The end of the year is a time to look back and reflect — about what movies came out, which ones made the most money, and why. While 2015 was a far better year for box office receipts than 2014, the majority of the money we spent at the movies went to only a few films, and to only a couple studios. Between the six highest-earning films of last year — The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, and Minions — three movies were produced by Disney, and three were produced by Universal. Only one, Pixar’s Inside Out, isn’t part of a larger franchise.
Any film buff will tell you that 2015 was a uniquely strong year for films, but few would argue that the top-earners are particularly spectacular, with some exceptions. Regardless of any online backlash or critical response, however, those are the films that made the most money, and those are the ones that Hollywood will continue to produce. The monolithic studios like Disney, Universal, Fox, and Paramount are always struggling to figure out what works for their box office receipts. This year gave them an answer — reboots, franchises, sequels, and spinoffs of previously successful properties.
For proof, look no further than Disney’s upcoming release schedule, which features so precious few original properties compared to the wealth of Marvel comic book films, Star Wars spinoffs, and live-action re-imaginings of old classics. It’s almost as if the studio is finding ways to turn established moneymaking franchises into larger “universes,” like the much-talked-about Marvel Cinematic Universe or the incoming Star Wars universe, so they never have to gamble their money on original properties, except maybe the occasional Spielberg film like the upcoming BFG or animated films like the upcoming Coco and Moana, which have built-in audiences in young children and their parents.
Obviously, their competitors are following suit in their own way, but no studio has become more aggressive about pursuing this discomforting new model of franchise-based film production than Disney, which has made it its business to spend huge sums of money in order to acquire properties, like Star Wars, which it purchased from Lucasfilm for a whopping $4.06 billion, that can be milked for sequels and spinoffs into oblivion. Rather than simply producing a new trilogy of Star Wars films, they’re building out, producing spinoff films like Rogue One and the upcoming Han Solo prequel that flesh out this galaxy far, far away perhaps more than it really needs fleshing out.
Disney’s increasing propensity for remakes is unsettling too. The studio is peeking into the Disney vault again and again in order to resurrect old properties in new ways, whether through straightforward live-action fairy tales like Cinderella or CGI-soaked villain origin stories like Maleficent and a rumored upcoming Cruella de Vil vehicle. Within the next few years, we can expect live-action adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book, as well as a sequel to the financially successful but much-reviled Tim Burton-helmed Alice in Wonderland.
Though Cinderella received its share of positive feedback, thanks mostly to the visual prowess of director Kenneth Branagh, these remakes are soulless moneymaking vehicles that rely on the heavy-handed use of CGI effects and obnoxious modern “updates” that do more to distract from the story than anything else. Maleficent bends over backwards to ape Wicked in order to make one of the most iconic animated villains into the heroine of her own story. Alice in Wonderland invents a played-out story about a prophetic war that completely distracts from the gleeful insanity that should characterize any Alice in Wonderland film. Rather than doing right by the source material, these remakes undermine them for the sake of a quick cash-in.
It’s difficult to speculate on anything that’s yet to be released, but The Jungle Book trailer does its best to present this new remake as something dark, both literally and figuratively, as Mowgli runs away from a series of poorly-lit, malicious CGI animals. At its end, it once evokes the original by including the basic tune of “Bare Necessities,” as if such a blatant callback would entice audiences. The sad part is, it probably does. Disney is looking for the cheapest way to appeal to both children and to the ever-expanding nostalgia of older generations that grew up with the original animated films. This most basic of marketing ploys is, sadly, working like gangbusters.
It’s sad, primarily, because these films are little more than marketing ploys with massive budgets, and as long as those massive budgets are going toward, say, an eventual remake of Mulan or an origin story of Ursula (both of which sound sadly plausible), it leaves less studio money to go to ambitious original projects that present a larger risk for the studio. The producers who lay down their money for such monolithic productions want a sure bet — they don’t want another John Carter or Tomorrowland on their hands, which means most studios will continue to alienate directors who might have something interesting to say, if only given the budget they deserve.
While Disney, with its impressive roster of beloved properties to adapt and powerful marketing and merchandising forces that allow for a third Cars movie (a third?!), represents the worst of the current studio trends, other big production companies are scrambling to catch up and likely wishing they had the franchising capabilities of Disney. Warner Bros. is doing its best to turn its DC properties into a successful series of interconnected films, like the MCU, but devoid of any colorful fun or humor. Other franchises currently in the midst of being revived include such long-dormant properties as Indiana Jones, Alien, American Pie, Bad Boys, Beetlejuice, Blade Runner, Die Hard, Independence Day, and more. I’m already exhausted just thinking of them all.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
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