Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
In many ways, Christmas as an adult is like Groundhog Day. You roll out of bed far earlier than you’d prefer, and for the most part, the 12 hours that follow are a comforting, but largely predictable rerun, of Christmases past: presents, shower, walk, food, sofa, TV. The same terrible TV.
Speaking of which, “Love Actually” is back early this year. This week, ABC aired a sit-down with the cast and Diane Sawyer to reflect on 20 years of the omnipresent Christmas classic. The cast offered their answers to the infernal question, “Love actually is…?” and Hugh Grant reiterated his disgust at that dance scene. Richard Curtis exhibited some remorse for the film’s lack of diversity, but none for the movie’s suggestion that a prime minister removing a member of staff who’s been a victim of sexual harrassment is actually very romantic, as long as they later hunt that person down and hijack a school nativity to make out with them.
The casual observer might wonder what fresh ground such a special might have hoped to cover. Twenty years deep into its monopoly over Christmas viewing, “Love Actually” has already been picked apart from every angle, both by lovers of its cloying charms and by people like me.
Per usual though, wherever “Love Actually” surfaces, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. In this instance, it’s a simple one: Hollywood won’t quit mining our collective nostalgia and invests so heavily in revisiting the same, tired material that fresh movies and shows get overshadowed.
This isn’t just a Christmas problem. The nostalgia loop has seen rehash after rehash come to dominate our screens all year round. Bloated franchises like James Bond, Marvel, “Fast & Furious” and “Star Wars” have become the backbone of our streaming services, but they’re also drowning out lesser-known standalone content.
Disney+ is packed with literally dozens of “Star Wars” and Marvel movies, spinoff series, specials and cartoons. Head to Netflix, and you’ll find “Wednesday,” the latest Addams Family confection topping its TV programs roster, and Amazon Prime just dropped nearly half a billion dollars on the underwhelming first season of its “Lord of The Rings” prequel. Popular shows that have the sense to end often inspire sentimental cast reunions – see also: “Harry Potter” and “Friends.” (Those reunions aired on HBO, which shares a parent company with CNN.)
Many of the most successful classics are reanimated years later, bringing back old cast members, or fitting themselves with newer models. As a result, movie theaters and streaming services are crammed with familiar characters, settings, tropes and storylines. It’s understandable – if a show or film already has an established fan base that near-guarantees it’ll turn a profit, why not wring it out for every possible dollar? Well, because eventually, you’ll run it – and the rest of the industry – into the ground. Director James Cameron recently admitted that “Avatar: The Way of Water” will need to bring in $2 billion just to break even, perhaps the starkest illustration to date of how weighted investment has become in favor of familiar ideas.
Mark Twain said (with a debt to Ecclesiastes 1:9) there’s no such thing as a new idea, and Christopher Booker insists there are just seven basic plots. To some extent, Hollywood has always borne this out. From bringing Broadway classics to the big screen in the 1940s and 1950s, to the 2010s practice of eking out the final installment of every blockbuster series by splitting it into two movies, the movie industry has never been shy to fall back on tried and tested formulas.
Unfortunately for the studios, this strategy has a shelf life, and the franchise merry-go-round has become so labored in recent years that even its most prominent stars are hopping off. Daniel Craig cemented the end of his tenure as James Bond with no room for ambiguity by seeing his character blown up at the end of “No Time To Die,” and after a decade playing Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. has vowed never to return.
Even the most delicious meal becomes less enticing if eaten too often, and the most affecting song less moving if you listen to it on repeat. Hollywood’s blueprint for success has worn thin, and it looks more frayed by comparison whenever a spark of originality makes it through the cracks.
This contrast has been particularly evident in horror. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019) pulled in far more dollars at the box office than the latest offerings from the “Halloween” and “Scream” series, not least because of their daring, slightly satirical style, which proved far more intriguing to audiences than the revamped blockbusters. The slightly muted reaction to “Nope” (2022), Peele’s latest, was the first indication that viewers are becoming used to his signature flourishes. More than any other genre, horror depends on its ability to shock and surprise its fans. Innovation can bring huge rewards, but too often, the risk involved puts filmmakers off.
Hollywood is clearly anxious about pouring cash into untested material, but untested material outside Hollywood continues to shine. French comedy-drama series “Call My Agent” (2015), South Korean comedy thriller “Parasite” (2019), British drama miniseries “It’s A Sin” (2021) and German period mystery series “1899” (2022) all proved a hit with audiences, despite their lack of superheroes or mega-famous names in lead roles.
It’s practically impossible for art to avoid derivation, but the danger comes when a single concept is recycled wholesale ad infinitum, led by the same directors, starring the same faces, telling the same story. Inevitably, it will lose its magic. And when the concept wasn’t that magical to begin with, revisiting it becomes excruciating.
Just watch Hugh Grant’s face whenever that “Love Actually” dance scene is mentioned. It couldn’t be clearer that given the choice, he’d choose a 007-scale explosion over ever having to hear a note of “Jump (For My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters again.