Death of the new

Without the benefit of hindsight, we can only begin to guess how the decade from 2000 to 2009 will be remembered. In Hollywood, though, enough quantifiable trends have emerged that it doesn't seem hasty to label the Oh-Ohs with such pejorative descriptors as the Recycled Decade, or, How I Stopped Creating and Learned to Love the Adaptation.

Looking at the tallies of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of each year from 2001 to 2009, the lists are littered with sequels, prequels, remakes, franchise films or adaptations of books and graphic novels. 

In nearly every year of the '00s, seven of the 10 biggest moneymakers fall under this umbrella, with only 30 percent arising from new, original screenplays. The decade's nadir was 2007, in which only one movie in the top 10 was a true original, and it was about an animated rodent chef.

The data isn't surprising, but it's certainly depressing for those of us who value creativity in the movies. We have just completed the first decade in the Death of the New.

I say it's the first decade because, while the '90s had its share of recycled movies, they were largely in the minority of popular ticket sales. In 1997 and 1998, for instance, just 20 percent of the top 10 box-office draws were adaptations, sequels or remakes. Going back further, the numbers are even greater for original screenplays; the '70s were arguably the American cinema's most innovative decade ever, and though the '80s may have been a creatively moribund cesspool in Hollywood, at least most of the lame stories were new ones.

While I usually abhor talk of box-office grosses — leaving it to the business insiders at Variety and Inside Edition to ponder the films' fiduciary merits — these numbers are too important to ignore. They suggest that Hollywood is intent on resting on the laurels of previous accomplishments and the accomplishments of others, just as the influx of talk and reality shows throughout the decade have successfully eliminated the need for original, innovative network television.

There's a chicken-or-the-egg debate here. Which came first, the supply or the demand? Did producers force these movies upon us, or did audiences crave them? If a masterpiece screens in the woods, will anyone see it?

Certainly, studios deserve the brunt of criticism for selecting the laziest projects imaginable. Why take a chance on an unknown idea when Superman and James Bond have built-in audiences and J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown are spoon-feeding screenwriters with movie-friendly source material? Hollywood's idea trough is so empty that the concept of revisiting The Graduate decades later, suggested in Robert Altman's prescient 1992 satire The Player, would actually be an improvement over swill like The Phantom Menace and Mission: Impossible II.

But audiences are far from blameless. When Bill Maher controversially called America a stupid country earlier this year, he was speaking partly of our popular culture, of which movies are a significant facet. There's a reason these mass-audience movies rarely receive Oscar nominations aside from the good ol' Sound Effects Editing award. It's because most of them suck, yet teenage audiences — the ones with the most disposable income — line up around blocks to turn their brains off for two (and sometimes three, in the more egregious cases) hours.

But most of all, I blame Osama bin Laden. It's no surprise the marked shift toward comfort cinema surged in 2001, the year of 9/11. 

News only worsened throughout the rest of the decade, from one Bush administration debacle to another — the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 recession, you name it. In depressing times, people escape, retreating to familiar products they know they'll love. Some wonderful socially conscious movies were made during, and about, the Great Depression, for instance, but nobody wanted to see pictures like Lewis Milestone's Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow or even Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. They sought musicals, adventures, historical epics and other diversions.

Similarly, filmmakers this decade have poured their souls into films that address the problems of the day, but it should be no surprise when movies like In the Valley of Elah, Redacted and W. turn in minuscule box-office receipts. It's perfectly consistent with film history: Audiences want fantasy, not truth. You wouldn't know it by the numbers, but it's been a vital decade for activist documentaries, with Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, No End in Sight, Standard Operating Procedure and Taxi to the Dark Side hoping to contribute to larger debates about war, climate change and torture. Too bad they fell on the same small audience of ears and eyes that already agree with them.

There was one genre in the '00s that managed to thrive both artistically and commercially: animated children's films. In those top-10 box-office tallies from this decade, Pixar films are almost alone in their complete originality, stunning examples of instant crossover classics for adults and children, audiences and critics, the masses and the cinephiles.

I would speculate that only a small handful of Hollywood movies from the '00s will be remembered decades later — even now, just try and remember the nine films that have taken the Best Picture Oscar, and chances are you'll have to Google the answers. Who can blame you? A Beautiful Mind, Chicago and Crash are as disposable as the decade's big box-office draws.

I'd bet Magnolia, Requiem for a Dream, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Departed and the Lord of the Rings trilogy will stand the test of time, and we'll always have Pixar. But that old cliché — "they don't make 'em like they used to" — has never been more appropriate than when considering this decade's movies.

Let's hope the Death of the New we've witnessed in the last 10 years is not a death so much as a short-lived blight on film history — and that the hope and change we voted for last year extends into our cinemas.

John Thomason is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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