For fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional creation, 2017 is a year for celebration, as Sherlock Holmes celebrates 130 years of existence and relevance within popular culture. Certainly, these very same fans will have no shortage of ways to pay their tribute. They could watch any of the 100+ episodes of Elementary, or the four series of Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat’s acclaimed BBC adaptation Sherlock, or any of the 70+ film adaptations of his stories, including the billion-dollar franchise starring Robert Downey Jr.
But while Sherlock Holmes is not only still relevant, but a wildly successful character, the success of his various revivals has had a strange, yet not entirely unexpected effect, as Hollywood has fervently—and expensively—begun resurrecting properties from yesteryear. To be honest, Doyle’s character isn’t solely to blame for this trend, as the success of the big screen Star Trek revivals and the more obscure characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be equally attributed to these revivals as well. Nevertheless, these properties, many of which have been dormant since before most millennials were even born, have been making their way to our multiplexes and television screens. The results haven’t been pretty.
In all fairness, the first example of a golden-era property returning post-Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was a critical and commercial hit—the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit, a 40-year-old western property in which Jeff Bridges put a surly, eccentric spin on John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn. That very same year, however, the flip side of that coin was The Wolfman, Universal’s update on George Waggner’s nearly 70-year-old monster movie with Benicio del Toro filling in Lon Chaney Jr.’s iconic shoes as Laurence Talbot. The film, which suffered from a very public troubled production, was a commercial and critical failure, one which Universal president and COO Ron Meyer later described as “awful.”
In the years since, one only needs to look at the numbers to see how U.S. audiences have welcomed these classic property revivals:
The Adventures of Tintin (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Property Age: 82 Years
Budget: $135 Million; domestic gross: $77 million
The Three Musketeers (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson)
Property Age: 167 Years
Budget: $75 Million; domestic gross: $20 million
The Green Hornet (dir. Michel Gondry)
Property Age: 75 Years
Budget: $120 Million; domestic gross: $98 million
Dark Shadows (dir. Tim Burton)
Property Age: 46 Years
Budget: $150 Million; domestic gross: $79 million
John Carter (dir. Andrew Stanton)
Property Age: 100 Years
Budget: $250 Million; domestic gross: $73 million
Jack the Giant Slayer (dir. Bryan Singer)
Property Age: 302 Years
Budget: $195 Million; domestic gross: $65 million
The Lone Ranger (dir. Gore Verbinski)
Property Age: 80 Years
Budget: $215 Million; domestic gross: $89 million
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (dir. Guy Ritchie)
Property Age: 51 Years
Budget: $75 Million; domestic gross: $45 million
Pan (dir. Joe Wright)
Property Age: 113 Years
Budget: $150 Million; domestic gross: $35 million
Ben-Hur (dir. Timur Bekmambetov)
Property Age: 136 Years
Budget: $100 Million; domestic gross: $26.4 million
There’s one constant to the above figures that should stand out: the involvement of significant filmmakers. There’s no denying the cultural influence of directors such as Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton, while Gore Verbinski, Guy Ritchie, Bryan Singer and Paul W.S. Anderson are all associated with huge movie franchises. Stanton, a longstanding Pixar filmmaker behind titles such as Finding Nemo and WALL-E went on to follow John Carter with Finding Dory, which garnered over a billion dollars worldwide last year. And filmmakers such as Joe Wright and Michel Gondry were both acclaimed directors, whose previous studio film experiences yielded fantastic results—Gondry won an Academy Award for his screenwriting on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind while Wright’s adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement were worldwide successes.
So what would attract these filmmakers towards these outdated properties? For some, the logical answer would be admiration for the source material. Spielberg had secured the rights for Tintin in 1984 after discovering the comics from a review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, while Stanton used his influence within Disney to regain the rights for and develop John Carter. For others, the answer is opportunity. Gondry came aboard The Green Hornet following Stephen Chow’s abrupt departure from the project, while both Burton and Verbinski were courted for their respective projects due to their working relationship with star Johnny Depp. And in some cases, the answer would be the potential for success. By getting a massive budget and filling familiar properties with contemporary spectacle, these films could seize a grip around the burgeoning international marketplace, and a big studio hit could allow them to do something more intimate and risky down the line.
In the case of the latter, that idea wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. With a few exceptions, international audiences did help at least recoup production and marketing budgets, if not pull in an unsubstantial profit. For those unfamiliar, the worldwide marketplace has become a deciding factor for Hollywood in recent years, with CGI-driven spectacle overriding aspects such as star power and story to bring huge cash. In fact, it’s wholly possible these days that international appeal could not only save a film that was a domestic disappointment but even lead the studio to produce a sequel to capitalize on that audience.
But even with a financial safety net in place, there was still one specific problem: U.S. audiences, specifically younger moviegoers, simply were not connecting with these properties. On the one hand, older audiences who may recognize these properties and make up a large percentage of habitual moviegoers might be turned off by the lack of artistry and the overabundance of big-budget action. On the other hand, younger audiences who are unfamiliar with these properties might not understand their original and fundamental appeal.
Even more curious is that there is evidence that old properties can exist and flourish, but often under very particular circumstances. For instance, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an incredibly successful reboot of a 40-year-old property, yet the film also proved that a motion capture lead performance could reasonably anchor a summer blockbuster. Likewise, the 51-year-old Mission: Impossible franchise has found new life and great fortune on the big screen with the draw of Tom Cruise’s larger-than-life stunt work, particularly in the most recent two efforts. Films like La La Land and The Artist have been commercial and critical darlings, proving that old-fashioned entertainment can be ambitiously replicated and still find resonance with modern audiences.
Though it may be easy to write-off the revival of outdated properties as a further marginalization of domestic audiences, the truth is a bit more complicated. As much as the future of the studio system lies in foreign markets, any failure—critical or commercial—is still a public relations nightmare for a studio, and with social media allowing news to spread without all the facts, disregarding a disappointing domestic performance is almost impossible. And with the studio system being as incestuous as it is, turning down a reboot of a classic property whose rights are owned by a powerful producer or filmmaker could have serious professional ramifications down the road.
The future also doesn’t show the trend of potentially disastrous reboots slowing down either. While Kong: Skull Island, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Blade Runner 2049, and Murder on the Orient Express are scheduled to hit theaters this year, even more are set for the future. Robin Hood: Origins, A Wrinkle in Time, Mary Poppins Returns and A Star is Born are all scheduled for 2018 and beyond. Whether audiences will embrace or ignore these titles, only time will tell.
What can be said, however, is that there may be greater stakes at hand than just the financial viability of classic properties—they might decide the futures of specific genres as well. In Hollywood, genres such as westerns, medieval epic and science-fiction are already considered inherently risky, and for every success, there are often costly failures. So when films like The Magnificent Seven, Ben-Hur, and John Carter all fall short of expectations, the consequences could lead to exciting, original tales within those genres being sidelined by the studio system.
So, if prestigious filmmakers, sky-high budgets, and humongous advertising campaigns can’t get U.S. audiences to care about these golden age properties, is there anything that can? The simple answer is yes, but the most logical solution is somewhat of a Catch-22.
As evident from Sherlock, Elementary, Hawaii Five-O, Westworld, Doctor Who, The Odd Couple, and Bates Motel, properties of yesteryear have a strong critical and commercial appeal on the small screen. And with more on the way, reboots of The Honeymooners and Lost in Space among them, domestic audiences seem more interested in the opportunity to see a pre-existing property grow through a modern lens. However, by doing so, serialized adaptations prevent the rights-owners from exploiting the foreign market, potentially depriving them of the overseas profits associated with the blockbuster film adaptations.
Perhaps the most logical way of reintroducing these properties on the big screen would be the least practical for Hollywood: intimacy. By turning its focus on character and story rather than production values and over-the-top action, might have Dark Shadows played closer to Shadow of the Vampire or What We Do in the Shadows? Had The Man from U.N.C.L.E. traded Guy Ritchie for a less commercial filmmaker, might we have gotten something closer to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or John Wick? Would The Green Hornet have had more gas in the tank if they went a more grounded, hard-hitting route, a la Unbreakable or Jack Reacher?
At the end of the day, perhaps the future of these classic properties is one that should be decided by demand. After all, who was clamoring for a ridiculously expensive reboot of The Lone Ranger or a bloated retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk? If the opportunity presents itself as something that feels right, not only with the associated talent but in the current age of storytelling, then maybe U.S. audiences will pay top dollar to see a new chapter of an old tale. But digging up the past for indifferent audiences is a recipe for disaster, and should international crowds wise up in a similar fashion, these golden oldies will rust up for good, taking careers, genres, and studio reputations down with them.