Today, 'Back to the Future' would be a Hollywood laughingstock...until it hit Netflix

In 2015, Hollywood churns out sequels and rejects genre-bending movies. Truly original movies and shows have a new place: Internet services like Netflix.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
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There's no "Jaws 19," but Hollywood is dominated by sequels and franchises. Universal Pictures

When the 1985-era creators of the "Back to the Future" movies envisioned 2015, they pictured hero Marty McFly screaming as a holographic shark from fictional sequel "Jaws 19" closed in to devour him.

They weren't far off the mark.

Last week, writer and director Robert Zemeckis lamented that films like his genre-defying flick couldn't get made today because sequels rule the box office. Studios now often require what's known as a "presold audience," or a guarantee that people will buy tickets in droves, before pursuing a film. That's why every summer, your local cineplex seems to host a parade of Avengers, Minions and other reboots. "Back to the Future" was original and twisted the categorization now prized in Hollywood. It was sci-fi mixed with comedic adventure for a different take on the period piece.

If "Back to the Future" were produced today, it would probably be made by a company that didn't exist when the film debuted: Netflix or rival Amazon Prime Video. Both in his comments last week and his vision of the present from 30 years ago, Zemickis fails to account for the rise of the Internet and video services. Yet online subscription services have established themselves as producers of original shows that confound convention. Both Netflix and Amazon are on the cusp of pushing into movies that take risks, too. Why? They already have a "presold audience," subscribers like you.

With subscriptions, "people have already put their money upfront," said Leo Braudy, a professor of film and culture at the University of Southern California. That allows companies like Netflix and Amazon to be more daring, he said, because they don't need to convince subscribers to pay for every new movie or show.

Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black" broke conventions to yield a buzzed-about global hit. The show, which depicts the lives and backstories of women in prison, has a predominantly female cast of racially diverse actresses. What started as a fish-out-of-water tale evolved into an exploration of class, race, sexuality and gender. Amazon has similarly found its stride with its series "Transparent," which amassed word-of-mouth popularity and critical accolades for its look into the world of a transgender parent and her adult children.

Neither Netflix nor Amazon provide viewership stats for their shows. In August, RBC analyst Mark Mahaney surveyed Netflix users and found 57 percent said they have watched "Orange Is the New Black," a high-water mark for any Netflix show in his studies. It suggests as many as 24 million people have seen "Orange Is the New Black," based on the Netflix's 42 million members at the time. Only six films this year have sold more tickets than that estimated audience for "Orange Is the New Black," based on calculations from total domestic box-office sales and average ticket price.

Both Netflix and Amazon are beginning to push into movies. Last week, Netflix debuted its first original feature-length film, "Beasts of No Nation," in a small number of theaters and on its $10-a-month streaming service simultaneously. Amazon is expected to release its first, a movie about violence in Chicago directed by Spike Lee, in theaters before the end of the year. Shortly after, it will go online to all members of its $99-a-year Prime membership program.

Netflix and Amazon declined to make executives available for this article.

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Of course, the movie world shouldn't be narrowly defined by what major studios release during the summer. The film festival circuit is full of gutsy projects. "The Danish Girl" is one independent film this year that, like "Orange Is the New Black" and "Transparent," features a transgender principal character, for example. Netflix and Amazon have also made series that are cookie-cutter genre projects, in addition to their groundbreaking fare.

Unlike subscription services, studios are in the "unenviable position" of needing movies to appeal to as wide an audience as possible to justify making them, said Freddie Wong, a digital filmmaker who rose to prominence on YouTube. "Defying genre conventions is instantly a risky move," he said. "Non-studio entities can experiment with storytelling that might be too niche...for a studio."

Bob Gale, who co-wrote the "Back to the Future" films with Zemeckis, agreed. "Now it seems [studios] want things to fit more squarely into a genre because they are always thinking about the marketing," he said.

So what would "Back to the Future" be like if it were made today? "No one will find out," he said. Unlike "Jaws 19," he and Zemeckis are adamant that their trilogy will never reboot. "We won't ruin anyone's childhood by going back to the well too many times," he said.

It may up to Netflix and Amazon to quench our thirst for new adventures like Marty's.