Sequels. Prequels. Remakes. Reboots. Why do Hollywood studios choose to go this route with such familiar material? Why not fill their development slates with bold projects full of fresh ideas and innovative stories?
That would run entirely counter to the working ethos which informs the studio system decision-making process, a business mantra that can best be summed up in this manner: What they are inclined to buy, develop, and produce are projects, including screenplays, that are similar but different.
Again the question: Why? There are many reasons. Here are the biggest two.
The increasing importance of marketing: The simple fact is after the acquisition of a project, years of rewrites, talent falling in and out, battles over budget, months of pre-production, production, post-production, none of it matters one whit unless the studios can sell the movie. And in an increasingly noisy world with consumers bombarded by advertisers on all sides, a studio’s task of getting the message out about a movie has become harder and harder.
If the movie’s concept or storyline has a familiar ring to it, so the marketing theory goes, it’s more likely to connect with consumers. And if a consumer remembers some aspect of a movie’s ad campaign, the odds increase exponentially they will be motivated to get off their fanny, drive to the local Cineplex, and actually buy a movie ticket.
Think of the sport of stock car racing. A competitor can position themselves after the leader and benefit from reduced air resistance by taking advantage of the slipstream. Likewise if a studio can position a movie similar to a preexisting property – (e.g., movie, TV series, book, graphic novel), the movie can reduce the amount of ‘drag’ in the marketplace because consumers will already have some awareness of the title.
Hence the value of similar. The different component should be obvious: the story can’t be exactly the same as the preexisting title, it has to be spun enough to make the consumer think they’ll be viewing something… well… different.
So from a purely marketing standpoint, similar but different is supposed to make selling the movie easier and more effective. That’s the first reason. The other reason lies at the heart of the studios’ decision-making process regarding movie deals:
Fear of making a mistake: Studio executives are afraid to commit to projects because if a movie they’re associated with bombs, it doesn’t bode well for their careers. This is especially true with the current climate where the major Hollywood studios are all part of major corporate conglomerates which means pretty much everything boils down to profits.
Flops make bad things happen.
The 1981 historical epic Heaven’s Gate, subject to massive cost overruns, essentially killed United Artists. The 1987 comedy Ishtar was perceived as being such a bomb, it led to Coca Cola selling Columbia Pictures to Sony.
And a studio exec’s fear is not only based on the prospect of giving a green light to a project that flops; they also have to be worried about passing on a project that turns out to be a big hit elsewhere such as the case of the Twilight movie series to which Paramount once had the rights, but let slip away to Summit Entertainment. That’s over $500 million in box office receipts Paramount could have included in their revenues, but did not because their execs decided to pass on it.
Big budgets. Pressure if they say yes and a movie tanks. Pressure if they say no and a project does well elsewhere. All of that translates into a subtext of fear. And that translates into yet another reason why similar but different rules the roost in Hollywood today. If a studio green lights a body-switch project that is similar but different to a movie that was successful, they have a built-in excuse: “Hey, their body-switch movie was a hit.”
This should put a personal spin on why Hollywood puts out so many sequels, remakes, and film adaptations of TV shows. Even if they fail (Cats & Dogs II, The A-Team), studio execs can defend themselves because there are equally, if not more, hits based on similar but different content (Iron Man 2, The Karate Kid, Star Trek).
The thing is similar but different doesn’t just pertain to movies based on preexisting content. It also comes into play in the spec script and pitch market. And this is where this state of things can turn in a screenwriter’s favor.
First of all, no one in Hollywood is expecting a writer to come up with a completely new, wholly fresh story concept. One reason we’ve hit on already: Hollywood doesn’t actually want that type of thing because it’s too risky, not similar enough to existing movie titles. The other reason is this: There are no new ideas. Writers know this:
“Every writer has certain subjects that they write about again and again. Most people’s books are just variations on certain themes.” – Christopher Isherwood
“I think one writes and rewrites the same book.I lead a character from book to book, I continue along with the same ideas. Only the angle of vision, the method, the lighting change.” – Truman Capote
“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves – that’s the truth.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
So the burden of generating a heretofore unseen, unknown and untouched story is removed from our shoulders.
Second, because everyone in Hollywood knows there is nothing new under the sun combined with the fact that the suits embrace the very concept of similar but different, that translates into this:
We can recycle ideas.
I have run a series of blog posts called Movie Story Types, which is archived here, featuring story arenas like The [Blank] From Hell, Contained Thriller, Mistaken Identity, Road Picture and dozens more. Looking for a story concept? There is no reason you can’t dig into one of the story types, research a bunch of existing titles, then spin them in a unique way. Gender bend. Genre bend. Geo bend. Mix and match.
If you think this is cheating, think again: Hollywood has been recycling stories since before there was a Hollywood!
Moreover here is where I get the chance to trot out one of my favorite anecdotes on the subject. The great American songsmith Woody Guthrie is said to have written over 4,000 songs. He was asked how he was able to come up with so many tunes. His answer [paraphrased]: “Well, I take a melody I like, give it a twist here, a twist there, and I make it my own.”
I make it my own.
That is what you can do when recycling story ideas: Spin it a different way, dig into the characters to surface what is unique about them, and make the story our own.
Gravity is Apollo 13… but different.
Prisoners is Se7en… but different.
Last Vegas is The Hangover… but different.
So see what I did there? I started off exploring what is seemingly the depressing reality which is similar but different, examined why that business ethos is as locked in as it is, uncovered some positives for writers, then charted a path through it enabling us to work within its confines while still exploring our own creativity and unique voice.
Or something like that.
Anyhow similar but different is here and won’t change anytime soon. It’s a fact of Hollywood life. As writers we can fight it, condone it, or embrace it.
The choice is yours.
For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.
[Originally posted November 14, 2013]