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Superheroes Won’t Save Hollywood

The 2023 box office finished billions behind expected earnings. Is it superhero fatigue or indicative of a larger problem - a lack of original content? Henry Cavill stars as Superman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

The Big Risk, Big Loss Gamble on Intellectual Property

Hollywood was once a town that valued original ideas, but decades of feckless executives hedging their bets led to an overreliance on rehashed ideas in the form of endless sequels, prequels, and reboots. But this system isn’t working, and the 2023 box office finished billions of dollars behind pre-pandemic earnings.  Some blame superhero fatigue, but this trend is indicative of a larger problem: a perceived lack of original content. But there is a better way forward, and thousands of potential award-winning scripts just waiting to be produced. This all begs the question: Why are so many films based on other media? More importantly, is it good business? 


In the simplest terms, intellectual property, or IP for short, refers to any material based on something else. This often means movies or shows that are based on books, graphic novels, video games, or podcasts, but to a lesser extent, include songs, blogs, short stories, and even toys. While biopics, movies, or shows about a person aren’t always based on IP, they are often adaptations of books based on a person’s life. Oppenheimer is a good example of this, as it was based on a book called American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film producers optioned the rights to the book, so while the film is about Oppenheimer, the man, the film presumably draws strongly from the underlying source material and so is, therefore, an adaptation. 

But relying on intellectual property as a strong, underlying foundation for a show or movie isn’t without inherent risk all its own. While a great majority of films released by the major Hollywood studios, in particular, those that dominate the cineplexes, are based on things like comic books or already existing franchises, just as many of these fail as they succeed. An article on thewrap.com from early January 2024, written by Jeremy Fuster, presented a curated list of some of the year’s top successes and misfires. What is crystal clear reading through the list is that there were no foolproof entries, and superhero movies, in particular, aren’t as invulnerable as they once were. 

According to boxofficemojo.com, of the top ten films at the domestic box office in 2023, only one of them (number ten on the list, Sound of Freedom) wasn’t based on any underlying source material. Looking back twenty years to 2003, that list doubles and includes gems like Bruce Almighty and Elf. And if one were to time travel back forty years to 1983, the list quadruples to an impressive eight films occupying the top ten slots being based on original ideas! So, there was a time when original ideas were valued and profitable. Keep in mind that these are domestic totals, not worldwide totals; this skews in favor of what Americans were interested in seeing, first and foremost. 


Gambling can be exciting – putting everything on the table, hoping with a spin of the wheel your fortunes will change, but when a player bets big, they can lose big, and when movies fail in Hollywood, heads roll: executives’ heads, that is. Executives in development are charged with taking a project from its earliest inception and seeing it developed by a writer or, in many cases, writers. These executives seek to protect their jobs by mitigating risks, which often starts by acquiring highly outsourced IP. But that’s only the start.

Capitalizing on IP often begins with OWA’s or open writing assignments; the studio has acquired the rights to produce a film or series based on a book, graphic novel, game, podcast, or toy, licensing a well-known commodity based on its already established client base. Tracking-board.com has an OWA  category that tracks some projects being farmed out in the industry. In April of 2023, a notice went up about Harry Potter; MAX was looking for a writer/showrunner to develop Harry Potter as a TV series. That series, when it airs in 2025, will have a massive, ready, built-in fan base, from kids to adults, readers and moviegoers alike. 

But big properties mean big expenses to acquire the rights and produce the licensed property. According to a Forbes article from 2017, Amazon Studios paid 250 million dollars to acquire the right to the Lord of the Rings franchise to develop a five-season limited series, one of the most expensive franchise licensing agreements in the history of entertainment. This was before production costs, of course, and even amortized, the show is estimated to cost over 750 million dollars all in. Worse, this deal wasn’t even exclusive. 

According to an article on Polygon.com from August 2022, Swedish gaming conglomerate Embracer has acquired Middle-Earth Enterprises, the Zaentz Company subsidiary that owns the rights to Tolkien’s works. Questions immediately start to creep up – if Embracer licensed rights to another company, which then developed a movie based on the same lore, perhaps an origin story for Galadriel, which media’s lore would be accepted as canonical? In the Star Wars franchise, the term ‘legends’ applies to any property not officially part of the accepted Star Wars canon, and there are a lot of properties deemed legends.  

Fans invest time, energy, and money into supporting these franchises, and when they are jerked around, they often feel resentment towards the studios that develop these properties and are not shy about sharing their dissatisfaction on social media forums.


According to an article on No Film School titled “How to Write an Adapted Screenplay,” there is a predominant theory “… that people are more likely to tune into something they know or are familiar with vs. new, original ideas.” But if that theory held water, why are box office revenues in slow decline? The answer, of course, isn’t simple. Overspending is often cited, with movie budgets ballooning to hundreds of millions of dollars and many movies failing to make even their production costs back, let alone marketing and distribution revenue.  

According to “The 6 Graphs You Need to See to Understand the Economics of Awful Blockbuster Movies,” a 2013 Article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson, “…the economics of betting a lot of money on a few loud movies a year are tantalizingly clear.”

That article was written just after the major commercial disappointment of The Lone Ranger, and to fully appreciate how different the world was even just a little over a decade ago, Armie Hammer was the hero, Johnny Depp played a Native American, and the film cost a quarter of a billion dollars. Hollywood didn’t learn its lesson then, and it’s still making the same mistakes today, only bigger and more expensive than ever.

Of course, high cost isn’t the only reason films aren’t breaking even these days. Gen Z isn’t the movie-going crowd that previous generations were, according to a 2015 study from the Motion Picture Association of America enticingly titled “2015 Theatrical Market Statistics,” with the average moviegoer seeing less than ten films a year in theaters, down from the early oughts when moviegoers would see more than twenty films a year in theaters. Other commonly cited reasons for a steady decline include the relative ease of other forms of entertainment, be that streaming from the comfort of a coach or podcasts on the go; people just have more options to amuse themselves than ever before. 

The selection at theatres has also steadily declined as the studios have pushed tentpole blockbusters ahead while eschewing smaller, character-driven films, which often see limited theatrical distribution or day-and-date releases. Add to that inflation, ballooning home costs (and thus, less cash on hand), and the rising cost of going to the movies, and, yeah, it’s no surprise people aren’t turning out in droves anymore. 


This doesn’t go to say all IP is bad. There are a lot of good reasons why Hollywood waters at the same hole time and again. 

Big Money/Proven Track Record – Films based on IP dominate the worldwide box office market. Sites like TheNumbers.com or filmsite.org break down box office tracking results into categories like Top 100 Films of All Time (adjusted for or without adjusting for inflation); you can also expand that list to worldwide results (unadjusted). Even when adjusting for inflation, many films on the top 100 of any list are based on IP. 

Inflated or not, the same types of titles creep up again and again: the Avengers, the Star Wars, the Avatars, tentpole spectaculars, heavy on special effects, four-quadrant hullabaloos that delight, but are usually light on character, depth, or theme. That isn’t to say that all movies fall into that category; there’s some middle ground, and films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial genuinely pull at the heartstrings, but it’s the exception, not the rule. You won’t likely see Fast and Furious XVI nominated for Best Picture, and to be fair, that’s not what the intention of the film is, either. As Spielberg is fond of saying, he does one for them (the studios) and one for himself. That’s how Schindler’s List was made, after all. He first had to make The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Pre-Existing Fan Base: IP takes advantage of a pre-existing fan base, be they readers of the book, players of the games, etc. A quick glance at the lists above and you see the titles of popular books, comics, and even The Bible made the list. 

There are a few originals, of course. E.T The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic (an original script based on historical events), the first Avatar, The Lion King, but it’s worth noting that not a single top ten list contains more than two original ideas not based on pre-existing IP, which is both sad and expected.  

BACK IN MY DAY…- The Nostalgia factor in a franchise can be a comfort, like rereading a favorite book. For fans wanting a popcorn movie, just something to take their mind off their lives for a few hours, familiar concepts and franchises can be a comfort, offering a familiar brand identity; fans tune in because they know what to expect. Sometimes, you just want a Coke. 

Every Generation has its own Spider-Man. With the newness of a premise quickly exhausted, filmmakers and showrunners have some levity to try new things over time. New creators bring new ideas to franchises, and while not every idea resonates with the public, most ideas are worth exploring. Case in point: The Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises have both been updated every decade or so, and this has helped keep the fanbase fresh and new. Likewise, the values of the franchises have shifted with the times, allowing new fans to discover old characters reframed for a modern audience. 

Momentum: franchises build a fanbase over time. This can generate excitement and antici…pation. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars: The Force Awakens or The Avengers: Endgame being quite so successful without the build-up from the films that came before.


The pendulum swings both ways, and for every success, there is a cautionary tale out there of overspending, unrealized potential, or disappointed fans, often all three. 

Big Money, Bigger Risk According to an article titled “12 Movies That Cost Way Too Much To Make,” posted on Screenrant in 2023, “Movies need to earn at least two times their budget from global box office sales – earning the studio as much as it invested – to be deemed a success. To be considered highly successful, however, a movie generally needs to gross over three times its budget.” So when you compare that to something that seemed like a sure bet like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, despite a bankable star in Ford, an established writer/director in Mangold (whose previous credits include Logan and Ford V Ferrari, both of which earned him Academy Award nominations), and a long established franchise, the film, which cost an estimated 300 million dollars, would have had to earn nearly a billion dollars to turn a profit. 

It didn’t come close to that. These escalating costs could be attributed to any number of things, including returning actors’ salaries, multiple writers, and rewrites, as well as the exorbitant cost of special effects blockbusters. At a running time of 154 minutes, it cost Disney approximately two million dollars a minute to produce Dial of Destiny.

When you compare this to something like, say, Everything Everywhere All At Once, which cost an estimated 25 million dollars, even grossing less than half of what Dial of Destiny made, it was by all accounts a commercial success. M3GAN, a Blumhouse original, cost only twelve million and grossed over one hundred and eight million dollars, earning back fifteen times its investment! 

Sequels Retread the Same Ground. When the first Matrix film arrived in theatres in 1999, there was nothing on the market like it. Akin to a thinking man’s action film, it went on to launch four sequels. It’s a chicken and egg problem; a studio needs new content to create new franchises, so at some point, a studio must take a risk. Audiences like something new, something they’ve never seen before. Two of last year’s hot commodities, Barbarian and M3GAN, already have follow-up films in development.

In fact, writers can spend their entire careers playing in other people’s sandboxes. Scott Frank, perhaps best known as the creator of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix (also based on IP, by the way), spent decades as a script doctor in Hollywood, admittedly making excellent money doing it, but finally broke away from his safety net to take risks on his own work, including a western series Godless, and more recently Monsieur Spade.

The 2023 box office finished billions behind expected earnings. Is it superhero fatigue or indicative of a larger problem - a lack of original content? Jackie Earle Haley stars as Rorschach in "Watchmen" (2009).
Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in “Watchmen” (2009). Image courtesy of Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures.

For some writers, working on an established IP is perfectly satisfying. Tasha Huo, a rising screenwriter in Hollywood (according to a recent article in Variety from November titled “Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch for 2023”), was first discovered off an original screenplay called ‘Black Belle,’ but as a professional, almost all of her work is based on existing games, movies, or franchises, such as Red Sonja or the forthcoming Tomb Raider series on Netflix. On her podcast, The Act Two Podcast, she readily admits her preference for working on existing IPs and her struggles with developing her own original material. But for other writers, this can be a challenge to overcome. 

Take Colin Bannon, a screenwriter that has had his scripts featured on the Blacklist, a curated list of the most popular unproduced screenplays in Hollywood each year, seven times.  For seven years, Mr. Bannon has had his work vetted by agents and peers, but it was a fifty-page short story titled “Long Lost,” which was optioned by Steven Spielberg. According to a January 2024 article from Deadline.com, his deal is in the low seven-figures range for the story and to write the script, said sources. That sounds like a sweet deal, and it is, but why does an established screenwriter with a proven track record need to write a short story at all? When you’re planning a wedding, and the planner comes highly recommended, would it matter if they had ever planned a Batmitzvah? Are executives really that much more interested in hedging their bets than producing great films? 

Franchises run stale over time. Some premises work well once but not a dozen times. There are only so many times the robots go back in time to kill John Connor before the premise lags. But that didn’t stop them from generating five sequels, including two attempted reboots, a television series (also a reboot), and two web series. Many Star Wars films are stuck in development as fan reception to the franchise has soured with poor reception over time. Worse, particularly misogynistic premises sour. James Bond doesn’t seem as suave in a post metoo# world. 

Should he be doing stunts at his age? It’s a fact of life, but actors get older. Our beloved franchise stars are still human and develop all manner of aches, pains, and exacerbated injuries from their stunts. Harrison Ford is over 80 now, and despite being in great health for an 80-year-old, he’s not exactly outrunning a boulder these days. 

Other actors leave the business entirely, retiring and moving on to other things. Ke Huy Quan, perhaps best known as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but more recently for his part in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, took a nineteen-year hiatus from acting and instead pursued higher education, and found work behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator.

Fans get older, too. The same audiences that grew up with Indiana Jones are now in their fifties and sixties. Younger generations don’t always connect with vintage films. Star Wars is almost half a century old at this point, so it’s hard to expect new fans to be as excited as fans who grew up watching the movies were.

Cannon gets complicated over time. The longer the cannon runs, the harder it is for audiences to keep track. Looking at Marvel, The Marvels was the lowest-performing MCU film ever, and it is widely speculated that this is because viewers had to be familiar with both Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel on Disney+ to be able to enjoy The Marvels

An article on USA TODAY.COM titled “Marvel mania is over: How the comic book super-franchise started to unravel in 2023” details how a “… glut of content has watered down the brand…but also created a barrier to entry for some movies that seemingly required knowledge of the TV shows to fully understand.”

Star Wars: Ahsoka combines characters from the Clone Wars Animated Series, live-action movies, and books, most of which are still not considered canonical; however, selected characters are cherry-picked to be canonical suddenly. Red string boards like this are why comic books get ‘rebooted’ every decade or so – i.e., the Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Spider-Man. This helps bring new fans into the franchise.

Medium Differences – While a great story is a great story, not all books make great movies, and vice versa. For starters, a movie is much closer in form to a short story than a novel. While limited series seem like a perfect vehicle for adaptation, and sometimes they can be, not all authors can hack it in both mediums.

Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps most famous for his book The Great Gatsby, spent two years trying to hack it in Hollywood, only to end up broke and disappointed. According to an Entertainment article from 2013 titled “F. Scott Fitzgerald and his ‘Gatsby’ money,”

Billy Wilder (the director of Some Like it Hot) once said when describing the frustration and futility that Fitzgerald encountered in California, “He made me think of a great sculptor who was hired to do a plumbing job. He did not know how to connect the f—ing pipes.”

Overhyped and underwhelmed – Despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, many adaptations can’t possibly live up to readers’ or gamers’ expectations. Readers tend to live in these books, and when a film doesn’t cast the exact right person, or a plot point from the source material is changed or omitted, readers will often vent their frustrations through negative reviews, which can hurt public perception of a property. Likewise, gamers often have a direct frame of reference for what characters should look or act like since they are presented in the game.

Another problem is that original ideas lose their newness over time, the shine dulling with every property added to a bulging portfolio. In an interview with Mark Hammill on CBS from 2017, prior to filming Star Wars – The Last Jedi, he stated, “Gee, it was hard to catch lightning in a bottle the first time. I don’t know if this is such a wise idea.”  While The Last Jedi had a hefty budget of three hundred million, the film also grossed more than 1.3 billion worldwide, landing it in the comfortable territory of being profitable. 


In 2005, Franklin Leonard, a Harvard alum working in creative development,  sent out an anonymous survey in the form of a shared spreadsheet to a short list of agents, asking them to vote on their favorite, unproduced scripts. Dubbed ‘The Blacklist,’ this list has continued circulating in the years since and now includes over a thousand films, hundreds of which have been produced, but twice as many which haven’t. A perceived lack of viable material in the market spurned Leonard’s admirable goal. 

This list has since expanded to include a website, theblcklst, which acts as a centralized database for thousands of scripts, all of which have been reviewed by a reader and summarized in a way very similar to studio coverage, a summary tool used by producers to evaluate the merits for a film quickly. The site draws writers from around the world seeking to earn a coveted eight or higher, which is viewed as a sign of prestige among filmmakers.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Since 2005, more than 400 scripts have been produced (over 20 scripts a year). These films have collectively grossed over 30 billion dollars (or about 75 million dollars each), and most of these films are produced for a fraction of what the larger films cost. According to a Harvard case study from 2016 (available in the university’s web store for less than ten dollars), these films allegedly make 90% more revenue than films made from scripts not featured on the Blacklist. By no means is every script on the list a surefire winner. Some scripts are satirical, written out of frustration, and passed around like a joke. Also, the list is proliferated by screenwriters who already exist inside the Hollywood system, like Aaron Sorkin, Olivia Wilde, and Max Landis, among others. But considering that most agents ignore all but the most prestigious industry contests and fellowships, the Blacklist can be the feather in a writer’s cap that finally gets them recognized. 

The list originated with agents, which means most often, only represented writers can expect to see their names on the Blacklist, and the path to getting representation is just as hard as it’s ever been. With studios cutting back on their content needs, less content means fewer new writers are needed. That being said, these are wholly original projects and more than half of them are still just waiting around to be produced. But Hollywood has a long history of cold feet when it comes to development. In an article from 2019 on Screencraft titled “Spec Script’s that sold for millions but were never made,” oftentimes scripts are purchased for millions but never make it through the development process. One has to wonder why a business would spend a million dollars on a project only to decide later to let it languish on standby. Some of these films do later get resurrected by a producer willing to champion the project, but often, these films simply become an anecdotal story in passing. 


Hollywood is a business, first and foremost; movies have to make money to keep the train rolling down the tracks. So, if Hollywood produced more original content, would it increase profits? 

The biggest challenge in a massive tentpole movie is the return on investment. When you sink two hundred million dollars into a movie, it needs to make over half a billion dollars to see any profit. Cheaper movies are lower risk, but that doesn’t necessarily mean lower reward. Take Little Miss Sunshine, released in 2006. According to IMDb (the Internet Movie Database), it grossed 101 million against a budget of only eight million, profiting 93 million. Put another way, it earned more than ten times its budget and more than 100% profit! 

Compare that to, say, Avengers: Endgame. Sure, it made 2.8 Billion, but it cost 400 million dollars, which means it made roughly seven times its budget. However, once you account for other costs, like distribution and advertising, Endgame netted about 1.2 billion, which means it only made three times its budget. Going back to Little Miss Sunshine, using the same model of cost analysis, still made eight times its budget! Per capita, Little Miss Sunshine made much more money. 

That doesn’t mean every low-budget indie is worth its weight in gold; lots of indies underperform at the box office, especially when up against some larger superhero extravaganza, but there is good sense in the low-risk/high-reward business model. There was a time when studios took risks on more indie gems, when blockbusters didn’t rule the cinemas, and when independent filmmakers had more opportunities for their work to be seen without the looming shadow of the newest Marvel-marketing ploy or sci-fi spectacular. Just forty years ago, the highest-grossing films weren’t based on a book or a comic, but there were the original works of screenwriters, bringing new stories to audiences that showed their appreciation by showing up. 


With 2023 behind us, are we likely to see change in 2024?  Probably not, as films have often been in the pipeline for years. The train can’t turn on a dime; it has to slow down before changing tracks. If you, dear reader, take anything from this article, it is this: Hollywood should widen its scope; pushing more original content will lead to more profitability, fresh voices, and new material.

Cheaper-to-produce material is lower risk and higher reward. It also means more opportunities for new up-and-comers, actors, writers, and filmmakers alike. You don’t have to slow production; you just have to slow spending, and to do that, you must make cheaper movies. If anything, more movies can be made! You can make almost forty Little Miss Sunshines for the price of one Avengers: Endgame, spreading out the risk, diversifying portfolios, and creating new opportunities. Plus, it will take pressure off effects artists, giving them more time to create better films. Tentpole movies might even see an increase in profit; make half as many and see if people turn out in force. After all, scarcity tends to increase demand in a healthy economy. 

One thing is very clear from 2023; the current business model isn’t working anymore. Betting it all on a single number is just bad business; the house always wins, and in this case, the house isn’t Hollywood. Bring back movies of all budgets, little indies, cheap thrillers, low-budget romcoms, mid-budget action movies. Lower budgets often lead to innovations. Let 2024 be the year filmmakers shake things up. 


Superheroes won’t save Hollywood, but do you know what will? You. As they say, you vote with your dollar, so this year, turn out for the little films. Turn up to the indie darlings as much as the latest intergalactic slugfest. Show up on opening weekend if you can. The more these little films perform, the more the executives will take notice, or if you can’t, then vote by omission. Don’t show up to every big-budget fiasco, or at the very least, not on opening day. Wait a few weeks; let the crowds die down. Hollywood is a business, after all, and if change is going to happen, it has to start with the ticketholders. So, should Hollywood continue making content based on IP? 

Yes, of course, they should keep making them! What would the world be without Star Wars?  Adaptations open up artists’ work to a larger audience; seeing superheroes up on screen inspires us, motivates us, and is great for social media banter, but it would be great if there were as much room (if not more) for original stories, too.  And it might even be good for business. 

The 2023 box office finished billions behind expected earnings. Is it superhero fatigue or indicative of a larger problem - a lack of original content? Ben Affleck stars as Bruce Wayne in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."
Image courtesy of Warner Brothers; Ben Affleck stars as Bruce Wayne in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

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Caleb aims to write high-concept genre pieces that focus on broken families. His works have been recognized by the Nicholl's Fellowship, the ISA, Screencraft, Launchpad, and Nickelodeon.When not writing Caleb enjoys video games and tabletop RPGs, camping, and is a connoisseur of fine bourbon.

Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.