Will Film Studios Favor Original Material Again?

Here are excerpts from an article written by L.A.-based script consultant Danny Manus on the relative lack of original material among Hollywood studios.

Studios and producers have been salivating over adaptations of book series, TV shows, videogames, remakes (reboots), comic books, graphic novels, children’s action figures and board games – not to mention sequels and prequels.

So one must wonder – is originality dead? If not, why do studios keep developing (or re-developing) these types of projects? Is there a key to picking one that will work? And what does that mean for the struggling writer trying to break in?
Truly original projects (that aren’t written by Christopher Nolan) are now relegated to the indie world. There were a ton of original movies at Sundance this year and lots of great new writers and directors were discovered – but their movies were largely made independently for very little money. So, originality (and breaking in through one’s originality) is still occurring all the time. It’s just on a smaller scale and a different market.

Studios are in the game of profit, and so they look for material that will reduce their risk and maximize their potential for ensured success. Whether right or wrong, they think developing material that HAS an established brand name, has an established fan base, has a loyal following, or has some great nostalgia factor – is the way to do that. Until recently the global box office has supported this theory and pouring megabucks into P & A campaigns (particularly for blockbusters) virtually ensured profitability.
In the last 4 years, EVERY single hugely successful movie was based on an already existing project or was a sequel – with two exceptions – “Avatar” (though arguably based on “Dances With Wolves” and “Pocahontas”) and “Paranormal Activity” (which only made $108M but had a $15k budget).

There have been over 30 films in the last few years based on comic books or graphic novels from big Marvel/DC blockbusters like “Iron Man”, “Watchmen”, “Wanted” and “Dark Knight” to indies like “Kick-Ass”, and there are a ton of huge projects coming up like “Priest”, “Avengers”, “Thor”, “Cowboys” and “Aliens”, “Wilson”, “Preacher”, etc., plus sequels to all the big Marvel projects.

There were at least 20 big movies in 2010 alone including “Harry Potter”, “Shutter Island”, ” Alice in Wonderland”, “Narnia”, “Eat Pray Love”, “Twilight Eclipse”, “How to Train Your Dragon”, “Percy Jackson”, “The Town” and the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Series.

So for the most part, they’re unfortunately right. There are total bombs like “Jonah Hex”, “Scott Pilgrim vs the World”, “Speed Racer”, Halle Berry’s “Catwoman”, “Dragonball: Evolution” and “Lost in Space”, but for every one of those, there’s 2 or 3 that hit it big. The financial successes keep the studios financially viable.

There are four reasons why movies like these fail:

1 – The studios or producers tried to stay too loyal to the material so it didn’t reach further than, or attract anyone outside, the already established fan base – and that fan base wasn’t big enough to make it a huge hit (some “book” people aren’t “movie” people).

2 – They tried to stay loyal but just didn’t do it right or cast it right – and hardcore fans are picky about their casting.

3 – Producers went too far AWAY from the original material and those hardcore fans lose interest.

4 – What works in a graphic novel without seeming silly, often DOES seem silly when translated to the big screen (hello, “Jonah Hex”). Some cartoon violence that comics hold dear, doesn’t work in film.

It’s no coincidence that this trend, if that’s what you want to call it, coincides with the explosion of Comic Con. The fanboys and critics that storm the castle that is the San Diego Convention Center every year play a big part in studio trends and marketing, and those fans thirst for more, well done adaptations of their favorite comic/graphic novel/ video game material…but the key words are WELL DONE.

This trend has gotten more press in the last 5-7 years because of Comic Con and because budgets have gotten bigger, franchises longer, accolades more forthcoming (especially after “Lord of the Rings”) and studios are looking for bigger, more action-packed visual projects to adapt or remake.

However this trend actually dates back to the 90s, when movies were made based on nostalgic TV shows or already established characters all the time. “The Fugitive”, “Brady Bunch Movie”, ” Flintstones”, “Avengers”, “McHale’s Navy”, “Beverly Hillbillies”, “Lost In Space”, “Wild Wild West”, “Car 54 Where Are You?”, etc.  Even “Borat”, “Wayne’s World”, “Blues Brothers”, “Superstar” and “Coneheads” were sketches that got translated to the big screen. Similarly, “The Green Hornet” began its life as a radio series. They just weren’t the $100M tentpole movies that studios prefer to make these days.

Let’s not pretend that this is new. It’s just being done on a larger scale now. And studios are getting more desperate to find that adaptable material – enter video games, board games and toys.

There have been over 25 films based on videogames in the last 5 years and they don’t seem to be slowing. The videogame business has become a HUGE industry and therefore, breeding ground for Hollywood properties. Everyone thought “Avatar” making a $1.2 Billion in 4 months was a big deal, but the Activision Blizzard videogame “Call of Duty: Black Ops” made $650 Million in its FIRST 5 DAYS of release! It made $350M on the FIRST DAY. Take that James Cameron!

Halo has sold over 8 million copies, which may not sound like a lot, but at $60 a pop…do the math. “Grand Theft Auto”? Over 5 million copies. Wii Sports has now become the most successful game ever (surpassing “Super Mario Bros”) with over 42 million sold!

But strangely enough, movies based on video games don’t usually do that well. “Max Payne” was supposed to be a franchise – nope. “Hitman” topped out at $40M. Even “Prince of Persia” was considered a failure. Why do videogame adaptations fail where book and comic adaptations succeed? Because video games aren’t JUST about the visuals or story – for gamers, it’s about being immersed in the game.  It’s the interaction – and for now, movies can’t offer that.

And then there’s the board game industry led by Hasbro, which – even in this technological age – still made $4 Billion in 2009. And after signing with CAA, Hasbro now has movies based on “Battleship”, “Candy Land”, “Ouija Board”, and “Monopoly” in development or production and all have A-List talent and huge budgets.

And children’s toys? After “Transformers” went gang busters, GI Joe performed nicely enough, and “Stretch Armstrong” got set up with Taylor Lautner starring, studios realized there’s more to mine there. We all know the upcoming Hugh Jackman movie “Real Steel” is just a send-up of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots.

So the good news is – originality isn’t dead. In fact some might say it takes great skill and originality to turn a board game like Monopoly into a major motion picture. The bad news is that none of you can adapt these types of materials because you don’t have the rights, so you’re going to have to break in the old fashioned way with good writing.


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