Why Hollywood Is in Love with the Reboot

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Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, two Jedi Knights escape a hostile blockade to find allies and come across a young boy who may bring balance to the Force, but the long dormant Sith return to reclaim their old glory.
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film
March 3rd, 2014

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Rebooting a franchise means restarting a multiple-film story from the beginning. It is distinct from a sequel or prequel because it takes place wholly outside the original story continuity, intent on creating one uniquely its own. The film still features the same characters, ideas and setting as the original, but re-imagined for a more contemporary audience. Narrative twists and updates are often added, but the core essentials stay the same.

A reboot of a film series is a fairly recent phenomenon. Before the modern era, few movie series lasted through multiple installments long enough to justify a restart. In the golden era of filmmaking, horror films were practically the only genre that could boast true film series. Monsters the like of the Mummy, Dracula and Godzilla reprised their roles episodically for decades. Occasionally, more mainstream characters like James Bond or Eastwood's Man with No Name would get in on the fun, but they were the exception.

That pattern changed dramatically in the post-"Star Wars" era. Franchises steadily became the main money drivers in Hollywood. In these movie series, the overarching story that connects the films becomes paramount. The new, vocal fans that spring up around a popular property obsess over continuity from installment to installment, forcing filmmakers to pay much more attention to it.

But even successful franchises wind down. Some take only a handful of years to end, while others take decades. Eventually creativity founders, audience interest wanes, and the series no longer makes enough money to sustain itself.

But Hollywood discovered that popular franchises never really die. Enthusiasts keep the passion burning for them in other media. Years later many recall the film series in a positive and even excited light. Hollywood producers see this as a golden opportunity. If the original series worked to generate a lot of revenue by appealing to one generation of movie-goers, why couldn't the same story do the same with modern day audiences? Add new twists and players and update its production values, and theoretically almost any franchise can be rebooted profitably.

Some would indict this attitude as a sign of a lack of originality in Hollywood. In some cases, that is true. But with hundreds of millions of dollars of potential revenue at stake, the studios would by far prefer to invest in a proven money-maker. Because audiences have rewarded a number of reboots with sky-high box office results, the reasoning of the studios to back reboots make a lot of sense from a business perspective.

In recent years, reboots have become more common than before, with many in the works at any given time. This may simply be the result of the number of profitable film franchises increasing as well, allowing more properties to become available for reboots over time. In addition, movie series from the first wave of modern blockbusters in the 1980s and early '90s have sat around long enough since their last installment that many studios are banking on their freshness to more modern audiences.

At times, other factors are at work. Sony Pictures Entertainment, for example, retains the film rights to the popular super-hero character Spider-man. However, by the terms of its contract with Marvel Entertainment, who owns the overall rights to the character, Sony has only so much time between installments to produce a new Spider-man film or else its rights to the character revert back to Marvel. So when negotiations with the principal players of what would have been "Spider-Man 4" fell through, Sony had to push through a reboot with new players in order to retain their rights to the Spider-Man film franchise.

Which properties to reboot often prove to be a tricky call. Many franchises are popular and boast large fan followings, but that does not always translate into satisfactory box office revenue. Rebooting the "Superman" film franchise seemed like a sure bet, but the first attempt at a reboot, "Superman Returns," had a disappointing box office performance. The cult classic status of "Serenity" make some think a reboot is inevitable now that is creator Joss Whedon is a superstar director. But the franchise never made that much money either on TV or on the big screen, leaving studios reluctant to back such a project.

Reboots are an inevitable outgrowth of film franchises themselves. As series can span many years or even decades, older audiences move on, leaving the story untold for younger audiences who can appreciate it in a fresh light. Reboots allow movie studios to present old stories in new and different ways, and make a tidy profit from it as well.