2017: Originality is Finally Moving Back to Hollywood
2017 may go down as the year where the Hollywood film industry finally realizes that people will actually pay to see original stories. Outside of films produced by big name companies like Pixar, most studios have been very reluctant to invest big budgets into original scripts for the past several years. The 1990s through about 2008 was a heyday for original screenplays that saw the rise of countless writers and the production of now classic films. After the 2007 Writer’s Strike and the Great Recession, Hollywood became a much more cautious place.
Now, original screenplays are used as low-budget write-offs, or if the right names are attached, Oscar bait films. However, with 2017 seeing many films based on original stories win critical acclaim and financial success, the larger studios may be taking notice. From Get Out to The Big Sick to Lady Bird and even the tentpole blockbusters that abandoned formulas like Logan, Hollywood may be willing to finally shred its restraining order on original screenplays in 2018.
Naturally, the idea of a Hollywood without a dozen remakes, reboots, sequels, or spin-offs coming out every month is jarring. Don’t worry; we’ll never get to that point. Following established patterns of success is crucial for production studios to survive. Repurposing an old property is like recreating a dish from a cookbook; just follow the recipe. The seemingly never-ending adaptations and franchise films are part of that system because they’ve worked in the past. In fact, I love those films, and the money those films bring in is what allows studios to take chances on unproven ideas; they serve a purpose.
However, going forward, those films likely won’t present the same kind of barrier of entry that they have since the mid 2000s. For the past three or so years, studios have shown an increasing willingness to take chances on original spec scripts. I think the shifting mindset is due to one main factor: an increased challenge from outsider studios. For example, Blumhouse and A24. Blumhouse Productions is one of the studios that’s been disrupting the film landscape for the past few years. The studio aims to dethrone major studios with its dominance in the horror market.
Their early success, 2009s Paranormal Activity, changed the horror game, for better or worse. That film almost instantly brought an end to the Saw franchise and Final Destination era of mainstream Hollywood horror. With the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, Purge, and Ouija film franchises under their belt, Blumhouse perfected the low-budget horror film as a business model. Their financial success and willingness to fail positioned them as a haven for new and original horror film scripts that could reach the mainstream. Directors know Blumhouse is a studio that will allow them to make not just a film, but their film. Recent hits like Get Out, The Visit, and Split further solidified that reputation, but films like Whiplash demonstrate an eagerness to take on smaller character-driven films that major studios only produce when they’re guaranteed an A-list cast and Oscar buzz.
A24, a New York based studio, is even more willing to buck the trends of Hollywood. After their major breakthrough Spring Breakers was released in 2013, A24 has been growing steadily as the studio for offbeat and deeply thoughtful original stories. Ex Machina, The VVitch, The Lobster, and the recent Lady Bird have all been varying levels of success at the box office, but they’ve all been critical darlings. Along with their films based on existing works like Room, Moonlight, and The Disaster Artist, A24’s original screenplays are increasingly known for their high standards of quality, and for bringing new talent to the forefront without reliance on spectacle or a big name cast. A24 films, like Blumhouse’s, often operate on a smaller than average budget for mainstream films. Nevertheless, that’s because A24 isn’t interested in perpetuating the mainstream. Unlike Blumhouse’s attempts to overtake the mainstream genre films, A24 has a reputation as the studio for actors and writers—for artists—to make their art.
Besides the fact that a few studios are stepping up to reinvigorate mainstream film production, a big reason film studios are choosing to produce more original properties is due to the TV boom. Both traditional and streaming TV have been so successful with both original ideas and adaptations. Premium cable channels along with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are producing film quality TV on a more frequent basis. On top of that, many of those platforms, Netflix in particular, are focusing on increasing their own film production. There’s a level of competition and choice that wasn’t around before the mid-late 2000s that are now forcing major studios to keep pace. Studio executives admit that though they may “hate Netflix and Amazon, we have them to at least partially thank for this.” Noting that “indie film isn’t what it was [in the 1990s], but it’s not dying, either.”
Basically, because of rising independent studios and because of more non-traditional avenues of production, there are now more buyers for original material than there were two years ago. Many industry insiders put the death of original stories in Hollywood down to the decline in home video sales; the increase in home video streaming may be what saves it. I think the main takeaway from the at times disappointing box office receipts and more inclusive award shows of the past few years are that mainstream film production has no choice but to once again let in unknown or undiscovered talent who are ready to tell their own original stories. I know mega studios like Disney are trying to keep all forms of storytelling innovation within a designated safe space and get rid of anyone who disagrees, but the cycle of what Hollywood considers mainstream is turning. People are showing, with their wallets and with social media, that story does matter. Audiences are becoming reacquainted with practical effects and lower budget character dramas.
The trend toward original screenplays is a real one, and one that I’m looking forward to. I hope it continues on over the next few years. If I stop to think about all the classic films that we would have missed out on in the 90s and early 2000s because studio executives were a little scared, I might go into shock. Hopefully, 2018 will be a good year for cinematic risk-taking.