If you go to the cinema right now, chances are you will find at least two sequels, a reboot and a cameo-laden franchise film playing at any given time. Everywhere you look, a popular show is being resurrected with special appearances from the original cast members, a well-liked teen show is getting the reboot treatment, cult classic films from over 30 years ago are getting sequels and revivals, and popular IPs (Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and so on) keep adding to their insanely profitable franchises.
And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, trying to find a fun, original film in a sea of nostalgia-driven blockbusters is becoming increasingly difficult. For every Everything Everywhere All At Once, it feels like there are at least 10 IP-driven Disney retellings. It seems like Hollywood is running out of original ideas and simply cashing in on nostalgia.
In the last two years alone, we have seen reunions (Friends, Harry Potter), revivals and reboots (…And Just Like That, Gossip Girl) and popular character cameos (Cobie Smulders in How I Met Your Father, David Tennant returning to Doctor Who, Rachael Leigh Cook and Matthew Lillard showing up for the She’s All That reimagining). And there is no stopping this train, with more nostalgia-driven content like the Dirty Dancing, Enchanted, and Legally Blonde sequels slated to come in the near future.
There is a very simple reason for this: nostalgia sells.
“Nostalgia is the strongest sense,” says Fandom CMO Stephanie Fried. “It brings you back to a moment in your life that enables you to connect your past to your present in a very powerful way. That connection heightens your enjoyment when viewing content and brings more joy to the experience.”
According to psychotherapist Tamara Sears, the after-effects of a devastating pandemic and an ongoing economic crisis can also cause people to gravitate towards what’s familiar. “Content consumers may perhaps not take so many risks in their viewing habits during tough economic times. They might stick with what is known, particularly if it returns you to a time when things seemed better.”
There is also the fact that studios are wary of spending money on riskier ideas, instead opting to invest in things they know will turn a profit in the end.
“It’s become riskier and riskier for studios to produce big-budget films,” says Bob Woolsey, administrative and production manager at Vancouver Film School. “There’s too much competition from streaming services. Now that folks know they can watch something at home, they’re less compelled to go out and see something if it doesn’t really hook them. In order to make sure that hook gets in there, advertising budgets are huge. So much so that one or two flops can take a studio down. With that much on the line, it’s pretty easy to see why studios are sticking with safe bets.”
The concept of nostalgia and revivals in entertainment is not new. Way back in the 1940s and ’50s, it was fairly common for Hollywood to turn Broadway shows into movie-musicals, says Brynn Shiovitz, a dance and film studies scholar. “A Star Is Born is a perfect example of a film which has been made countless times. Shows like West Side Story and Peter Pan migrated to screen from Broadway and both of these shows have seen more than one film iteration since.”
Even so, people are tiring of nostalgia entertainment based simply on reboots and cameos. “It’s the same concept over and over again. They tend to be very predictable,” says Mansi Tiwari, a medical student in India. “I think international cinema has much better variety to offer right now.”
Audrey Hutabarat, a London-based master’s student, concurs. “The reason why other countries are doing better than Hollywood is because they’re actually giving people what they want. That’s why shows like Elite (Spain), Squid Game (South Korea), and Money Heist (Spain) do so well.” “The disconnect between Hollywood executives not knowing what people really want and getting good creators and writers is the fact that Hollywood gatekeeps the industry. It is inherently a legacy system and therefore hard to reform,” she adds.
In recent years we have seen a huge push for diversity in entertainment, both on and off screen. It has caused studios to reassess cult classics and amend past mistakes in order to make their films and shows more palatable for the current generation. “Filmmakers are really starting to interrogate their own politics of representation and see a necessity in remaking old movies in order to tell either a more historically/socially correct version or one which better resonates with the here and now,” says Brynn.
“And Just Like That is a great example of this,” says Charlotte Greaves, a TV assistant producer. “The original cast of Sex and the City were predominantly white, heterosexual females so they turned it around and brought in a supporting cast of various sexual orientations, ethnicities and backgrounds. It also became a bit more ‘woke’ than the original series.”
There is no denying the recent increase in legacy and nostalgia-based entertainment but does that mean the industry is running out of original ideas? “Where we’re seeing some fatigue is when nostalgia is almost weaponised as a smattering of Easter eggs and era-specific references that oftentimes don’t actually serve the story or characters,” says Darnell Brisco, an entertainment marketing expert. “The entertainment industry isn’t running out of original ideas though. It’s just much harder to market them.”
“It is more likely the unwillingness to invest in unproven stories, writers and ideas,” says Kira Baca, CRO of rights management platform Rightsline. “With all the consolidation across the entertainment studios, they are buying and consolidating existing content to feed the streaming beast. There is less thought being given to original ideas.” According to Bob, however, there has never been a better time to be producing entertainment. “There are more avenues to get work produced than ever before, and more interesting things are being produced as a result.”
For every IP-driven cash-grabber there is a Heartstopper, a Sex Education or a Derry Girls. Doctor Who is bringing back David Tennant but it has also appointed Ncuti Gatwa as the next Doctor. There are so many new outlets for exciting, diverse stories. And as long as people have stories to tell, the world will continue to listen. “Entertainment can be a risky business and some companies will fall by the wayside,” says Bob, “but people will always have a voracious appetite for storytelling. It’s incurable.”
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