Last week, Lost in Translation took a look at the top grossing movies of 2018. What can be expected in 2019?
Adaptations aren’t going away anytime soon. When they succeed, studios get a huge return on their investment. Guaranteed audiences are the reason why studios will continue to rely on adaptations for income. People are still getting out to them, despite complaints that there’s nothing original. Risk aversion exists with both studios and audiences today. That said, not every adaptation is a guaranteed success. Mortal Engines/ may not make its own budget, though it has only been out less than a month. The only way studios will stop relying on adaptations is if there is a long streak of massive flops as audiences look elsewhere for entertainment. That isn’t going to happen right away.
On the other hand, remakes are going to become scarce. The problem remakes face today is the availability of originals through DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming services. Why watch a remake of, say, The Breakfast Club when the original is available on Netflix? There are a couple of exceptions. The first is when the original is outside recent memory, such as A Star is Born. Recent, right now, means anything after 1980. Prior to then, the acceptability of a remake goes up unless the film is a cultural touchstone. With A Star is Born, the original was released in 1937 and remade in 1954 and 1976, ignoring the 2013 Bollywood version. A black and white film remade today in colour would slip past the audience reluctance for a remake, possibly getting by on not being generally known as one.
The other exception for remakes is when there’s a new approach to the work. This is a risking venture, especially with today’s social media. Too big a change and the screaming will travel on social networks far faster than a marketing department can keep up. In particular, changing the composition of the main cast, either gender or race, can get certain elements to decry the change without even seeing the film at all. Word of mouth is now faster than traditional marketing.
Superheroes aren’t going away anytime soon. While Warner Bros. slowed down on the DC cinematic universe, Marvel Studios kept going in 2018. The DC television series, though, are still around, having had a crossover event. At this point, superheroes are the new Western – morality plays without the historical baggage. Superhero adaptations will remain the main source, but there should be attempts at original superhero works. It may take a few tries, with several bombs along the way, but the appetite is there. The cast and crew will have to accept superheroic tropes, which may take some getting used to. Marvel’s approach to superhero movies and TV series may have the best chance of succeeding for an original work – cross superheroes with another genre.
Television, including streaming services, may be where original video works come from. With the silver screen dominated by adaptations, original works need to come from somewhere. Netflix and Amazon have released original series as well as adaptations. Traditional broadcasters will need to keep up just to maintain their share of the audience. The competition for viewers is intense and not going to get better, even with time-shifting devices like digital video recorders. TV today will be the source of remakes and adaptations in 2038.
Adapting Young Adult literature may be on its way out. While there have been stand outs, both in YA literature and in its adaptation, the glut means that no one work gets all the attention. YA novels will still get written; readers enjoy the works. Movies and TV series based on them, though, will get more selective. There hasn’t been a YA novel this past year that garnered the attention that The Hunger Games had. Few will be filmable as a movie; novels tend to have far more details than can be used in a two hour film. The most likely adaptation will be a miniseries, though a full TV series isn`t out of the question.
Finally, a video game movie will draw an audience. The live action Detective Pikachu will bring the Pokémon world to life. This will add pressure to the competiting Sonic the Hedgehog film. Detective Pikachu had the head start, releasing its trailer first. At least one of the movies should break the video game movie curse.
Details are still coming out about the deal that will see Disney buy up a large portion of 20th Century Fox. CNN has a list of what’s being exchanged, including 20th Century Fox, the studio with the X-Men rights. What will the effect be, especially for the adaptations?
The immediate effect is none. The movies that have been produced will still come out; they’re too far down the pipeline to change at this late date. Deadpool 2 won’t be delayed as a result. Disney is also not going to impose changes right away. Take a look at what happened when Disney bought both Marvel and Lucasfilm. There were immediate hues and cries in both cases, fans assuming the worst. The reality, though, was far from the disasters expected. Following the takeover of Marvel, Marvel Studios came out with The Avengers, blowing away fan expectations. Likewise, when Disney took over Star Wars, the same dire warnings came from fans. The company released Star Wars: Rebels, The Force Awakens, and Rogue One.
Longer term, this may help Marvel Studios. Because Fox had the rights to the X-Men and related characters, it created a situation where Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who were members of both the X-Men and the Avengers in the comics, had to have their backgrounds hidden in the Avengers: Age of Ultron. The word “mutant” could not be used. With Disney having access to X-Men and The Fantastic Four and the associated characters, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will expand. The crossover potential has increased. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dealing with a plot masterminded by the Hellfire club. The Avengers take on a proper Doctor Doom. Kingdom Hearts 3 with Mickey, Rey, and Deadpool saving the world from C. Montgomery Burns.
One thing that may change is where the Marvel streaming series, such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and The Punisher wind up. Disney is picking up 60% of Hulu, so they may move the Marvel line up there to drive demand for the service. Current contracts won’t be changed; the effort needed and the costs to make the change won’t be worth the end result. New series, though, once the deal with Netflix runs out, may appear on Hulu instead.
The other side of the deal involves Fox’s non-Marvel franchises, including the long running TV series The Simpsons and Modern Family. The nature of Hollywood is that an incoming executive tends to clean house of everything the previous exec did. That sort of move led to the problems John Carter had. However, long running TV series last as long as they do because the audience keeps tuning in. The Simpsons may be long in the tooth, but the big problem the series has is that the only thing it has left to parody is itself. The change in ownership will give writers for the show new material for its bite-the-hand humour, plus allowing for a few last jabs at Fox. Again, nothing will happen immediately. The new owners need to see how their properties are behaving. If anything, expect Disney to capitalize on the merchandising end. The Mouse knows merchandise. Try not finding anything Star Wars right now.
The deal isn’t complete. American regulators still have to examine the deal and make sure that the market is still competitive. Disney will grow if the deal is approved. Given the Mouse’s clout. it is unlikely that copyrights will be allowed to expire. “Steamboat Willie” will never be in the public domain.
Right now, the best approach is to wait and see what happens. There’s no sense in saying the world’s about to end just because Disney has taken over a beloved franchise. The Mouse exists to make money and alienating fans is a sure way to not do that. The current record shows Disney providing to fans what they want. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars are showing what will happen.
It’s a brand new year. Studios are announcing blockbusters. Both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. have a slate of superhero adaptation coming up, theatrical and televised. Sequels and adaptations are going to dominate the multiplexes. But people have been predicting a collapse for the past few years, people like Steven Spielberg. Collapses have happened before. In 1980, Heaven’s Gate was, if not the catalyst, the nail in the coffin of unfettered directors, free from studio control. The high budget coupled with poor performance in theatres killed United Artists, leading to its sale to MGM. While the film has redeemed itself over time, allowing the audience to see the movie without the raw knowledge of the behind the scenes history, the four hour epic originally fared poorly.
Studios have not been known for being risk takers. They exist to make money through movies. A film that doesn’t recoup its budget at the box office is considered a failure, though the advent of merchandising and, later, the purchase of personal copies on first video tape and later DVD can help offset that loss. As the cost of making movies have gone up, studios have gone from risk-adverse to risk-phobic. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had, in 1999, a budget of $115 million. In comparison, the 2013 film, The Hangover Part III had a budget of $103 million, with far less of its budget allocated for special effects than The Phantom Menace did. Blockbusters are now regularly reaching $200 million budgets. While one flop won’t destroy a studio, a string of failures will.
There are two ways for a studio to control risk. The first is adapting a popular work. Lost in Translation has been reviewing movie adaptations for over two and a half years. It’s not a new approach, as an upcoming series here will show. The difference now is that the original works aren’t the high-brow sources as in the past. From the 20s through to the 60s, adaptations were taken from literature, from the Bible, from theatrical plays. Adaptations of family fare came from children’s books or fairy tales. The adaptations of today are more low-brow, coming from popular works – book series, comics, cartoons, video games, and toys, all the purview of the masses. This difference leads to the perception that studios are in the middle of an adaptation boom, where original works fall aside. However, Alfred Hitchcock adapted several works into movies, including To Catch a Thief, from the novel of the same name by David F. Dodge, and Psycho, from the novel by Robert Bloch. The upcoming series will go into more details, but the perception that all that studios produce comes from two decades where original works were the norm in popularity lists.
The second way studios use to control risk is the Save the Cat formula. Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, goes through the steps of screenwriting, placing the story beats, fifteen key events in a movie, down page by page. Snyder called his work a structure, but studios latched on to the method as a formula after the book’s publication in 2005, leading to movies feeling the same, no matter who starred, who directed, what genre the film was, or even the budget. With all films following the formula, one variable is nailed down if a film fails. It can’t be from the script; it followed the structure. Sometimes, though, that structure harms the movie. Battleship was blatant about the check boxes. With studios risk-phobic, though, don’t expect a change in how a script is written.
Studios are relying more on blockbusters. With the success of Marvel’s The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, studios will stay on the blockbuster bandwagon. With the auteur period, massive box office flops, like the aforementioned Heaven’s Gate, sent studios into minimizing risks. With studios managing risk, it is unlikely that a number of blockbusters will fail. The failures of The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D., both adaptations*, provided different lessons. With The Lone Ranger, the lesson was that an older property that hasn’t been seen in at least a generation may not have the best way to attract an audience. The failure of R.I.P.D. showed that studios can’t adapt just any comic.
With franchises becoming the core of studio income, can studios survive an implosion? Universal Studios’ 2014 lineup had no blockbusters, yet the studio had a record profit. The linked article goes into greater detail, but the vast majority of Universal’s releases were made for under $40 million. Universal’s franchise films, Fast and Furious 7, Minions, and Jurassic World should appear in 2015. There were only two adaptations, Ouija, a horror movie based around the Ouija board, and Dracula Unbound, featruring Bram Stoker’s vampire. The result – Universal didn’t lose as much money on failures and made amazing profit on unexpected hits, all from keeping budgets down. It is possible for a studio to thrive without a tentpole blockbuster.
The year ahead won’t see a collapse, not right away. Individual big-budget blockbusters might fail, which will get insiders talking about an impending collapse, but no one studio will see a string of failures. Universal’s lesson won’t be learned right away, but will be around. An underperforming franchise may be an indication that it’s time to let the franchise lay fallow for a few years, giving fans time to miss the series and demand a new film. Studios will make excuses for the failure of a tentpole blockbuster, blaming factors beyond just yet another formulaic movie. It will only be when a number of big-budget films underperform that studios will panic.
* The Lone Ranger was originally a radio series before being adapted for television and film. R.I.P.D. was based on the comic, Rest in Peace Department.
The one thing that 2016 is guaranteed to have is more adaptations. The current cycle may be reaching a peak, but there are a number of adaptations in the pipelines still to be released. But if the peak is near, the two things that will mark getting past the apex is quality and audience reception.
Quality is tough to quantify, but, overall, adaptations today are far more faithful now than ever before. Studios have learned that the in-name-only adaptation is doomed to failure from the outset. Word of mouth is far faster today thanks to social media. Audiences can warn others about a movie’s flaws during a screening. At the same time, a movie that hits the heart of a work will also get audiences telling others about it. Social media is a double-edged sword for studios.
Audience reception is easier to measure. Box office returns, while not the best method, is still what studios look at as a measure of a film’s success. The dollar amount isn’t the only part looked at; the amount brought in compared to a film’s budget is key. An expensive film that brings in over a billion dollars, such as Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, isn’t the only success; a lower budget movie that still brings in ten times what it was made is also successful. As long as audiences keep going to adaptations, they will be made. One flop isn’t going to kill the current trend. It will take a number of failures over a short period to convince a studio to try something different. Thus, Universal’s failure with Jem and the Holograms isn’t going to dissuade the studio from continuing with the Fifty Shades of Grey series*.
Adaptations have always been a part of Hollywood. The coming year is will be no different. A backlash against the number of adaptations may be beginning, but it’ll take a few years before it gets felt. Studios have adaptations in various stages of production; cancelling will cost money, and there’s no indication now that audiences will stay away in droves in the hope for something original. Even then, the superhero movie is becoming a mainstay. Where the Western and the rogue cop films have far too much baggage to them to be regular features, the superhero can take the appeal of the other two genres without their drawbacks.
Even television isn’t immune to adaptations. Many series, including The Librarians, The Expanse, Dark Matter, and The Last Ship, are all adapted from other works. Expect more works to be adapted as television series; the format allows for a greater depth at the expense of the fickleness of ratings. Even the fickleness can be avoided; the 500-channel universe means that a work will find its audience. A Game of Thrones has proven to be a hit for HBO, bringing in subscribers tuning in for that one series.
As mentioned above, quality is the key. If the adaptation makes an effort to be faithful to the original work, audiences will watch. Studios are learning this; the failure of Jem and the Holograms is noteworthy because it failed to meet fan expectations. Fifty Shades of Grey met fan expectations, despite the casting choices. The lesson is there to be learned.
* Issues between director and author might cause delays, though.
Happy New Year!
Last week, I looked at what happened in 2013. This week, time to figure out what could happen.
This year coming, 2014, will be the make-or-break year of the blockbuster. There are a number of forces acting on movies right now, including the need to use the foreign market to make a film profitable and the growing number of financial flops from 2013. Sure, not every movie will succeed, but big budget failures can force a studio over the financial cliff.
First, the foreign markets. Several recent blockbusters, such as Battleship and Pacific Rim relied on international sales to turn a profit. A few others, notably The Lone Ranger, bombed in both domestic and international markets. International markets introduce additional problems in making a film. What will sell an American audience on a movie could very well turn away audiences elsewhere. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra turned the all-American special forces team into an international effort because the international market gets turned off by American-style patriotism. At the same time, the international market, in particular, China, wants to see familiar characters. Original works like Pacific Rim don’t generate the interest as The Amazing Spider-Man or Man of Steel do. The Lone Ranger, as mentioned last week, isn’t on the pop culture radar anymore.
Second, budgets. Big budgets lead to big expectations. The Hangover Part III had a US$100 million budget, the same budget The Phantom Menace had. The latter had extensive special effects, pioneering some CGI techniques. The former was a loud comedy with some special effects but not as extensive. The Hangover 3 brought in US$200 million less than The Hangover Part II, which had a lower budget. A quick look at some of the movies of 2013: Man of Steel had a US$225 million budget; Pacific Rim, US$190 million; Gravity, US$100 million. Expectations for each of these movies were high. Battleship had a US$200 million budget, but the writing was formulaic, Save the Cat-style. For US$200 million, people didn’t want a series of checkboxes, they wanted a proper story with proper characters.
Several adaptation sequels are already being delayed. City of Ashes, the second in The Mortal Instruments series has been pushed back to 2015 because of the poor reception of City of Bones. The 50 Shades of Grey adaptation has been moved from August 2014 to February 2015, because of casting problems.
Casting may cause problems for other movies. With 50 Shades of Grey, the fans weren’t enthused with either choice for Christian Grey, nor with any of the other cast members; they wanted the actors E.L. James had in mind, whether or not the actors would agree. Over at Warner, the choice of Ben Affleck as Batman in the World’s Finest movie had Twitter exploding; fans were citing Daredevil as a reason the Batfleck was a bad idea. Will disagreement over casting make a difference? Time will tell. I suspect that the Batman-Superman movie will have a audiences about the same size as Man of Steel. With 50 Shades, it gets harder to predict. Movies rated R don’t perform as well as those rated PG; the audience is limited by age, and 50 Shades will not be a movie for the under-10 set. The studio, though, is hedging its bets; it will release the NC-17 version a few weeks afterwards, trying to get audiences to return for a second viewing. Theatres will have to decide if they want the hassle of showing an NC-17 movie; unlike the R rating that allows accompanied minors in, NC-17 bars anyone seventeen and younger completely, even with a parent. The nature of 50 Shades, though, should give most people an idea of what to expect, R or NC-17.
Studios won’t be as quick to adapt novels, especially debut novels. Even though neither The Host nor City of Bones were big budget movies, both floundered at the box office. The problem was that neither book were known to the general public* in the way Harry Potter was. Given that studios are risk adverse and prone to following trends instead of being original, both movies were made in the hopes of recreating the success of Harry Potter, or at least Twilight. Author appeal can work when the author has a large body of work, like Stephen King or Tom Clancy, but it doesn’t always work. The Bourne movies have more recognition because of the character than because of the author, Robert Ludlum. A flash-in-the-pan author may not see debut novels snapped up, not unless the work seeps out into the general public.
There are some bright lights, though. Marvel has hit its stride, with Iron Man 3 maintaining the momentum of The Avengers. Marvel is also willing to risk making movies of their lesser lights. The company has seen B-level heroes succeed; prior to the Iron Man movie, Tony Stark wasn’t in the same league in popularity as Spider-Man, Wolverine, or the X-Men. The biggest name in the Avengers Initiative leading up to The Avengers was the Hulk, who previously had a TV series. With successes like the Avengers Initiative, trying out Guardians of the Galaxy makes sense and could lead to adapting the Infinity Gauntlet story. Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie to keep an eye on; its success or failure won’t break Marvel Studios, not with the Avengers sequel coming up, but will determine whether comic book movies featuring B- and C-list heroes can be popular. Marvel is also willing to experiment, working with Netflix to create series for their street-level heroes not already licensed out.
This coming year will be a year of change for studios. Any movie already filming will be released; the work is too far along to stop, though delays are possible. However, studios may start looking hard at the bottom line and start questioning whether that $200 million budget could be better spent and force filmmakers to do with smaller budgets. Adaptations will continue; the foreign market is too big and too lucrative to ignore, but the decision about what gets adapted will be scrutinized more. The blockbuster bubble won’t pop in 2014, but the weak points will be seen.
Next week, the first review of 2014.
* The general public could name characters from Harry Potter (beyond just Harry), Twilight, and The Hunger Games before the authors were approached with bags of money. This didn’t happen with The Host, despite sharing its author with Twilight, or with The Mortal Instruments.