Why Do Original Movies Fail at the Box Office?

If there’s one complaint about movies that has been repeated more often than ever by audiences across the world in recent years, it’s about the stunning lack of original material on movie screens today. While that complaint may have some validity, especially when it comes to blockbuster films, it’s a far more complex issue than it seems on the surface.

Yes, adaptations and sequels are in a greater abundance than ever, especially with superhero movies spreading like wildfire. That is not to say that these franchises are lacking in quality. But the monotony of another adaptation or entry in a franchise can grow tiresome quickly.

So where are all the original concepts?

They are out there. And they are failing. While there are still some films formed around original concepts that succeed every year, they are fewer are farther between than ever. This failure of high quality original film is making Hollywood executives hedge their bets more than ever. Why invest hundreds of millions of dollars in an unproven concept when they can create another entry into a franchise or an adaptation of a loved book series or television show (or board game or forgotten ‘80s property) that has a much higher success of returning a profit?

There’s no denying that money talks in Hollywood. The real question is, why are so many great original movies failing at the box office?

The Comfort of Familiarity and the Fear of Newness

Adaptations, sequels, and remakes bank on their familiar concepts and faces. So long as the characters and stories are well received by audiences, their return to the big screen will have a higher likelihood of bringing people back to the theater. There’s a reason why the Transformers movies are so critically reviled yet still so huge at the box office. People love watching enormous explosions and the childhood connection to Optimus Prime and friends is enough to get them to come to the box office again and again, even if they know the movie will probably be the worst one yet.

When the main character, and to a lesser extent these days the main star, is already loved or at least recognized by the audience, the story becomes less important. More and more film franchises are sold on the look of a recognizable mask or a logo that has already graced posters at least once before. Audience logic seems to dictate that if the first iteration was enjoyable, more of the same should be the same quality. That may be faulty, but it works.

If familiarity can outweigh the quality of a movie, than originality can make audiences turn a blind eye to quality. An unfamiliar story with unrecognizable characters is much harder to sell. Advertisements must sell the concept and the story, not Iron Man’s metal mug or Batman’s pointy ears. It may be that years and years of easy sells have made it harder for marketing companies to sell something original. But years and years of swallowing up unoriginal material has made audiences wary of something new.

Look no further than one of 2014’s best films, and also one of its biggest disasters, Edge of Tomorrow. Adapted from the Japanese light novel “All You Need Is Kill,” this Tom Cruise sci-fi action film is original, exciting, and all-around fantastic. But a poor marketing campaign, so-so title (that studios are still changing), and an audience too busy buying into adaptations and franchises made it into major box office disappointment.

Because films like Edge of Tomorrow can’t generate buzz years in advance because they have no preestablished character or concept to latch onto, it’s up to audiences to stay aware of what is coming to theaters and be both active and discriminating in their choices.

When audiences complain that Hollywood never gives them original films, they need look no further than Edge of Tomorrow. When they are looking for someone to blame for why original content is shrinking, they only have to look at themselves.

A Terrible Spiral

The more often that an original film performs poorly at the box office, the less likely that an original film will be financed by a studio. It’s a terrible truth, but it makes sense. Film studios are in the business of making money. When formulas don’t result in financial success, studios revert to the time-tested ones that do. Artists and executives need to coexist in order to make the Hollywood machine work. Artists have clout when their creative ideas result in ticket sales. Executives have clout when their calculated decisions bring in the big bucks.

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released in 1975, it established the term “blockbuster,” because of its huge payday. That success helped Spielberg become a bankable director who was able to make the movies he always dreamed of creating. When Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy made billions, he was given the ability to make Inception, which was an indecipherable heist film about dream thieves. The only way he was able to do that, and the reason why Inception was a success, was because his Batman films made him both a recognizable creator and a bankable asset. Both men were given power because of adaptations. But both have taken that power to give life to unique visions.

If audiences only put their money toward franchised media, then even loved creators will have their hands tied concerning future projects. It’s up to audiences to provide the inertia that pushes this spiral into monotony, and eventual mediocrity, by supporting original film. When facing the choice between something different and something familiar, take a chance and put your money toward the film that pushes creativity. You may not only be surprised, you could be investing in the future of art.

Life After the Box Office

Should audiences’ efforts to promote creativity at the box office fail, there is still hope. Like water finding its level, high quality films will eventually find their recognition. While films in the past few years may still be in the process of being justified by post-box office love, such as Edge of Tomorrow, Warrior, and Dredd, they are simply too good to go unnoticed forever. Thankfully, they can look to the long list of classic movies that are widely adored today, but were disaster upon their release.

  • The Iron Giant – An underground classic today, a lack of Disney association and a darker story made this a tough sell in 1999.
  • Fight Club – Now a neo-classic that is practically required viewing for anyone looking to see the darker side of film, David Fincher’s tale of anarchy not only bombed, it was widely hated by critics.
  • Office Space – Known and loved by the working class of America, this turned into a fast cult classic thanks for big DVD sales after fizzling out on the big screen.
  • The Big Lebowski – Today, it’s a cultural movement of its own making. But in 1998, audiences and critics didn’t understand it. So it quickly flopped when pitted against Titanic.
  • The Shawshank Redemption – It’s one of the most universally loved films of the modern era, but in 1994 it only made a fraction of its budget back. Another now-classic saved by repeat viewings.
  • Blade Runner – One of many sci-fi bombs in 1982, this is now one of the genre’s most influential pieces. Back then? Audiences avoided it and critics were bored by it.
  • Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory – Such a box office dud that Paramount Studios let the rights expire, the film was bought by Warner Bros. for half a million and grown into a classic.
  • Vertigo – A consistent contender for the title of “greatest movie ever,” this Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece had a box office that paled in comparison to his other major works of the time.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life – Thanks to repeat TV showings that turned it into a Christmas tradition, everyone has forgotten that it originally bankrupted director Frank Capra’s production company.
  • Citizen Kane – Now required viewing for film majors everywhere, Orson Welles’ opus bombed in large part due to William Randolph Hearst’s campaign against it. He was the unofficial subject.
  • The Wizard of Oz – Losing $1.1 million in 1939, re-releases and annual TV broadcasts made people everywhere fall in love with Dorothy’s technicolor adventure in Oz.

It’s a surprising list, but the fact that these films were once completely ignored by audiences gives hope for the many movies that deserve a second chance. Given time, a film like Edge of Tomorrow can be loved far and wide, while a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction, can sit in the discount bin, long forgotten as it should be.

That’s justice and the proof of creativity’s importance.

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