We love short films, but we also follow the larger film industry and how the web is changing how we watch films. Much has been said over the last few days about the bleak year for theatrical films with year-end box office sales down 3.8% compared to last year and attendance down 4.7% (Box Office Mojo). But there’s been less coverage of a bigger problem looming over the film industry—one that would be hard to blame on a bad year—the growing scarcity of original stories coming from Hollywood.
Hollywood is closing its doors on original stories.
In small ways, we’re all aware of it. We’ve all seen a preview and asked ourselves, “Another sequel?” And yet it’s still staggering to take a step back and see just how bad the situation has become.   And if that isn’t frightening enough, the success of The Lion King 3D is already kicking off what may become a new creative low—re-releases. The Lion King 3D, at a cost to Disney of less than $10M, took in nearly $100M—not a bad ROI for a struggling industry. Titanic, Beauty and the Beast, and Star Wars, all planned for 2012 releases, may mark the dawn of an era of blockbuster re-releases as Hollywood longs for its glory days.
Why is this happening?
At first, you might think box office numbers are down because of all these unoriginal films. But that’s actually backwards. In fact, unoriginal movies are being made BECAUSE numbers are down. Let me explain: Hollywood filmmaking is an investment business—studios give money to filmmakers hoping to make more money back. Now put yourself in the shoes of an investor. When times are good, you have extra cash flowing in, and you can invest in riskier investments where many fail but a few hit big. But when times are tight, one failed investment can sink you, so you’re more inclined to turn to safer investments. And in movies, the safest investment you can make is in either a sequel or a story built from an existing franchise with a large fan base. In other words, making a sequel is Hollywood’s way of playing it safe. Because right now, original stories are just too risky. How difficult is it to get an original story made in Hollywood today? Even director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) had a difficult time getting Inception made (The Day the Movies Died by Mark Harris). That’s how hard it is. Now I hate to say “Hollywood” like it’s one entity because in reality it’s made up of people, some of which are very talented and inventive people who want to tell great, original stories. But like many other industries facing the speed and transformative power of the web, its size and bureaucracy have made the film industry slow to recognize and react to change.
But, it’s not the end.
Despite all the prophecies, this won’t mark the end of Hollywood or the film industry as we know it. In fact, filmmaking is more important now than ever. Roger Ebert said it best in his recent article on the current state of the industry that, “Americans love the movies as much as ever. It’s the theaters that are losing their charm.” It only takes a few minutes with Facebook, Kickstarter, and Vimeo to see that movies and storytelling are fast becoming the preferred way of understanding this complex world.
Broaden your view.
To someone like me, who wants to tell stories for a living, or someone like my compatriot, Jason, who watches stories for a living, all this change means looking broader. Theatrical may no longer be the place to bring a grand vision to the public. Those “risky” original stories are more and more being told elsewhere on television and in new media formats like branded and interactive films. I once dreamed of making a feature film. Now I’m building a company around creative tools. Look beyond the standard model.
Short films will lead the way.
We can’t know what making and watching films will look like in 10 years, but whatever becomes the dominant model, it’s likely to make its first appearance in a short film. Always a testing ground, short films are where the most interesting new models are being explored today. Filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Chris Milk are experimenting with new formats and distribution models with shorts like We Were Once a Fairy Tale, I’m Here, and The Wilderness Downtown. We’re in the hazy stage where the old structures are falling and new ones are yet to be built. The landscape is open. Go explore it.  


UPDATE: MARCH 29, 2012

We’re getting more traffic to this article now so I’m going to address a few of the issues that have come up: 1. For the chart, I created 3 distinct categories of films: SEQUEL = characters/story from a previous film (sequels, prequels, remakes, franchises) ADAPTED = characters/story from a previous work (book, comic, play) ORIGINAL = new characters/story written for this film. Sure you could break the categories down further, but that becomes more difficult to read—what’s more ‘original’ a prequel or a franchise? This keeps it clear. Some movies are technically both adaptations and sequels (Harry Potter 8)—but let’s be honest, they’re sequels. If we’ve seen these characters and plot points on film before, it’s a sequel. 2. Don’t make the judgement that sequels = bad, original = good. There are great sequels (The Godfather Part 2, The Dark Knight) and there are some terrible original films (Kazam anyone?). The point of this article is that original theatrical films are becoming less and less popular. “Are movies getting worse?” That’s a different discussion. 3. Forget exceptions. This is a discussion about trends. Don’t bother bringing up that one film that bucked the trends that one year. Yes, Avatar was an original film that made a lot of money. But you’ll be ignoring the 7 other sequels and adaptations that year. Keep a broader view. 4. Why these years? Simple. I took the most recent year, 2011 and went back every 10 years as far as online databases would go. Data will be different for different years, but the broader view is not likely to change. If anyone wants to do the full 30+ year history, that would awesome…