Reboots, Sequels and the Killing of Creativity

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CBS plans to reboot Murphy Brown, a popular television series that began its initial run 30 years ago and ended 20 years ago. This decision follows NBC relaunching Will & Grace, Netflix picking up the misadventures of the Tanners on Fuller House, the Disney Channel introducing Girl Meets World and ABC planning a Roseanne reboot that ignores the series originally killing off one of its lead characters.

The small screen inundates audiences with reboots and retreads, while Hollywood pumps out an endless stream of sequels and remakes. Like Christmas decorations at your local department store in September, summer blockbuster season starts earlier every year — and that means less than three months after the latest Marvel and Star Wars sequels dominated theaters, another round of comic book adaptations and sequels will flood theaters for the ensuing five months.

Below is a screenshot of Rottentomatoes.com’s home page on the afternoon of Jan. 24. I took the liberty of marking everything that is either a sequel, remake, reboot or adaptation from either comic books or British TV.

Vince Mancini of the Filmdrunk Frotcast made a point in reference to November’s smash hit Thor:Ragnarok that stuck with me: The Marvel cinematic universe operates largely within an algorithm, programmed to maximize profits and rendering directorial input and creativity moot.

I half-jokingly worry about a future in which the only films are entries into the Marvel, Star Wars or Fast & Furious franchises, programmed to appeal to the widest audience possible and marketed through the various other properties owned by the same conglomerates. It’s already the case with network TV, a hellhole of Chuck Lorre-produced schlock and the incoming tidal wave of reboots.

There’s safety in established brand names. Creativity means taking a risk, and fewer decision-makers writing the checks appear willing to take those risks.

Lest I come off as too much of an Old Man Yells at Cloud, I glean similarities between the direction of Hollywood and the state of the sports media industry.

Sports media has no shortage of outlets that aggregate endless streams of links that simply regurgitate the original reporting from other sources. Occasionally, because this information comes secondhand, aggregation suffers from a condition I have previously railed against and labeled Purple Monkey Dishwasher (and yes, that’s two Simpsons references in two grafs; I am paying homage).

Aggregation feeds the algorithm in the same way the Frotcast describes the Marvel movie process; target the broadest audience possible with empty-calorie write-ups on whatever topic is trending on Twitter on in Google News. The faster, the better.

There’s a place for aggregation, just as there’s room for sequels and remakes. The problem is when it begins to overwhelm and phase out creativity.

As newsrooms continue to shrink, laying off the journalists who produce the news that aggregation sites redistribute, what will become of the medium? I wish I had an answer, but it’s the kind of long-term question the industry as a whole needs to ask itself. Creativity chokes in the panicked race for short-term solutions to the much bigger-picture issue of how to recoup the money lost via changes in eras.

It’s the same issue driving Hollywood so aggressively toward sequels and reboots; established brands offer short-term remedy for the longer-term question of getting audiences into the theaters or onto the couch to watch first-run TV. The irony? Those established names succeeded initially because they were fresh and creative.