Several years ago, a friend who is a Hollywood screenwriter complained that studio executives were always telling him they only wanted to make movies that were “pre-sold.”
By that, the suits meant they favored green-lighting films that were known quantities, reassuringly familiar, the cinematic equivalent of Heinz Ketchup and Ford Mustang. Simply by hearing and seeing the title — say The Terminator 3 or Die Harder — potential moviegoers could easily grasp what to expect at the multiplex.
Translation: Forget about original scripts for sophisticated, adult dramas; they're tough to market and require solid reviews to attract an audience. The popularity of the “pre-sold” concept goes a long way toward explaining present day Hollywood’s excessive enthusiasm for remakes, reboots and sequels, as well as films based on comic books and TV series.
The pre-sold notion may have reached its tipping point with this week’s release of The Amazing Spider-Man. The movie, an origins story, tells how geeky teenager Peter Parker became the web-slinging superhero, Spider-Man.
It arrives in theaters a mere decade after Spider-Man, which told exactly the same story and starred Tobey Maguire. Sequels to the 2002 Spider-Man followed in 2004 and 2007; together, the three films raked in more than $2 billion at the box office worldwide.
Why the rush to reboot the franchise, given that it’s only five short years since Maguire’s masked, crime-fighting teenager swung high above New York’s streets?
Reason No. 1: Maguire, now 37, was getting old for the role and, more to the point, expensive. His salary would have climbed exponentially if he starred in Spider-Man 4 and 5.
Reason No. 2: Spider-Man 3 was bloated and less beloved by critics than the first two films. So why not just start all over again?
Reason No. 3: Rebooting worked with Batman Begins (2005), a movie that came out only eight years after Batman & Robin (1997), the fourth and final film of the original Caped Crusader film series. (Then again, rebooting failed ignominiously for Superman in 2006’s Superman Returns. It came out nearly three decades after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was Christopher Reeve’s final appearance wearing the red cape. Yet another Superman reboot, Man of Steel, starring British hunk Henry Cavill, opens next year.)
Reason No. 4: Many of today’s prime moviegoers were still sucking on pacifiers when the 2002 Spider-Man opened. They’re ready and pumped for their own version and — this is key — to buy the action figures, T-shirts, video games and DVDs.
Sadly, the new Spider-Man is neither different enough from the original nor technically such a great leap forward as to warrant the reboot. The film is at its most appealing when Andrew Garfield, the gangly British-American star who plays Spider-Man, is making moon eyes at Emma Stone, the appealing young actress cast as his classmate and love interest.
When the movie swings into action mode and Spidey makes like an urban Tarzan, soaring through Manhattan’s canyons of skyscrapers, or battles the movie’s villainous scientist-turned-lizard (Rhys Ifans), it rapidly grows tedious. In those scenes, this Spider-Man is like every other comic book superhero movie of the past couple of decades, including Iron Man, The Avengers, Green Lantern, Daredevil, Fantastic Four and way too many more. Enough already.
Part of one’s frustration with this new, unnecessary Spider-Man and Hollywood’s relentless embrace of reboots, remakes and sequels has to do with age. Those of us with some wear on our tires have already been there and seen that — far too often. These movies are old hat, or in the case of superhero extravaganzas, old mask or musty cape.
Which is not to say that revisiting well-trod celluloid stomping grounds is inherently bad. It’s not, provided a filmmaker has a fresh approach or wants to drill deeper. Francis Ford Coppola topped himself when he made The Godfather: Part II, adding richness and complexity to characters he had introduced in the first film. (The less said about The Godfather: Part III, the better.) The Harry Potter films, released between 2001 and 2011, had more than enough story to justify eight films, plus Harry and his pals grew up before our eyes (just as Daniel Radcliffe and crew became ever better actors).
It does, however, seem the height of commercial cynicism to make a movie merely because filmgoers already know the title character, or because there are still dollars to be wrung from additional, pointless sequels. Really, people, does anyone here ever want to sit through yet another Pirates of the Caribbean flick?
The good news? Many of these supposedly “pre-sold” movies are so lousy that audiences are catching on and staying away. Several recent regurgitated releases, including such expensive retreads as Men in Black 3, Dark Shadows and Battleship (the last familiar to moviegoers because it took its title from a popular board game), have underperformed — or outright bombed — at the box office.
With luck, Hollywood is finally getting the message that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. But don’t rejoice too fast: Sony Pictures just announced that it plans to make at least two sequels to The Amazing Spider-Man.
Me? I’m buying bug spray.