. The Amazing Spider-Man series shows, though, that it’s possible to make a dent in juggernaut-level box office takings, so that $700m is a disappointment (and if the accounts for The Order Of The Phoenix are to be believed, possibly a significant loss), one that’s enough to cause a desired change. If more films of this stature started to unravel, the ideal is a restructuring of the industry that benefits us, the fear is a further hike in prices to overcome lost revenues.

Ad – content continues below

Going in the other direction though, and gaining a smaller film a substantially bigger audience, is clearly harder. The reality of science fiction movies is that there’s only a limited audience for less well-known projects. Edge of Tomorrow may not have been deemed a big enough hit, but compared with the similarly budgeted Ender’s Game (hardly unheard of, but not at the level of a Hunger Games or superhero comic) it will rely on DVD and On Demand rentals to make its money back. Financially, Jupiter Ascending looks more like replicating Ender’s Game at the moment. Then there are low budget films like LooperDredd, and Ex Machina: respectively a likely profit from a small budget, a film that reputedly broke even after DVD sales, and one that could go either way. All of them are critically acclaimed, but haven’t reached a huge audience.

Overall, the picture is one of overwhelming odds, and a struggle to retain autonomy over a situation that feels out of your control. It sounds like it would make a good film, but the reality is – as with politics – that we can act idealistically or try not to rock the boat. We are all partly responsible for the movies that get released, and have some power, however slight, to contribute to the future of cinema.

This is based on what you don’t see as much as what you do.