If you go to your nearest theatre – go on, I dare you – then you’ll most likely see one of four types of film dominating: Superhero, Horror, big studio blockbuster, or remake. Disney especially is keen on this. Whether it’s their superhero Marvel franchise, or their Star Wars Blockbusters, they’re bound to make a solid return … right?
But then I got to thinking about their remakes. I’ve just seen Dumbo (2019), and it really got me thinking about how our media has changed in the wake of theatrical and digital releases … as well as some of the biggest flaws with their approaches to franchises.
Personally, I think Dumbo is one of their better remakes – taking the original and developing on it in an original way with an updated story and technology, and artistic direction.
Plus, it’s got Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton working together again – the closest we’ll possibly ever get to a Batman Returns sequel.
Moreover, if it were simply a film about a flying elephant, you probably wouldn’t have seen it.
It’s the “Dumbo” brand that was the heavy sell here.
But the remake is nothing new.
A HISTORY OF REMAKES
Remakes are nothing new – ironically enough.
Oftentimes they occur when a technology has improved, or the audience has changed.
Take for example the slew of silent films of Dracula, Frankenstein, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera. As soon as the talkies came out, we suddenly got these movies remade with updated technology, story, budget, and everything. I regard this as the “Original Reboots”.
Even A Star is Born has managed this successfully, updating itself to coincide with the popular celebrity and culture of the time.
With a socio-political shift in having more female-led properties, we’re now seeing more gender-swapped reboots. Whether it’s established franchises like Ghostbusters or socially-outdated properties like What Women Want rebooted to be What Men Want it’s a cost-effective way to rebrand the old as something new and relevant.
It may be a … questionable reboot. But at the very least it successfully distances itself from the previous politically-questionable 90s version.
But there is a noticeable change in just how many properties are reliant on a pre-existing film for mass theatrical release.
NOTHING’S ORIGINAL ANYMORE!
Often in film, you’ll hear about how “Hollywood’s run out of ideas” or “Nothing’s original anymore.”
For me, Dumbo is not the worst property to remake. A lot of people grew up with it, that surreal Pink Elephant scene is burned into our retinas and even got Salvador Dali’s attention – seriously. Plus, the original property is nearly 80 years old – with some values of the day which are … problematic for a woke socially conscious consumer.
Adding a fresh coat of paint isn’t the worst thing – especially when you have an auteur director like Tim Burton behind the wheels.
Heck, even this upcoming Mulan is at least going to play on more of the Chinese culture and looks designed to cater more to the Chinese demographic given their choice of lead star power.
No, the remakes that people seem to get most wound up about are with things like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Properties that weren’t flawed which capitalise on nostalgia. But why is this happening more now?
Even with A Star is Born being remade again and again, we still got loads of original films to go along with them. But there is a noticeable trend in sequels, reboots, and remakes. But why?
THE DIGITAL TAKEOVER
In terms of original visual media, we do have a place where this is thriving – Streaming services.
Even properties like Breaking Bad which were OK on TV found new life and a new audience online.
It’s far less risky for Netflix or Amazon to fund a series, as the audience is practically guaranteed. They have their own studios and distribution network right into people’s homes – where they’re already paying a monthly fee.
Compare that to a theatrical release, and the risks rapidly change.
Putting a film out in theatre, there’s a far greater difference in marketing costs, revenue generation, and monetary recuperation.
Originally, home video would make up the bulk of the revenue. A film could flop theatrically but thrive on VHS or DVD – as well as rental services like Blockbuster. Theatrical releases were more like advertising for the home video market.
But then we went digital, and DVD suffered a fatal blow.
Now a theatrical release is where the bulk of revenue needs to be made, with studios scrambling to form their own ongoing franchises and cinematic universes.
Even the horror genre, despite its low-budget charm, has seen a reworking into some sort of cinematic universe in Universal’s Dark Universe and the upcoming Blumhouse universe.
But as for guaranteeing an audience?
THE POWER OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Nostalgia can be a potent thing in the film industry.
Once you have an established successful film embedded in people’s minds – like say … Dumbo, then you’ve already mitigated a huge hurdle when it comes to theatrical releases – Intellectual Property Value.
Well known IPs already have that substantial following to mitigate that risk of theatrical releases.
Whether it’s an adaptation of a well-known book like Harry Potter a sequel to a beloved franchise like Star Wars, or a straight-up song-for-song remake like Beauty and the Beast, we see this constantly in our auditoriums now.
I’ll say this, at least Dumbo wasn’t a beat-for-beat remake of the 1940s movie.
Even the MCU worked in part because it was based on a decades-long comic book history with an established fanbase – and we ended up with three Spider-Man reboots in just over a decade!
That’s not to say this is all a bad thing – it’s just the way the industry has evolved.
As for original content, that’s where Netflix and Amazon are really coming through – and why studios need their theatrical releases to really work.
TO REBOOT, OR DEVELOP?
Which is better: Reboots or Sequels/Prequels?
My personal philosophy on this one is quite simple. With sequels/prequels or anything similar it offers an opportunity to expand and develop a property. Whether you experiment with different genres, spherical storytelling models, or anything of the like.
You have an established character and storyworld. There may be flaws, but you can develop it how you like.
Before long, there’s potential in developing a franchise, spin-offs, and something to truly resonate with a brand identity.
With a reboot – you risk throwing everything away.
In comics, for example, we saw the “reboot” philosophy collapse with DC’s The New 52. No matter how good the stories were (and some were very good) it was all hindered by the fact that there was no mythology or history to really draw from – there was a kink in the continuity.
This isn’t so much an issue with remakes, as I believe the purpose is fundamentally different. I see remakes as more of an update with regards to the audience.
The idea behind reboots is to try something new – admirable. But it suggests that everything that happened prior was somewhat irrelevant.
I feel like this happened with the Spider-Man movies. With the MCU’s new “definitive” take on the character, how does one rationalise The Amazing Spider-Man movies and the original trilogy?
The disconnect is a storytelling issue, with only the character’s aesthetic uniting the franchises.
The exception is probably something like the X-Men franchise, which time-travelled its way to a soft-reboot. Classic characters got closure. Current characters continued the franchise – a win-win, but a one-off.
… well, potentially a one-off depending on how Avengers: Endgame turns out.
SUSTAINABILITY: A TRANSMEDIA SOLUTION
One of the biggest issues I have with all these Disney live-action remakes is that they feel soulless. It’s more about capitalising off nostalgia than updating a story.
There are some that I thought needed an update: Pete’s Dragon, and Dumbo, and improving on flawed films like the oft-forgotten Atlantis could work, but I’m not fond of them remaking the renaissance movies if they aren’t going to make any substantial changes, take risks, or give us something meaningful and new.
But as it stands, we remember Aladdin, and it’ll do well at the box office. But there is only so much nostalgia they can repurpose.
The issue boils down to sustainability.
In terms of trying to attract a new audience, I find it refreshing when properties with established IP explore other mediums.
This can be especially useful in a digitally-disrupted environment.
Studios have already taken note of this, with the supposed upcoming Silmarillion expanding the Lord of the Rings series in another format, and of course there’s The Mandalorian expanding the Star Wars mythos.
Even Ghostbusters, recently falling victim to the questionable reboot strategy, found a creative way in comic-book form to offer a multiversal explanation of how all series and spin-offs are canon in a wider context.
Disney managed this (to some degree) in their TV series, which in many ways surpassed the films they were continuing. Aladdin and Hercules reached a far wider audience through their respective cartoon runs. Compare that to the concerns raised by its live-action remake, and we start to see a shift away from repurposing IP.
I like to think Disney created a transmedia universe, in the weirdest way possible – House of Mouse. This was a cartoon which featured established Disney characters outside of their environment … watching their movies in a surreal context.
It was bizarre, but it helped cement the Disney brand through a meta-narratives and world-building – not through simply rebooting the properties. And it worked! House of Mouse lasted 3 seasons with a total of 52 episodes – not a bad way to repurpose already-animated Disney cartoons.
Even with something like a big Dumbo blockbuster, there’s a danger of it just coming and going – no matter how good it is.
Most importantly, co-ordinated transmedia helps with franchise and brand stability.
Creating a more immersive experience from an established franchise has the potential to avoid the recycling of nostalgia.
Even after seeing Dumbo … and liking some of the risks taken, I think we are struggling to repurpose our nostalgia.
Given the early box office returns for Dumbo, I fear the cracks in Disney’s repurposed formula are starting to show.
Netflix and Amazon have at least come to the rescue when it comes to offering original programming and have found (and most importantly grown their audiences as a result.)
With Disney’s slew of live-action properties lined up, I do wonder how long this can go on for, and how our theatrical model may change in the long term.
I prefer story development, and anything that can explore different platforms as I believe there are as-of-yet untapped markets that could be used to expand on pre-existing ideas.
After all, studios need original content. There’s only so much they can reboot and repackage.
Until then …