By Joe Longo
This is a big week for Hollywood. It is the unofficial start of “awards season” with the Toronto International Film Festival kicking off today and the Venice Film Festival continuing through September 12th. With this comes an onslaught of actors, directors and producers tirelessly pushing their respective films in hopes of finding a distributor. And these same actors gearing up for a heavy push to garner an Academy Award nomination for their nuanced performances. Matthew McConaughey strolled the Toronto red carpet in 2013 for Dallas Buyer’s Club, and Colin Firth did the same for The King’s Speech in 2010. Both actors portrayed real life characters and eventually won Best Actor Academy Awards for their performances. This pattern has frequented red carpets and film festivals in recent years as the mainstay to receive critical acclaim. Yet what has resulted is a concerning trend in which uniqueness and originality is replaced with redundancy and safety. Hollywood has lost its creativity.
Seven of the past eleven Best Actor Academy Award recipients have won for their portrayals of real men. Of the remaining four, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Daniel Day Lewis in Three Will Be Blood, and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland play fictional characters based loosely on actual people and events. The remaining completely original character actor is that Jean Dujardin in The Artist . While certainly not downplaying the intensity and credibility of these performances, there is a clear lack of original charactership. The academy (or movie studios depending on who one points blame) are in a rut and praise what is predictable and known. This year at the Toronto Film Festival alone Johnny Depp in Black Mass, Tom Hiddleston in I Saw The Light, Tom Hardy in Legend, Billy Bob Thornton in Our Brand is Crisis, Ben Foster in The Program, Michael Keaton in Spotlight, and Bryan Cranston in Trumbo all playing leading men in various biopics.
And then there is Oscar front runner The Danish Girl and the film’s leading man Eddie Redmayne. The Danish Girl, the retelling of the first transgender woman to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, stylistically echoes director Tom Hooper’s previous works Les Miserables and The King’s Speech. All three films are historical retellings of the lives of Europeans throughout various eras. Furthermore, Redmayne himself won last year’s Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in another historical biopic, The Theory of Everything. Certainly, Redmayne excelled in portraying Hawking down to his subtle mannerisms--and might do so again as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl--but this all reeks of familiarity. A template for acclaim has been set and followed repeatedly.
Notably, this creativity crisis inflicts all of Hollywood with endless remakes of successful films of past decades and constant reboots of classic superhero characters. According to writer and producer Stephen Follows, none of the top ten grossing films of 2014 were original. “This number grows to 13.3% of the films which placed 11th or 25th on the annual box office chart for US gross. However, on the lower half of the annual 100 (i.e. films placed between 51st and 100th), over half were ‘truly original’,” Fellows said. He notes that while original filmmaking is rampant in lesser known movies, big budget Hollywood is afraid to embrace such creativity. “In 2005, almost a quarter of the money spent on the top 10 grossing films went to ‘truly original’ movies,” Fellows said. “In both 2011 and 2012, this had dropped to just 7.8% of the box office gross and in both 2013 and 2014 it was 0%.”
While it can be justified that creativity no longer makes money and drives ticket sales, that does not mean the focus should be on established, understood storytelling. Interestingly, according to Hypable.com, the two biggest flops of the 2015 summer were regurgitated material. Tomorrowland, based loosely off of Walt Disney’s idea of a utopia and EPCOT, has an expected loss of $120 million-$150 million. Coming in second was the much plagued Fantastic Four reboot expecting to lose $80 million-$100 million. So maybe the already understood isn’t known to succeed. The filmmakers of the upcoming the 2017 reboot of Spider-man, the third reimagining in a fifteen year span for the web-slinging superhero, should take note.
While it is important to depict a variety of stories in films, including historical events and persons, creativity has been sacrificed for commerce. The filmmaking process, and the academies that award their work, should champion originality. Let go of the mundane, repetitive storytelling and embrace the beauty of newness. Afterall all these reboots and retelling were once fresh and unique stories.