The rise of reboots, remakes and retelling true stories

Is Hollywood running out of original ideas?

Between Mean Girls, Wonka and Oppenheimer, you would be forgiven for asking the question: when was the last time a movie was completely new and original?

Of the 49 films scheduled to be released in 2024, more than half are sequels, spin-offs or additions to existing franchises like Marvel, DC and Mad Max. There will be a modern reimagining of 1996’s Twister and five movies based on true stories are in the works – from Bob Marley to Amy Winehouse to Hilary Swank starring as a real-life hairdresser in Ordinary Angels.  

Even in 2023, Emerald Fennell’s box office smash Saltburn was met with mixed reviews for its perceived likeness to Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr Ripley

This pattern begs the question: have filmmakers run out of ideas? Or do audiences only want to commit to stories that feel familiar? 

Dr Chris Comerford is a lecturer in communication and media at the University of Wollongong (UOW) with a research focus on how on-screen media relates to audiences and cultures.  

He says that there is an “appetite for the familiar” among audiences, an expectation that mainstream creators are clinging to.  

"A lot of remakes are happening in big budget, expensive Hollywood, but there is still original storytelling happening in less moneyed areas and independent scenes... this is where a lot of the interesting new stories are happening," he explains.  

“Hollywood hasn't totally run out of ideas. What they have run out of, though, is a willingness and patience to innovate and be interesting with this storytelling. And when they do, it's always very hesitant, very attitude of ‘we’re not going to give you as much money as this Marvel film. We'll give you a bit of money and a bit of time and you go make this little film.’ It's a very toe in the water approach.” 

A man is wearing a black shirt with colourful cartoon drawings on it. He is tanding in front fo a bookshelf stacked with books and figurines. Chris Comerford is an expert in screen media from the UOW Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities

What makes a good reboot? 

Prime Video confirmed an Australian reboot of The Office, scheduled for release in June 2024. It will be the fifteenth international rendition of the series – the original created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who subsequently helped make The Office (US) arguably the most successful television reboot of all time.  

“Part of why The Office (US) worked as an English and an American story was because the humour and characters were very oriented to place – it wasn’t a straight one-to-one,” says Dr Comerford. 

“Do Australian creators have something interesting to say about it, and do they have something that's inherently Australian to add to it?” 

When it comes to modern-day remakes, Dr Comerford says creators need to assess why they are rehashing an old story.  

"A remake has to have something new to say about an existing story – it shouldn’t just be a carbon copy made with bigger and brighter CGI,” he says. 

A prime example of this is the 2014 reboot of the 80s classic RoboCop, which Dr Comerford says loses its original appeal by polishing it for modern day viewers. 

“It missed this kind of schlocky 80s ultraviolence of the original that made it so popular. It was made to look very nice and flashy and didn't really have anything to say beyond the first original film, which had a lot to say about police violence and American culture and all the things that made it such a hit movie,” he says. 

Dr Comerford says remakes work well when they are adapted to fit a different social or cultural context, or to relate to a new generation. 

"This goes back as far as things like The Magnificent Seven, which was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, transposing the same kind of story, but moving it from Japanese culture into American culture in the Wild West and making it something that American audiences could relate more to more.” 

Similarly, he praises the 2018 rendition of A Star Is Born for its ability to reboot a story that has been told three times before, with the 1937 original, followed by two remakes in 1954 and 1976. 

"This is a text that a lot of modern viewers wouldn't have been familiar with, particularly younger viewers. It's a film that takes two very well-known arts figures in Hollywood, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, puts them together in a story that works well and sits in the memory,” he says.  

“The music and the song ‘Shallow’ that got such huge airplay and won all the Grammys, that really helped, especially in an era of digital streaming and Spotify spreading it wider than it might have back in the 60s. A whole lot of factors went into making that film successful, on top of it just being very well-made.” 

While the first three iterations of A Star Is Born were separated by a couple of decades, more than 40 years passed between the final two releases. As far as the appropriate time to remake a film, Dr Comerford says that stories need time to breathe and settle into cultural memory, but overall, there is no hard and fast rule. 

“It’s a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question,” says Dr Comerford.  

“I don't think anyone's going to touch A Star Is Born for a long time, because the 2018 version made such an impact. Whereas you think about something like the Spider-Man films, where you go from having Andrew Garfield in 2014 to Spider-Man, and then two years later, remaking it with Tom Holland. Even though the Andrew Garfield films weren't very good, people were still scratching their heads going, you want to remake this already?” 

A scene of Dwight, Jim and Michael from The Office (US) TV show The Office (US) is widely considered to be one of the most successful television remakes of all time. Picture: YouTube

Fact versus fiction 

Of the ten films nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, four are based on true stories, including frontrunner Oppenheimer which already swept the Golden Globes with five wins from nine nominations.

Since 2022, more than 20 Oscar-nominated films were inspired by true events or real people, which Dr Comerford ascribes to our comfort with the familiar, but relays that there are complexities when it comes to making a good or a bad biopic.  

“Part of it again is asking how long it’s been since this person or event has had their moment. And while it’s not a hard and fast rule, stories about people who have passed away tend to do better critically. I’m thinking of things like The Crown – the last season was critically panned because most of those people in the season are still alive, like King Charles and the Princes, so it was seen as a bit tacky,” he says.  

“Then there’s things like Rocketman, where Elton John bankrolled this film and it was by all accounts a good movie but could also be seen as a little bit of a vanity piece, as opposed to Bohemian Rhapsody, where it's about Freddie Mercury and some of the deeper things that happened with him.” 

Similarly to remakes or reboots, Dr Comerford explains there must be meaningful intentions behind telling a true story, and making real-life protagonists out to be unparalleled heroes is not always the best approach. 

“I think not being afraid to show the warts and all approach of the person. Oppenheimer showed a very unflattering portrait of a very complicated man who did this amazing, horrific thing in creating the first atom bombs. It showed him as this incredibly intelligent man, but also plagued by his inability to connect to people, his infidelity to his wife, all these very haughty, egotistical, almost narcissistic qualities of him. It was a film that was very blunt, but nuanced in its portrayal of him, showing why he's so important, but also had all those layers.” 

While it may fall on deaf ears, Dr Comerford has some words of advice to Hollywood producers pitching their newest (or oldest) movie ideas. 

“Remember that it has to do something interesting. It has to update something. It has to be purposeful. It can't be there just because – and it can't just be the same but prettier, the way that the Disney remakes are,” he says. 

“If you're going to remake something, have some intent behind it, and really ask, just because I can, does that mean I should?”