Remakes and adaptations in the movies, part 2

On Reddit today, someone submitted a link to a page which attempted to take a look to see if Hollywood is giving up on original scripts. The approach the author took wasn’t very good, only evaluating the top 10 US grossing movies in 2011, 2001, 1991, and 1981. By taking such a limited sampling of points, without any evidence to show that there is any sort of continuity to the kinds of films in the top 10, you can’t actually make any significant conclusions. Any or all of those years could have been statistical flukes. And as I pointed out before, it seems just as likely that the originality of the scripts in the top 10 movies is just as likely to be more influenced by the movie-going public than by the studios that are making the movies.

I linked that old post in the Reddit discussion, but realized I couldn’t find the spreadsheet file I’d based it off of. It probably got lost among my files on my work computer when I got laid off. But, that just means that I had even more reason to recreate it and improve it. So I did. Wikipedia’s lists of the top grossing movies switches from worldwide gross to US gross somewhere in the early 90s or late 80s, so I ended up repeating myself after I realized the inconsistency. As a result, some of the tables show both the domestic top 10 (as given by BoxOfficeMojo)  and the worldwide top 10 (via Wikipedia), but on the domestic top 10 counts are charted. I also cleaned up my categorization of the movies. There are now 6 categories — original, adaptation, original franchise, adapted franchise, original remake, and adapted remake. I think they are all fairly self-explanatory.

For the record, GoogleDocs is not particularly useful if you want to do a scatterplot and then add a trendline. I had to use a function to find the y=m*x+b equations and then calculate yearly resulting values and then plot them. And that’s just for a linear regression. If I want to do polynomial regression, I can’t imagine how obnoxious it would be. But, given all of that, it is pretty clear that the number of original scripts is getting lower. Even if you include the number of original franchises and original remakes.

Franchise vs. Non-franchise

There is a similar growth in the number of top grossing movies which are parts of franchises, both original and adapted. Prior to 2001, franchise films were only about 1/4 of the top 10, since then, they have been closer to 1/2. And that doesn’t count the first film in the franchise.

Original vs Adapted

And, for all of the 1980s, there wasn’t a single top 10 movie that was a remake of an earlier movie. And even now they aren’t taking over the theaters. Just under half of the years since 1990 haven’t had a top 10 remake, though 2005 had 5 (King Kong, War of the Worlds, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, and Batman Begins (which was really more of a reboot of a franchise than a remake of the original Batman movie, but actual reboots are so rare that there is no reason to create an entirely separate category)).

So, what can we conclude? More franchise movies in the US top 10 grossing films. More adapted scripts as well. And two of the last five years have had no original, non-franchise films in the top 10 in the US. Eyeballing the global numbers since the mid-90s shows pretty much the same trend. But we still can’t make any claims about whether the success of the movies is because the overall Hollywood trend mirrors the top 10 or if the American public just prefers to go see movies in franchises that it knows or based on other sources with which it is familiar.

I would still, at some point, like to take the time to take a look at all of the yearly US wide-release movies, but there were 146 such in 2011 alone. That’s just under half of the number of movies that were counted for this data as it is. But I happen to have some time on my hands, so we shall see.

Remakes and adaptations in the movies, an analysis

Last week, Jami Noguchi posted a brief bit about Cowboys & Aliens, The Smurfs, Captain America and Harry Potter. He brought up an rather frequent complaint from movie fans: That Hollywood prefers to remake old movies or adapt movies from other media formats (novels, tv shows, comic books, etc). And I think pretty much everyone understands why. Generally, it’s easier to adapt something than write something new and good, and something with a proven track record in another medium is probably going to have a better chance at doing well financially.

It’s a common complaint, and one I’ve made myself in the past. But this time it got me curious, so I went to look at just how many of the movies last year were original properties. I started going through the full list of movies originally released in the US, but too many of them never really got major releases, so I decided to just focus on the top 10 worldwide grossing movies originally released in the US (because it’s what Wikipedia charts). This was my conclusion for the decade of 2001-2010:

For the last 10 years, 28 of the 100 highest grossing films were original screenplays. Of the other 72, all but 16 were reboots or sequels or later in film franchise.

I’m going to expand that a bit here, and take it a bit farther back in time if I can. So let me define my categories. First, “Original”. Pretty simple. Original screenplays that aren’t directly adapted from other sources. Second, “Remake”. Again, simple. Screenplays which are revisionings of earlier movies. Third, “Franchise”. These are films which are sequels/prequels or later in a series of movies. Fourth, “Adaptation”. Movies which are adapted from other forms of media.

So, for a bit more clarification, if a movie is the first of a series of books, then it counts as an adaptation, such as the first Harry Potter, Twilight and Lord of the Rings movies. If a movie is a reboot of a franchise, such as Batman Begins, then it counts as a remake. The movies that follow a reboot (The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) are counted as franchise films. A movie that is a loose revisioning of a fairy tale is an adaptation (think Tangled -> Rapunzel), but a movie that plays on cultural memes, like 2012, but isn’t directly adapted from a book (despite there being books about the 2012 prophecy) is an original screenplay.

A few movies have complicated ancestry, so I will document how I counted them here.

  • Sherlock Holmes, 2009 – remake (of the multiple earlier franchises, based on the series of books)
  • Transformers, 2007 – remake (of the cartoon movie, based on the cartoon, based on the toys
  • 300, 2007 – adaptation (of the comic, based on a movie)
  • Casino Royale, 2006 – remake (of the original, based on the book)
  • Troy, 2004 – adaptation (of The Iliad)
  • Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, 2001 – adaptation (of the book, despite the existence of the animated film)
  • A Bug’s Life, 1998 – remake (loosely of Seven Samurai, influenced by one of Aesop’s fables)
  • Speed, 1994 – original (loosely inspired by some Japanese films)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992 – remake (of the earlier movies, based on the book)

Now, onto the data!

I tallied up the numbers for every year 1981-2010, and the results are pretty clear.

As you can see, from 1981-1990, only a single movie of the top 10 yearly grossing movies was a remake of an earlier movie. And from 2001-2010, franchise movies have dominated the top grossing charts. But that doesn’t really clearly indicate any trends.

The numbers of remakes and direct adaptations have slight changes, but have for the most part stayed the same. But franchises have skyrocketed and original movies have taken a nose-dive.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t give the full picture of the movie industry as a whole. Without looking at the full yearly releases, we can’t really draw any solid conclusions. We’d have just as much reason to assume the rest of the top 20 movies are all remakes as we would to assume they are all original screenplays (neither of which is particularly likely). Also, if you split things differently — say counting original screenplays against adaptations (both new and franchised) against remakes — or counted as adaptations the remakes of movies where the original movies were adaptations, you might have a rather different count. At some point I might actually take the time to do all of that and more.