DirectorFilm Industry Tips

Are Original Films Dead?

“Hollywood killed originality in film…right?” 

Let’s talk about Star Wars. Even after the massive pop culture phenomenon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars stands out as a cornerstone of American cinema. Now, the second highest-grossing film series, it has spawned numerous spin-offs and even a burgeoning theme park attractions.

There’s a lot of filmmakers who look up to Star Wars as a boundary, setting the standard for mass viral appeal. Either eliciting the response of “I want to get involved in that!” or “My work will never be as popular as Star Wars!” In the former response, the person is happy to submit themselves to working one part of a greater legacy. Their prestige improves by working on such a large brand name but their creativity becomes limited by that same brand. For a writer and director especially, who aren’t used to servicing someone else’s vision, this may prove problematic. Those in the latter camp will have complete creative freedom but find that studio executives have no confidence in their work. They’ll struggle to get the chance to make their dream project actually seen by people.

Recycling sells

Of the 50 currently highest grossing films, there are only 14 which are not based on a pre-existing property. This is including sequels and spin-offs. Without them, the number drops to merely 4; Avatar, Titanic, Zootopia and Finding Nemo. Looking at this, a picture gets painted that the only original content that succeeds is either children’s films or love stories. But one has to distance themselves from how a list like this looks. (Especially when the lowest grossing movie still hits at $880.2 million.) This kind of list isn’t indicative of what original filmmaking can achieve. However, it is a signpost that the road you’re on with your original idea probably isn’t going to make you millions. That is unless you get good.

It’s a tough choice to make and it draws on these ideas of “integrity” and “selling out” that as creatives we get hammered with. But don’t make your choice based on arbitrary ideas like that. There’s a ton more things to consider in the debate between making something original or working on an adaptation.

Statistically speaking…

A study by Metacritic ( in 2011 brought data between 2006-2010 and found that on average per year, there were; 19 Sequels, 12 Remakes, 57 Adaptations, 17 True Stories and 70 Original Films. Meaning that Original films made up only 40% of films made for these five years.

Metacritic also found the averages of their Metascore for this same time period. The results came out as; Original- 48.0, Based on written material- 57.1, Based on a play or musical- 58.2, True Story- 60.5. Extrapolating from this data, you get the picture that adaptations are a notably superior type of film. It’s important to keep in mind that with a smaller data pool, the average score for adaptations is more easily skewed by high outliers, like say Iron Man or The Dark Knight.

As an aside, this data comes before the Marvel Cinematic Universe had the opportunity to rise, fall and then rise again. Also, long before the DC Cinematic Universe had its time to crash and burn. Looking at 2017, however, we’ve had a massive list of truly great original films. Baby Driver, Coco, Get Out!, Stronger, Detroit – the list goes on and on! Adaptations in comparison were a more notably mixed bag last year. For every Call Me By Your Name and The Zookeeper’s Wife, there was a Justice League and Murder on the Orient Express.

“So Original good, Adaptation bad?”

To make a great film without a great idea is near-impossible. It may look technically amazing, it might be well-acted but without that great core idea, the whole thing is likely to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Admittedly, great original ideas are rare and so basing your film on an existing property, that has garnered a large fanbase can set the mind at ease. Specifically, the producer’s mind. Perhaps too much at ease, as some of the films mentioned above highlight.

Some adaptations get manned with an inspired writer/director. Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events springs to mind. Where Sonnenfeld excels is his understanding of the adaptation as a medium. He’s responsible for a show that plays on the expectations of the readers of the source material. It challenges their expectations, rather than meeting them head-on or avoiding them entirely. Another creative might be content to copy what they’ve read and offer little to make it stand out. Often this makes the adaptation feel tired and uninterested in telling its story in an engaging way. That is one problem that an original film rarely encounters; there is almost always a desire to get the story told.

Even when there is an attempt to inject some originality into the work, it can fail because the filmmaker hasn’t thought through the nature of adaptation. For an example, take a look at the wave of modernised (and teenagerised) adaptations of classic literature. In particular, Les Liaisons Dangereuses’s transformation into 1999’s Cruel Intentions. Here, decades of social control and abuse are transposed to white, rich American teenagers. Doesn’t quite have the same effect, does it? That said, Cruel Intentions did very well with its target audience. Nowadays, it’s considered a sort of cult classic. It’s praised for its bravery in confronting teenage sexuality and sexual manipulation.

“Where do adaptations go wrong?”

Almost any filmmaker will tell you; to make a good film you have to know your film, what you’re saying with it and why. It’s a common piece of advice but one that hits the nail on the head. And while it’s far from impossible for an adaptation to have a life of its own and be thoroughly thought-out; that is so much easier to do when the idea is yours. When a film crew comes together with the same passion for the idea; that is immediately a stronger film than an adaptation where people are involved because the studio said they needed another one to add to their cinematic universe.

Obviously studios have more than a hand in the current mess

Once you’ve got your idea, the next hill to get over is financing. It’s about 50/50 whether, as a filmmaker, you’ll get the idea to adapt something or you’ll be approached to work on an adaptation already planned out by a studio. In the latter case, money’s of no question. In the former, there’s more of a chance that things won’t pan out. With these cases, it’s the original material that comes under scrutiny.

A studio needs to ascertain if audiences will be interested enough to see the translation of the work into the film medium, to make it worth their money. But like in the case for original films, this comes down to how well you can sell your idea to a studio and how much faith they have in your marketability. This will largely come based off of your previous work. Unless you start in TV, chances are, your first professional project won’t be an adaptation. When the budget is $300 million, they have the money to pay for those established as the best-of-the-best.

Our recommendation, if you’re trying to get in with a studio, is have experience with filmmaking first. Construct a portfolio of indie film work that you can show off. In this case, you’ll need to finance the project yourself. It sounds tough, and it can be, but it’s also never been easier than it is right now. For those interested, we’ve talked about the best ways to go about financing your Indie film here; 

“What can I do then?”

When your original film is being screened, people are waiting to be impressed, but that’s doable. You might not be able to win over everyone. Your genre or message won’t connect with them somehow. But that’s fine because if you made a good film, people will know. It will be talked about. These days, lists are constantly being sprung forth, not just about the best films of the year, but also about the most underrated.

There will always be times when great films fall through the cracks and won’t get the audience recognition they deserve. It happens all the time, even to films starring the most well-known actors or created by the most celebrated filmmakers. So don’t stress. Make a good film. Make it so good that the people who do see it can’t help but talk about it. And then make another one. And another one. That’s the only way to build up your filmography to the point where studio executives actually take a look at you.

“But that sounds like a lot of pressure. What happens if I make a bad film?”

The more success you have, the more pressure will be placed on you to ensure your next project is just as good as your last. Sometimes that’s just not possible. The conditions won’t work out as well as they did the last time or maybe, truthfully, your idea isn’t as good. Chances are good that at some point in your career, if you carry on making films, you’ll disappoint someone.

Sometimes it’s important to think about who is your film for and who are you more comfortable in disappointing. The distinction will become clear when you think of your audience as critics or fans. A critic, regardless of the film’s intention, style or message will be focused on scoring a film’s craft and its themes. A fan (of the genre, of an actor, of a filmmaker involved or of pre-existing material) is simultaneously more likely to enjoy the film because something they like is on display and absolutely despise it with the entirety of their being because not every nitty gritty detail was to the standards that they had set for it, before watching.

Ask yourself, do you want to deal with another creator’s fans?

There is no greater pressure than working on a material which millions of people have already connected with, and have opinions about. When your adaptation gets put in a cinema, people will be waiting for their specific expectations to be met. Each of them will have their own views of how a certain element should play out on screen before you’ve even finished filming. And people will go see your adaptation. You can be sure of that. You can also be sure that people will talk about it. What you can’t be sure of is, even if your film is good (and you should pray that it is), people will be talking about it because it’s a good film. It can be just as likely they’ll be talking about it because you didn’t faithfully adapt this here or chose the wrong phrase for a character to say there.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi grossed a mammoth $450m globally in its opening weekend. It currently sits at an 85% score with Metacritic and a 90% (“Fresh”) rating with Rotten Tomatoes. In spite of that, a total of 185,853 members input their own feedback, resulting in a mere 48% saying they liked the film. Over the last few months, there have been countless articles written about this. To sum up: many fans of the film franchise did not appreciate the direction that writer and director, Rian Johnson, took the film. Some say that the film sought being viewed as progressive more than developing its established core cast of characters. It also received critique about the humour being “off” and new character arcs diverting from what had been established in previous films.

This was taken as a particular insult to fans who had their own theories regarding Rey’s parents and the identity of Snoke; previous director’s JJ. Abrams’s so called “Mystery Boxes.” Mark Hamill, himself, told Vanity Fair he “pretty much fundamentally disagreed with every decision” Rian Johnson made for Luke Skywalker’s journey. We’re introduced to a Luke Skywalker who’s lost his heroic sense of duty and let old-age cynicism set in. This was coming off of disappointment following the new trilogy’s announcement that the films would not be following the plot set out by the books. In the books, Luke’s journey (post-film events) is a well-written and engaging story, which many fans had already connected with. When the character’s return was revealed at the end of The Force Awakens, this was hardly the character that fans were expecting and hoping for.

Rian, the rebel

Johnson threw out the rulebook. He made a film that asks for faith from his audience, as it doesn’t fit together cohesively until the very end. The film already had the challenging job of continuing the story as the second installment of a trilogy. Regardless, Johnson deemed it necessary to add more to his full plate by taking a philosophical stance on the whole thing.

The film concerns itself with the theme of upholding a legacy. It’s about the way that the old generation uneasily gives way to another up-and-coming generation and how those who have come before us aren’t always in the right. Johnson demands of his audience to look upon the past and deem it problematic and look towards the future with the intention to fix those problems. It’s a solid philosophical lesson but its parallel to the nature of film franchises (for both the creators and the audience) are obvious.

As such, many fans saw Johnson’s film and took from it the message that “You were wrong for liking this before. It was bad. This is better.” The fact that Johnson disregarded his predecessors was already an issue, but this nailed his coffin for many fans. The genuine, non-content related, issues with the film, such as the pacing do nothing to dissuade fans’ criticisms. The trip to the casino planet of Canto Bight is a slow and pointless escapade that does nothing but drive another wedge into a film already struggling to juggle all of its elements.

Now of course, there’s been backlash to the backlash. Other fans of the series appreciated Johnson’s bravery in adding new dimensions to the decades-long series. These fans criticised those who were disappointed with the film, trivialising their criticism as being afraid of progress and disappointment that their theories were not brought to life. Many calling these people “haters” and “not true fans.” But is that really fair for anyone to say? Clearly these people have had a deep love for the Star Wars franchise up until this point. It does suggest a sense of entitlement but is it wrong to have standards for a film that is continuing a series? Well, yes when they start to run off actresses off of social media with abuse. But hey, welcome to modern day fan culture. 

There’s no such thing as unbiased criticism

When a TV-show goes off the rails, as they often do, there will be people who stick with it and those who don’t. But there’s almost never the same amount of debate and dissent than what occurred here. It’s telling that perhaps the only fandom that could compare would be the likes of Doctor Who. It’s the fact that not only do people like these films, but they have formed a foundation of what these fans consider quality content. For thousands of people, these films have been with them their entire lives, and if they’re a creative, they’ve been massively influenced by the films in what they themselves make.

Johnson was also likely influenced by Star Wars but one issue with influence is that it’s individualistic. Everyone will take away something slightly different from their interpretation of Star Wars. When given the chance to input into that legacy, they have the choice of continuing in the tradition of their predecessor or to take it upon themselves to express their own influence on what influenced them. The latter option was clearly Johnson’s choice.

When asked whether he would change anything about his film following the criticism, Rian Johnson responded; “No, I don’t think so. I don’t even know what that kind of approach would be. You have a way that you tell stories…you just do that.” Johnson made sure that if he was going to write and direct The Last Jedi it was going to be his film, not the film that everybody wanted him to make. His film utterly reflects that in its themes and there’s something admirable in that.

Though interviews suggest that Johnson was not aware of what fans wanted from the film and the decision to ignore plot threads that Abrams had laid out do suggest more than a unhealthy amount of negligence on his part of continuing an on-going story. Johnson fought against carrying on a legacy, in the middle film of a trilogy. The right intention for a creative but perhaps the wrong time and place?

“What does this all mean for me and my film?”

All in all, it’s not even particularly fair to say that working on adaptations is the easier route of filmmaking. The biggest benefit you have with working on something original is the same as one of your biggest hurdles; nobody has any expectations for what your content can achieve.

At the start, it will be difficult to convince people to look at your work. The title of your film won’t be a household name that guarantees an audience. You will need to have a strong idea, and be so passionate about it that people will want to watch your film or read your script without that free pass. You will need to work to make sure your project is good enough, polished enough to keep an audience invested when they start looking at your work. But when they see it, and like it: the hard part’s over.

Written by Reece Mawhinney