BYU professors discuss impact of remakes, sequels on pop culture

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Collage entitled “Remakes and Sequels” showcases a man from the 40s, 3D glasses, an old time film strip, ripped book page and an upside down landscape. Remakes can showcase a different, less traditional type of creativity. (Made in Canva by Julia Orellana-Funes)

BYU professors with expertise in pop culture, humanities and media arts weighed in on the impact of remakes and sequels in film and TV.

Scott Church, associate professor in the BYU School of Communications, said remakes and sequels have a few reasons for success. They are usually part of a franchise and are therefore a proven monetary commodity and that people gravitate toward what is familiar as a way to help funnel out excess information, he said.

“Not only are they proven commodities, they’re familiar and generate a lot of buzz and hype,” Church said. “Because they belong to that proven commodity franchise and you throw in nostalgia on top of that, then you create this perfect formula for generating a lot of dollars.”

The Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise has produced 44 movies — several of which have sequels and spin-off TV shows — and grossed over $27 billion since “Iron Man” in 2008, as shown by The Numbers.

According to Statisticbrain, Star Wars made just over $10 billion in box office sales, $69.4 billion total if including merchandise, books and TV revenue, among other categories since 1977.

“Pokemon,” a popular Japanese anime that has five major remakes, has grossed $118 billion worldwide, including video games, merchandise and box office revenue together according to Statistica.

This graphic shows the gross earnings of major entertainment industries in 2022. Experts say remakes and sequels are popular because they are familiar and produce nostalgia. (Made in Canva by Julia Orellana-Funes)

Robert Colson, a self proclaimed pop culture nerd and BYU professor in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program, with a focus on literature and film, said nostalgia played a huge role in the popularity of sequels and remakes. He said it is human to gravitate toward the familiar, and though there is not anything inherently wrong with rewatching or rereading books and movies, Colson pointed out the importance of leaving the comfort zone to explore new ideas.

“I do think a lot of people don’t want to be challenged or expanded in terms of what they consume, like in the books that they read or the media that they watch or anything like that,” Colson said. “And so they just want to seek out the familiar because it feels safe and it’s not going to challenge their worldview or their experience.”

Also speaking on the nostalgia factor, Benjamin Thevenin, BYU associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Media Arts, compared the allure of watching remakes and sequels to that of wanting to reconnect with an old friend. He explained that this nostalgia encourages us to go to the movie theater or watch on streaming platforms. 

“But beyond the box office, the success of remakes in terms of their storytelling, artistry or the ideas they communicate to their audiences entirely depends on the particular movie or TV series,” Thevenin said. 

One example is the “Blade Runner” sequel, “Blade Runner 2049,” which bombed at the box office, losing upward of $80 million but retaining an 8/10 score on Rotten Tomatoes and an eight on IMDb. The film won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography and Best Achievement in Visual Effects among others.

Thevenin said he sometimes compares remakes to folk and fairy tales from the past. He said it was common for stories to get passed down from one generation to another in oral tradition, but an important aspect was that every retelling of a fairy tale modified the original story in a way that added new flavor to what would otherwise be stale and exhausted.

“Each time the stories were retold, the storytellers would put their own spin on them, infusing the tales with their own ideas or questions or style,” Thevenin said. “But with today’s remakes, it’s not the public taking the story of Pinocchio and infusing it with our own creativity.”

Thevenin said it is an overstatement to say sequels, remakes and reboots are ruining creativity, as he liked “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse.” He believes balance is key.

“We also need original stories,” Thevenin said. “A culture that promotes creativity doesn’t just revisit the same stories over and over again, it draws upon these existing traditions while also introducing new ideas and perspectives into the mix.”

Church said remakes and sequels are still harnessing creativity, though of a different kind; a creative can go the invention route, pulling something from thin air and shaping it into something new, or they can take something already existing and make it feel new. 

“There’s also another side of creativity or the rhetorical canon, which is arrangement, and that side says that you’re not creating new content, but you are taking material that’s out there and re-conceptualizing it and reshaping it,” Church said. “This is an evolution in what creativity is and can be.”

In terms of the impact movies and TV shows have on creativity, Church said he could empathize with the alarmist who would argue that over doing remakes and sequels hurts creativity. Church also spoke to the process aspiring creatives go through, who first copy before finding their own footing in the creative space. 

“All the best creatives start out as fans first, so with that heavy media consumption, not only are they being entertained, they’re also mentally filing away,” Church said. “So ideally, watching that is motivating them to try to create something like it in the future or even surpass it.”

Colson said there is no need to feel bad about repeatedly consuming similar media, speaking to the likes of Shakespeare and Tolkien who drew on old stories and mythology to create something new. 

“Humans for centuries have made entertaining new stories and new songs and new movies. We can make new stuff, even if it draws on old stuff, but maybe it doesn’t all have to be like superheroes,” Colson said.

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