Has Hollywood run out of ideas? You'd be forgiven for asking that question. In 2019, it feels as though a significant percentage of movies released in theaters are sequels or remakes of hits from 20 years ago.
People are starting to take notice. Entire Reddit threads are dedicated to complaints about this resurgence, and Twitter is rife with commentary on every new movie and TV show being brought back from the dead.
Just this year, Toy Story 4, Men in Black International and the live-action remake of The Lion King were among the top box office hits. Charlie's Angels will join the long list of remakes in November, and Friday brought word that we're getting another Pirates of the Caribbean. In the world of TV, networks and streaming platforms have brought back shows like Gilmore Girls, Full House and Will and Grace. It seems the reboot and remake trend has reached a fever pitch, and much of that can be traced to our longing for the past.
"We're looking at a peak nostalgia moment," says Ryan Lizardi, assistant professor of digital media design and humanities at SUNY Polytechnic Institute.
But nostalgia isn't all that's at play here. Reboots, remakes and revivals are nothing new. Star Trek, for example, has had several iterations through the decades, and A Star is Born has been remade multiple times since the first version of the film debuted in the 1930s. Today, though, we're inundated with revived content everywhere from network television to movie theaters to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, as well as soon-to-be competitors like Disney Plus and Peacock, NBC's newly announced streaming service.
A key reason for this resurgence traces back, unsurprisingly, to money. Creating original content is a costly risk not many studios are willing to take these days. As the price of making movies and TV shows rises, studios are less likely to take a gamble on fresh content because there's so much at stake, says Ross Richie, founder and CEO of comics company Boom! Studios, part of an industry with a vested interest in adapting existing properties. Pulling from previously successful content offers more of a guarantee audiences will latch on.
"If you're given a choice between something new and original that you've not experienced or something that you already like, you tend to choose the thing you already like," Richie said. "You understand what it is, and you've had a previously positive experience with it, so there's a high likelihood you'll have a good experience with it again."
The current media landscape has played no small role in shaping today's trend. Streaming platforms, hungry for content, revive old network shows not just because they see the economic viability of nostalgia, Lizardi says, but because they need more content than ever before. That's why we see platforms like Netflix bringing back Gilmore Girls, HBO Max rebooting Gossip Girl and Peacock heavily promoting the return of shows like Saved by the Bell and Battlestar Galactica.
Streaming services, are, in a sense, working to re-create old-time family viewing in the modern day using these shows, says Kathleen Loock, a postdoc fellow at Freie Universitat Berlin. Companies like Netflix stream original episodes so younger viewers can be brought up to speed before watching the revival with their parents or siblings, as was the norm back when these shows first aired on TV.
For people who did grow up watching the original versions, being able to go back and see familiar faces and scenes can be comforting in more tumultuous times, Loock notes.
"There are few revivals that change the essence of what these shows have been before," she said. "That gives reassurance that things remain the same, even though that actually doesn't match our times, which are much more fragmented."
Some reboots, like One Day at a Time, put a modern-day, progressive spin on original content by incorporating a more diverse cast and addressing contemporary issues such as immigration. Other revivals, like Fuller House and Gilmore Girls, tend to stick with many of the same attributes of the originals, Loock notes, such as featuring a primarily white cast.
Then there are films like the all-female remake of Ghostbusters, which did poorly at the box office but still scored a higher rating on both CNET sister site Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes than 1989's Ghostbusters II (though it didn't top the original). And it turns out we'll be seeing yet another return of Ghostbusters next summer, but it'll only pull from the original, male-dominated cast.
Audiences are more likely to choose a show in an increasingly crowded marketplace if they have a point of entry, says Myles McNutt, assistant professor at Old Dominion University. When studios launch a new series, they hope audiences can develop a relationship with it. Reboots and revivals have the advantage of already being familiar to viewers and potential subscribers.
"With a reboot or revival, you've got something to start with," McNutt said. "That's ultimately a real value within the TV industry, whether you're trying to get somebody to watch a show and watch ads, or if you're trying to get someone to subscribe to a streaming service."
At the cinema
Movie studios are in fierce competition with streaming services to produce content that'll pique viewers' interests and get them to leave their homes. Because of the influx in entertainment choices, people may be less inclined to go to the movies and risk walking away feeling dissatisfied, says Jonathan Tower, general partner at venture capital firm Catapult.
But if the film playing is the latest installment in a franchise or a remake of an old favorite, they may be more likely to get off the couch. Box office numbers reflect this. The Lion King remake, for example, raked in $1 billion nearly two weeks after its release, beating its animated counterpart. Other Disney remakes like 2017's Beauty and the Beast and 2019's Aladdin also crossed the $1 billion mark. Only two of the top 20 films on Box Office Mojo's list of highest-grossing films so far this year are originals.
"People are drawn to those stories and those franchises because they know what they're getting for their money," Tower said. "The sense that they might be disappointed is mitigated by that."
As companies like Disney, which completed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox earlier this year, grow and become more successful, they need bigger hits, which are expensive to produce, says Richie. The Lion King remake, for example, reportedly had a budget of around $260 million, and Avengers: Endgame cost around $350 million to make. Studios are therefore far more risk averse, especially if they have a broad catalogue of recognizable brands to choose from.
"The larger a company gets," Richie says, "the more predictability they need."
Not a guaranteed success
That doesn't mean viewers want everything to get a modern-day spin. Many were up in arms when rumors began circulating about a possible Princess Bride remake. Even actor Cary Elwes, who played Westley in the film , tweeting, "There's a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one."
While some remakes become box office hits, not all are well received by critics and audiences. Men in Black: International, for example, didn't score as highly as expected, despite having a generous budget and a cast of big-name actors. And when Disney did a remake of The Lone Ranger in 2013, it was also met with poor reviews. Other remakes of previously successful films like The Mummy were also box office flops.
Studios might also feel that the digital tools they have today can help an older film level up, but that's not always the case. Fresher effects on the 2012 remake of Total Recall, for example, didn't make the story work any better the second time around, Tower says. That's a lesson for Hollywood that sometimes it's good to leave things alone, he notes.
Still, it's hard to shake the money-making opportunities remakes offer. A film may struggle at the box office but make money in other areas like merchandising, cross branding and product placement, Tower says. Therefore, studios feel it's a fairly low-risk bet to remake a film, even if it originally wasn't that strong creatively or critically. If they're even half right, he says, companies feel they'll at least make their money back or rake in a bit of a profit.
The same goes with television. Even if a show like the Gilmore Girls revival doesn't continue into a second season, it's a success if it convinces people to subscribe to Netflix, McNutt notes. If content generates buzz or leads to ad sales, it undoubtedly brings value.
Regardless of what critics and numbers say, there's an undeniable pull among viewers when an old-time favorite is brought back.
"I get angry that something from my childhood is being remade," Lizardi said, "but I'm the first in line to see it."
Other industries are also experiencing a similar resurgence of old content. Video game companies continue to crank out miniaturized versions of classical consoles like Nintendo's NES Classic, and are bringing back retro games like Atari's Pong and Night Drive. Arcade machines are also wooing today's gaming fans, and classic board games like Operation are being reimagined. And then there's the slew of musical comebacks like the the Spice Girls, who announced a reunion tour last fall, and the Jonas Brothers, who joined forces again earlier this year.
"It seems to be a cross-cultural, cross-media movement," Lizardi said.
A shifting landscape
This trend isn't likely to go away soon, says Derek Kompare, associate professor at Southern Methodist University. Media companies will likely continue to acquire intellectual property and rights to things they can develop, he says.
We might see changes in what gets rebooted, revived or remade as audiences age and change, Kompare notes. One generation might be nostalgic about something they used to watch as kids, but their own children might not be interested in a comeback of that show or movie.
What people want to see will also become more variable in the future, he predicts, since millennials and members of Gen Z had more options of what to watch as kids than did older generations.
"If you want to scale something up and do the movie version of [it], that's going to be tricky to do because there are so many different things people may be into at a particular moment," he said.
It may not be clear what kind of content we'll see resurfaced in the coming years, but one thing's for certain: There's a high chance it'll still look pretty familiar.
Originally published Oct. 24, 5 a.m. PT.
Correction, 8:25 a.m. PT: An earlier version of the story referenced The Dark Tower movie as a remake. The book series has been adapted into a movie only once.
Update, 3:02 p.m. PT: Adds announcement of another Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Correction, Oct. 29 at 11:52 a.m. PT: To correct a misspelling of Kathleen Loock's name.