Everything Old Is New Again—Especially in Hollywood

Recently, thriller master David Morrell, of Rambo fame, sparked a discussion on Goggle+ about Hollywood's lack of imagination in developing new movie offerings. David thought too many new movies today suffered from recycled plots and ideas.

Just look at recent offerings and you can see what he means. Franchises for Batman, Superman, Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and who knows what else are being "rebooted." Hollywood also resurrected the popular 1960s spy show The Man from UNCLE and, more recently, the classic 1960 western The Magnificent Seven (which itself was a remake of the Japanese movie Seven Samurai). As a result, going to the movies (if you can afford it these days) is more like watching summer reruns from the 1960s than watching a new creative endeavor.

Sean Carlin, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and novelist who took part in the Google+ discussion, pointed us to a blog post he'd recently written about this very topic. In the wake of the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, Sean says, movie studios realized they didn't need to pay writers to create new stories and plots; they could just rehash the franchises they already owned. Sean points out, however, the myriad of recent reboots have not done so well at the box office or with the critics. (You can read Sean's post here.)

Unfortunately, movie studios aren't alone in this. The new reboot of the once popular MacGyver TV series is just the latest of resuscitated TV shows. Battlestar Galactica, The New Odd Couple, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, were all remakes of popular 20th century series.

A television series doesn't even have to be an old-time classic to be rebooted. CSI sparked spin-offs set in Miami and New York. NCIS did the same for New Orleans and Los Angeles. The last I particularly consider ridiculous. As I point out in my soon-to-be-released new novel, The Butcher's Bill, a sequel to The Killing Depths featuring NCIS agent Linus Schag, there is no NCIS office in Los Angeles for the simple reason that there hasn’t been any Navy there since the Reagan administration closed the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in the 1980s. (Lest you think I bootlegged the idea for Schag from the TV series, I will point out my first Schag story was published by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1996, more than half a decade before the show first aired.)

The book publishing industry isn't guiltless in this either. Though not exactly the same as rehashing old movie franchises, book publishers do tend to keep book series on life support long after the original author has died. British author Ian Fleming died in 1964 after penning fourteen James Bond books. Since then, nearly thirty more Bond novels have been published—authored by a variety of writers—and they are still being written.

Raymond Chandler died in 1959, leaving a legacy of eight published Phillip Marlowe novels, and one unfinished manuscript (which was completed and published after his death). Since then, four additional Marlowe novels have been published, written by four different writers.

There are, admittedly, certain elements that course through all stories. There are, after all, a limited set of plots from which all stories draw—seven to thirty-six, depending on whom you read. However, retelling the same story repeatedly eventually grows old. How many times do we need to see Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider, or Bruce Banner's Hulk muscle out of his shirt before we start checking our watches? How many times must we endure James Bond seducing some femme fatal underwater or in earth orbit?

The problem with rebooting movie franchises and continuing book series long after the author's death is it overcrowds an already overcrowded marketplace. Moviegoers and readers have only so much free time to spend in those pursuits. Moreover, as Sean points out, all those reboots cater to a mid-20th century mythos while we are now well into the 21st century. If studios, publishers, and even writers don't pay attention to the need for a 21th century mythos, moviegoers and readers will turn away.

It says a lot that some of the most successful novels and movies of the last few years started as independently published novels. The success of Andy Weir's The Martian and E. L. James 50 Shades of Gray, both originally successful indie books, shows a hunger for new blood on both the written page and silver screen.

Digital technology led to the birth of independent movie producers who rebelled against the gatekeepers at the big studios. The same technology also gave birth to the independent music industry and, more recently, independent book publishers. The failure of traditional studios and book publishers to provide for the needs of today's moviegoers and readers may open a path for independents to take the lead. As the old saying goes, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."