When looking at the media landscape throughout the last hundred years or so we see different media fields repurposing and remaking works from each other. Books would be turned into movies, movies into books, songs into plays, plays into books, you get the idea. Revisiting old stories under a new light was nothing particularly uncommon. Sometimes for the better, often for the worse. While remaking or reimagining works has always existed in some form, the modern media has been mostly concentrated on remaking films and television shows. This could be mostly attributed to the sensibilities that are driving franchises, which end up making the most money. A single film might be marketable for a while, but when something new comes along, customers’ attention can be easily stolen away. What better way to keep that brand on the surface by constantly pumping content based on that popular thing? Franchises have survived catastrophic failures, like Highlander II: The Quickening, though similar bombs have effectively killed any viability of an Intellectual Property for decades.
Nowadays, it seems that IPs are harder to kill than ever before and corporations are banking on them like no other. We have over thirty years old franchises still seeing new entries, and while some aim to produce a new kind of experience, others rely on nostalgia to drive things home. These decades-old things were new at some point, and while they will always be new to someone, all the major ones are deeply carved into our cultural mindset. Darth Vader, the lightsabre, Captain of the starship Enterprise, horrible face-raping aliens, Ring to rule them all, Three Laws of Robotics, the truth is out there, down down-forwards forwards Punch makes a fireball and so much more what we know is through cultural osmosis. We know these things as modern media are the continuation of stories of old. Now we have the best tools humanity has ever had to spread these new ideas and stories out there for everybody to read, see and listen to, but we’re using these tools to revisit the same old stories with a new lick of paint. Even the Marvel movies that get celebrated are largely recreations of what was already told, just with few new twists there. Twists, which ended up making Thanos, one of Marvel’s strongest villains next to Dr Doom, a lacklustre shadow of his comic counterpart with only glimpses of the shades and colours he could’ve shown on the screen.
That is an issue that all long-running franchises have to deal with; new writers. While a chance to create something special, it’s also a massive risk that they’ll just fuck things up.
While the 1990s saw tons of reheats from the 1960s, the last two decades have been constantly called the era of remakes. While not wholly accurate, we can’t really deny a trend of taking dormant past IPs and trying to breathe new life in them. Charlie’s Angels has been revived at least twice during the new millennium, and the last time they did that was a massive failure in every respect. Ghostbusters was also revived twice (with the upcoming movie being the third time) with the Atari game being a success both financially and critically. The same can’t be said for the 2016 film, which almost ended the franchise then and there. The third time’s the charm. I don’t really want to mull over all this, you know what IPs have been successfully implemented to the new millennium and what hasn’t. We never needed a new Terminator or Predator flick, but we got ’em anyway, with each new movie being worse than the last. If you need a franchise ending example from recent years, look no further than The Predator.
Not even Star Wars has been spared from reusing old content for nostalgia. Despite Kathleen Kennedy making loud statements that they will pave a new road for the modern era of Star Wars for the new audience, they’ve resorted to nostalgia upon nostalgia all the while reusing old concepts and characters. Rather than taking the franchise in whole new directions, we’ve been revisiting characters and stories that were already told in a form or another. Pretty much everything Lucasfilm is currently pushing out in regards to Star Wars is revisiting old characters and concepts. Rather than pushing the IP, it has caved in to recycle.
The same can be applied to Star Trek, where each of the new series has somehow tied itself to past characters and concepts rather than trying something new and bold. Yet we had to see characters from Pike and Spock to almost the whole cast of The Next Generation. This sort of reliance on old and comforting characters and stories is largely a safety line; you can’t really fuck up too badly when the built-in audience will slob all over the franchise whatever you do with it. Herein lies the danger; you can burn your audience if you don’t handle the legacy of a property right.
Old marketing wisdom is that keeping your current customers is easier than gaining new ones. Looking at whatever media field you want, it seems like this has been twisted to something along the lines of Creating new IP is more dangerous than banking on an existing property. While the two don’t really exclude each other, we’ve seen the built-in audience being kicked away for a decade now. From games to films and television, we’ve heard the song of Get New Audience. Gamasutra went to the distance of telling us how gamers were over, a statement that has been echoing among the gaming press for a while with no results. Considering how closed and incestuous gaming and film industries (especially in the US), it’s no surprise that the same attitude would find its way to Hollywood. Many of the products that are now being made are not intended for the pre-installed audience. The marketing of course will always try to rope them in nevertheless, but as we’ve seen with pretty much all of these new entries, they’re not really wanted.
Everything was new at some point, and media can’t really be pushed forwards with rallying around the same shit all the time. While we haven’t seen major new entries to some of the oldest modern media icons, like Tarzan, they’re still there waiting for someone to take ’em for a spin. Dare I say that’s a problem to itself. Corporations want to bank on their IPs to the extent of not giving a damn how they are being treated on a larger scale, and damaging a franchise’s reputation and brand recognition has become an ever-increasing problem in the modern era. This is due to everyone being more connected to everyone else, and information is spreading like a running wildfire. It has become far harder to screw customers over. Perhaps that is also why corporations want to bank on old IPs, as they can sell the creators as fans among equals. By this point, I hope you’ve realised that’s an utter bullshit marketing gimmick.
If you have seen Masters of the Universe: Revelation‘s first five episodes, you’re probably aware of the latest example of this. Creators claim to be big fans, yet the story is another retread of What if Skeletor wins? storyline, the characters are not accurately portrayed and their major character points are missed and even large portions of unique elements are just either misunderstood or outright twisted out of shape. For example, Orko was portrayed as a lousy character that never amounted to anything in his life, either back at his home Trolla or at King Randor’s court. This, despite every iteration making a point that he is a great magician, one of their best, who just happens to have ended up in a dimension where magic works differently, thus him having a hard time making it work. In further expanded material, Orko’s position is that of a spy who was to keep tabs on the Power Sword and whoever wields it. In this light, Orko could be said to have acted for the sake of the cause. Instead, MOTU:R gives us a pathetic creature that tries to explain his tragic situation and backstory in order to artificially squeeze tears from the audience just to be killed. It’s hack writing at its finest and gives no real justification for either Orko’s death or otherwise, as it is so long-winded that any of the characters could’ve made any half-intelligent move and saved the day.
The backlash from MOTU:R has replicated pretty much the same patterns as any of these similar revived IPs with bullshit entry has, like Ghostbusters 2016. Some fans have found it objectionable content, and they have been in turn mocked. Not their points of arguments or anything that could be considered constructive, but rather the customers themselves have been mocked and belittled in the pettiest of ways combined with a healthy dose of slander and name-calling. It’s not a rarity nowadays for creators to talk down to consumers, often even attacking them. While this might win some browny points among their peers, the consumers will associate this negative PR with the creator and the brand. The aforementioned Ghostbusters 2016 is a perfect example of a short-lived shitstorm, after which pretty much everyone outside the Hollywood bubble agreed without many mincing words that it was a rather terrible movie.
A lot, if not all, of this drama and contention, would be easily sidestepped if all these re-used IPs were completely new and original instead. In this scenario, the works would be able to stand on their own legs without the baggage of old franchises. They’d also be able to realize that whole thing of creating a whole new consumer base and choose their own target customers. This would largely prevent any old farts from using decades of content as points of comparison, and thus criticism. It would be a win-win. Except this would mean they’d need to create something new that would be in direct competition with these already established franchises, and that requires a wholly different approach.
Yet we need new content, new ideas and new stories. The media landscape can’t survive on these old franchises for the rest of the executives’ lives. These people might be the most exciting or imaginative, yet they call the shots. Creators on the other hand should learn how to play them. Alternatively, circumvent the system altogether in whatever ways they can. You may ask if making a story like MOTU:R would be possible with a new IP, and the answer is yes. As the show already relies on flashbacks, there’s really nothing that could have prevented the series to be a whole new show with a whole net setting and characters.
Do you know why the Xenomorph is the featured image? Because it is arguably the most influential movie monster that was not based on a mythical being. Its influence is felt to this day in pretty much every single field of entertainment media and you can see it being ripped off, referenced and inspired by on an almost weekly basis. Even the classic Universal Movie Monsters had their inspiration in other stories. The Xenomorph, however, was something different. It strikes a different kind of core in the audience and opened new doors for horrific creatures. Despite the Predator being considered equal in terms of design, it is more human and can be understood to a large degree. While attempts have been made to create something that could be considered to compete on the same level of sheer uniqueness, very few monsters have come even close.
The wall to create something that could be the next Xenomorph, or the next Star Wars, is stupidly high. However, the entertainment industries, especially Hollywood and its bubble, have to get ready when old IPs stop making money. Disney has seen and felt how it feels to mismanage a billion-dollar franchise and lose money more and more with each new movie with Star Wars. It’s a downhill roll, and the only way they can climb up is to put something new to the table. Yet, even now, old and established is being tapped. Be it for the core fans or in chase of a new one, this losing battle should be cut short.
The world needs new stories to be inspired by. Even when it comes to money, it would be best for these corporations to bet on it as a long-term plan. Sadly, the more time passes, the more convinced I am there are no long-term plans with anyone. It’s all immediate action and short-term gains, be it in entertainment, politics or whatever.