By Scott Bowles and Andrea Fuller
Elysium has the kind of pedigree that screams summer blockbuster: a nine-digit budget, Oscar-winning stars and a young director who was nominated for an Oscar with his last original screenplay, 2009's District 9.
The sci-fi thriller, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster and directed by Neill Blomkamp, opens nationwide Friday and would seem poised for box-office success. But this season has been brutal on originality. And as much as moviegoers claim they want fresh stories, they are plunking down less money on them than ever and embracing sequels, remakes and spinoffs instead.
A Gannett/USA TODAY analysis of more than two decades of summer box-office receipts finds that Hollywood has never been more derivative. Among the top 20 summer films dating to 1993:
• Original films accounted for just 39% of box office from 2003-12, down from 65% in the prior 10 years.
• So far this summer, original stories account for just 30% of ticket sales.
• Original movies accounted for less than half (47%) of the top summer releases from 2003-12, down from 70% the decade prior.
This summer has been particularly stingy with big-budget original films. The $135 million animated comedy Turbo has mustered just $70 million. Pacific Rim, the $190 million monster movie, has done $94 million. And the $150 million White House Downremains in the red with a box office haul of $72 million.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska and author of several books on Hollywood, says studios and fans share equal blame for the dearth of new stories.
"Films today routinely cost $100 to $200 million, and with that kind of money at stake, who has time for originality? It's much safer to bank on a profitable franchise."
And Dixon places viewer blame squarely on the shoulders of fanboys - particularly those who have made San Diego's Comic-Con a pop media Woodstock.
"Filmmaking today seems driven by the Comic-Con fan base, and that's the sure sign of the kiss of death for anything even remotely out of the ordinary," he says, noting the genre's dependency on serialized writing. "Comic-book movies have moved to the mainstream, displacing more thoughtful, adult fare."
But Robert McKee, a screenwriting lecturer whose character was portrayed in the Nicolas Cage film Adaptation, says the criticism of sequels is film "snobbery."
Sequels "have always been around," he says. "Homer's Odyssey is the sequel to The Iliad. Shakespeare turned sequels into trilogies. Audiences love sequels because they get hooked on a character like Odysseus in the first story and want to enjoy him again and again."
More importantly, he says, "hits don't steal audiences from other films. No one who would have seen The Place Beyond the Pines went to see Iron Man 3 instead. If they liked good movies, they saw both."
That will be the ultimate measure of the $115 million Elysium.
"Original story or not, this could be big," says Jeff Bock, vice president of Exhibitor Relations. "It has a hot director and puts Matt Damon against the world, a role fans love. Stars still go a long way in this business."