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Familiar Is King

Published on December 1, 2011 by in Columns

I realize that it isn’t over yet, and it may be a little earlier than we normally start reflecting and reviewing, but 2011 has been an interesting year.  The recession has affected nearly everyone—money’s tight, there’s an overbearing sense of gloom-and-doom, and gas prices are high.  And still, if the earliest numbers of this holiday shopping season are any indication, we aren’t planning on letting a little economic hardship spoil the season.  Black Friday spending was strong, at brick-and-mortar outlets as well as online.

Nevertheless, when we look back on 2011, one strange phenomenon might become crystal clear in hindsight—and it has to do with this year’s batch of movies.


Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2

2011 saw many sequels, as well as a record-breaking number of long-running series. For instance, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2″ was the eighth film in the franchise.

2011, so far, has already broken several box-office records.  (Unfortunately, they aren’t attendance or revenue records.)  2011 will see 27 sequels released to theaters; that’s the most ever released in a single year.  Long-running franchises have also dominated the box-office, making 2011 a record-breaking year for “part fours” (with 5 films released) and “part fives” (also 5).  There were two “part sevens”—“The Muppets” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  And we even had one “part eight,” in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.”

The 27 sequels alone account for nearly one-fifth of the wide-releases this year, and that’s before you begin factoring in all of the long-running franchises, Marvel Comic films, and instantly-familiar reboots.  It would be easy to cast aspersions at Hollywood for failing to provide us with original content, but to do so would be to ignore the year’s biggest blockbusters.  Of the year’s highest grossing films so far, numbers 1-6 have been sequels. “Thor” and “Captain America” came in at 7 and 8—both based on Marvel characters.  Number 9, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” was a reboot, of sorts.  And number 10, “Bridesmaids,” was the only original film on the year’s list of moneymakers.

So really, who’s to blame?  One can deduce that about half of the films in wide-release were actually original properties, yet only one cracked the list of top-grossers.  It would appear that the studios are actually trying to give us what we want, and what we want is familiarity.  You may have heard that, after seeing the success of Transformers, Universal Studios have secured the rights to bring seven more Hasbro games—Candyland, Stretch Armstrong, Battleship, Magic: The Gathering, Monopoly, Clue, and Ouija—to the silver screen.  (In recent months, the Monopoly, Clue and Ouija projects have been abandoned.)  But, as absurd as “Candyland: The Movie” may sound, it’s familiar.  And it might do pretty well in today’s atmosphere.

In reality, I think that the economic climate is really playing a role in the movies we’re willing to spend our hard-earned entertainment budget on.  And, given the choice between something that has a familiar ring—something similar to a movie we’ve seen and enjoyed—and a wholly-original feature, we’re playing it safe and choosing the familiar.

The movie industry is not immune to the sort of technological woes that effectively crippled the music industry.  Although, in my opinion, it was the music industry’s failure to adapt to the changing technological landscape that led to its meltdown—and Hollywood seems to be trying to stay ahead of the ever-changing game, proactively seeking out ways to use technology to its benefit, certainly better than the record labels ever have.  Last year, ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada topped $10.5 billion, and this year is on pace to gross a similar amount.

At this year’s Sundance Festival, the major studios bought more than 40 films, so it appears that Hollywood is still willing to take a chance and think outside the blockbuster franchises.  It’ll be interesting to see if 2012 will continue following this year’s trends, though I suspect the economy will continue to dictate the risks we’re willing take in the ticket line.

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 12/01/2011.
© Damien Willis, 2011.  All rights reserved.

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