Tobold's Blog
Saturday, July 22, 2023
Brand name recognition

Helistar said in a recent comment: "I find all this "let's revise old stuff" to be an insult to all modern authors. It basically sends a message that a reheated old story is better than anything modern authors can come up with.". I fully agree. And while thinking a bit more about it, it struck me how prevalent reheating old stuff is.

Just for example, the three video games I am and will be spending the most time with this summer are Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Jagged Alliance 3, and Baldur's Gate 3. These are all franchises that started in the 80's and 90's. In movies, we talked about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves from 1937, which happens to be also the birth year of DC Comics, with Marvel Comics being founded in 1939. How many movies have we seen over the last decade with superheroes from DC or Marvel that are decades old? The biggest movies this weekend are one about a doll from 1959, and one about a scientist during World War II. In politics, the average age of the two main candidates in the US presidential election of 2024 will most likely be 80 years old, both of them trying to reheat a previous term.

I think the problem is that the world is incredibly complex, and we as humans like to take shortcuts. Reheated old stuff profits from brand name recognition. When we see a Batman movie advertised, we recognize the brand name, and that is enough for us to know what the movie is about, more or less. That saves us from having to think or informing ourselves. There are some absolutely excellent comics from younger authors that have been published *this* century which would make great movies. But they don't have the name recognition, people wouldn't immediately know what they are about, and so Hollywood feels that they would make less money. Batman reheated from 1939 is a safer bet. Biden is a safer bet than Buttigieg. Trump is a safer bet than DeSantis. That doesn't make them the best possible presidential candidates the country has to offer, but it saves the voters from having to learn what a new guy is about. I just hope the parties realize that the probability of the next president dying of old age during the next term is over 25% (statistically speaking) and choose the vice presidential candidates a bit more carefully than usual.

Innovation isn't dead. Elon Musk is making billions with Tesla; but that is because he is on a new market, it is doubtful he would have had the same success if he had made cars with combustion engines. And new markets become settled with brands rather quickly: Even Mark Zuckerberg, in spite of endless money, an existing customer base, and lots of experience finds it hard to succeed with a new social network. Movies and video games are old markets now, and company executives are preferring the safe bets. And frankly, it isn't as if their customers are rejecting the reheated stuff. Nor are voters. So we probably deserve what we get.

It's not so much that Hollywood "feels" unfamiliar properties will make less money; it's that they *know* they will. For every breakout hit like The Greatest Showman or Sound of Freedom there are a slew of failures. Studios, especially the smaller ones, do keep trying to interest people in new properties but the cinema-going audience is extremely resistant to things it doesn't immediately recognize.

Another factor is that it's just much easier to come up with new versions of existing properties. After all, the lion's share of the work has already been done. The familiar isn't just easier to promote and market, it's easier to write and perform, too. Everyone knows who these characters are, how they behave, what their backstory is. It saves so much time and effort.

It's not even as if we're just talking about recycling relatively recent popular culture, either. As a bookseller, I can tell you one of the biggest themes in both adult and children's literature these last few years has been re-writing the Greek and Roman myths. Those pantheons have been strip-mined for stories and characters on an industrial scale and there's little sign of interest waning yet. People like to read and watch stories with characters they already at least vaguely recognize. Having to get the audience interested in anything they don't already know adds at least an order of magnitude to your chance of failure. It's no wonder most creators and producers don't want to take the risk.
An observation - a lot of this is due to the repeated extension of copyright duration. Under the original copyright terms, everything you mentioned would be in the public domain, instead of being tightly held by the descendants of the original creators (who had nothing whatsoever to do with the creative act) or worse, the corporations who bought those rights!

What's the incentive to create new stuff when you can milk existing stuff forever, with legal protection enforced by the federal government of the US? This has another stifling effect - if you actually do try to create new stuff, whether personally or as work for hire, you have to navigate a legal landmine to ensure your creation doesn't resemble anything already in existence whose rights are held by somebody with deep pockets. Even if they haven't done anything with those rights, and even if you genuinely had never heard of the previous intellectual property.

This is a terrible situation and as an individual human without deep pockets, I see nothing whatsoever I can do to improve the situation. We're stuck with recycling of old concepts that will enable cash to be generated somewhat reliably, and nobody has the right incentives to explore new concepts lest they be squashed and driven into bankruptcy.

Try and write a fantasy story about a mouse and see how long it takes to get stomped by the corporation that holds the rights to a different mouse that was created 1928. Hint - you'll receive a C&D letter as soon as you hit the publish key!

Anyway, I think this is the root of the problem you describe.
Perhaps with the writers strike, there will be more chance for breakthrough new content?
I also have the feeling that the complaint 'nothing new is created' is also as old as human culture.

The amount of new book, movie, and even videogame are the highest, and continue to increase every year.
Yes, the highest budget and highest revenue come from redoing the same with some small adjustement. But there are still some new idea in the more niches success, that sometime translate to an indie success, their creator becoming part of the major industry, and 20 years later, there is a high budget remake of this indie success and we complain nothing new is created.

For all the complaint about the Marvel movies ressembling each other, the idea of telling a story through ~20 movies is new and has never been tried before. Nolan is still creating new movie each time. Baldur's gate 3 story is new, and is coming from an indie developer. Among us was a huge success 3 years ago. THe 3 body problem book is quite imaginative and is a big success !

As long as I am still seeing good game/movies/book coming out each year, some very polished and some creative, I still believe the system is working from a customer standpoint.

Lastly, it make sense to redo old stories : if they stuck in our collective memory, it means they have a high value. They are a good basis to bring new idea and build a good book/movie/videogame/visual novel...
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