Does Hollywood try to remake/sequelize/franchise-extend every single one of its successful movies? Sometimes it feels that way, but there’s a little more nuance to studio practices than that. If you’re looking for meaning in this summer’s blockbuster season – not always easy – you could call it Dr. JurassicMax or How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Reboot. Rebooting franchises isn’t as common, well-received, or lucrative as you might think. Today let’s look briefly at the history of the reboot – and how this summer changed it.
First, what technically counts as a reboot? One school would say that anytime the cast shuffles, it’s a reboot, meaning we’re now on the second reboot (and third iteration) of Spider-Man films. That’s pretty rare; far more often, duration between films is the deciding factor, and it just doesn’t feel right to slap the “reboot” label on sequels/prequels that came along four, five, even six years after the most recent installment.
On this list, 10 years is the minimum duration between franchise films. That feels about right for what we could call a “reboot” – a film that came 10-plus years later and either extended the old story or retold it somehow. Now that we have our definition in place, how have reboots fared historically? Critics-wise, and at the box-office?
Uh, not too well. Let’s take a page from fivethirtyeight.com and base all of our data on the tomatometer (from rottentomatoes.com). What are the most critically praised reboots of all time?
Toy Story 3 (2010) 99%
The Long Goodbye (1973) 96%
Dawn of the Dead (1979) 95%
The Color of Money (1986) 90%
Freaky Friday (2003) 88%
The Parent Trap (1998) 86%
Live Free or Die Hard (2007) 82%
Fantasia 2000 (2000) 82%
The Thing (1982) 80%
Probably, those are the only nine films to clear the 80% mark – in more than a century of Hollywood movies. That’s not a sterling record. Not when you consider that reboots are more known for the following list. (I was surprised at the relatively high numbers for the first few of these; generally their audience ratings were far worse, and most did not engender another installment.)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) 78%
Cape Fear (1991) 76%
Superman Returns (2006) 76%
Rocky Balboa (2006) 76%
Land of the Dead (2005) 74%
Prometheus (2012) 73%
Piranha 3-D (2010) 73%
Terminator 3 (2003) 70%
Men in Black III (2012) 69%
Shaft (2000) 68%
The Godfather Part III (1990) 67%
2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) 66%
The Two Jakes (1990) 65%
The Nutty Professor (1996) 65%
Clerks 2 (2006) 63%
Scream 4 (2011) 59%
Psycho II (1983) 59%
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) 57%
Texasville (1991) 55%
The Exorcist III (1990) 55%
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) 55%
Escape from L.A. (1996) 53%
Tron: Legacy (2010) 51%
Halloween H2O (1998) 51%
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) 50%
Blues Brothers 2000 (1997) 45%
Robin Hood (2010) 43%
Hannibal (2001) 39%
101 Dalmatians (1996) 38%
Rambo (2008) 37%
Psycho (1998) 37%
Flipper (1996) 32%
Dumb and Dumber To (2014) 29%
The Wicker Tree (2012) 29%
The Evening Star (1996) 23%
Flubber (1997) 23%
The Odd Couple II (1998) 22%
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) 22%
The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999) 21%
Basic Instinct 2 (2006) 7%
Son of the Mask (2005) 6%
Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice (2001) 0%
Heavy Metal 2000 (2000) 0%
This list understates the case against reboots; it doesn’t even include many, many of the films (especially horror films) on the 10-year list because many of them don’t have tomatometer scores – and if Rotten Tomatoes couldn’t find five reviewers for a film’s theatrical release, that’s generally not a great sign.
Why are so many reboots so bad? Some of these simply reek of a cash-grab, of the desperation of a once-vital creative team trying to suck the last juice out of an old orange tree. In other cases, it’s hard to go home again. Once you’ve lost the film’s original connection to time and place, it’s hard to reconjure that magic.
Perhaps you’re thinking: critics don’t matter, only box office does. But one affects the other. Good films attract talent, and you often need talent to draw a crowd. Bad films turn off not just talent but audiences, even if you initially suckered them in with the nostalgia factor (bad reviews are brutal on post-theatrical markets), making it harder to extend the property further than just the one new film – and wasn’t that part of why you revived it?
Prior to 2015 and since the Reagan Administration, only one reboot has scored over 88% and really justified itself as a project, that being Toy Story 3. It’s not a coincidence that it was the only post-Reagan reboot to turn a healthy profit. Unfortunately for the studios, TS3 has a duplicability factor of zero. No one in Hollywood has something like Pixar at their peak (right after Wall-E and Up), including a beloved property like Toy Story, sitting in their back pocket. It just doesn’t exist. No one in Hollywood can make a pitch that goes, “It’ll be just like Toy Story 3!” However…
Three events changed the reboot math over this summer. One was the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road at a tomato rating of 98 percent. At least two aspects of this number were unheard-of: the fact that it was for a live-action adventure movie, and the fact that it was earned by a director returning to his old property after decades away. Yet either of those two achievements sounds more repeatable than finding another Woody and Buzz. It’s true that Mad Max hasn’t made a king’s ransom, but $366 million worldwide is nothing to sneeze at.
Event number two was the unprecedented half-billion-dollar debut weekend of Jurassic World, coming 14 years after the last film – sure, the movie only scored a 71% tomatometer rating, but this week it became the #3 film of all time, worldwide, the highest-earning movie ever not to be directed by James Cameron. Oddly, both Fury Road and Jurassic World were almost made more than a decade ago. So what’s the lesson for Hollywood, only commit to a reboot if the project spent a decade in development?
Nah. The third event actually happened a few weeks before the opening of Fury Road: the release of the first full-length trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, which comes to theaters this Christmas. Has any trailer ever produced as much genuine excitement and joy as this one? Yes it’s possible that Star Wars VII will fail to get over 85% on the tomatometer and fail to score a billion in worldwide box office. But let’s face it, neither of those failures seems all that likely. With the now-extant possibilities of Mad Max: Fury Road-like RT scores, Jurassic World-like box office, and a Star Wars VII-like combination of both, 2015 has rebooted the reboot. (This, interestingly, after Star Wars Episode I both invented and almost killed the term “prequel.”)
So what’s the bottom line? Before 2015, the studios had to hesitate a bit before committing themselves to a remake/revisit of, say, beloved properties like The Goonies or Back to the Future. Now it’s full speed ahead. Next summer’s Ghostbusters reboot is just the tip of a new continent.
However, as they busy themselves raiding their archives like Indiana Jones searching for a lost ark, there is one final lesson the studios ought to remember. Three of the top-nine reboots listed above came directly from Disney: The Parent Trap (1998), Fantasia 2000 (2000), and Freaky Friday (2003). And this was during a time when the animation studio, coming off of the heyday of the Eisner-Katzenberg years, had fallen into a bit of creative funk, losing its mojo to Pixar and DreamWorks. Solution? Reboot everything and hope for Parent Trap-Fantasia like results.
And what happened? This:
Bambi II (2006) 50%
Lady and the Tramp II (2000) 45%
Peter Pan 2: Return to Never Land (2002) 45%
The Jungle Book 2 (2003) 19%
Cinderella II (2002) 0%
The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006) 0%
So reboot away, studios, but try to do a little bit better than Disney did 15 years ago.
– Daniel Smith-Rowsey