Creative Industries Have an Unoriginality Problem

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Despite its timeless allure, the creative industry has never been particularly welcoming to newcomers. Artists in film, television, publishing, art and music are “starving” for a reason; even those with exceptional skill, ideas and tenacity often spend years looking for their big break, and many never find it. This exclusivity is nothing new, but in 2018, creative spaces are more hesitant than ever to take chances on unestablished artists. As a result, the worlds of literature, cinema and art are suffering — not for lack of fresh talent and ideas, but for a lack of faith on the part of producers, publishers and curators in creators who aren’t (yet) guaranteed money-makers.

The lack of fresh, independent content is most obvious on the silver screen. Of the top 15 highest-grossing movies of 2017, only one — Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” — wasn’t a remake, sequel or spin-off. Major studios are apparently so terrified of losing money on something that’s not a guaranteed blockbuster that they’d rather turn out two movies in the same year starring Wonder Woman than take a chance on an original story. Therein lies the paradox: if studios were always this risk-averse, would we ever have a Wonder Woman in the first place? Would we have “Citizen Kane,” “Fight Club,” “Sixteen Candles” or any number of beloved classics that aren’t remakes or spin-offs? In the past decade, how many potential new classics have been passed over for another “Thor” movie, or a third “Despicable Me”?

While not as bad as the theaters, television networks and streaming services suffer from their own originality issues. The front page of Netflix is filled with Marvel and DC shows like “Daredevil,” “The Punisher” and “The Flash.” Fan favorite “Riverdale,” although an original take on its source material, is based on the Archie Comics series from the ‘40s. Even Netflix’s wholly original content, like the instant classic “Stranger Things” (of which, admittedly, I’m a huge fan), draws heavily on ‘80s culture, pulling from movies like “E.T.” and games like Dungeons and Dragons to create its distinctive nostalgic atmosphere. While a few exceptional original shows have become cultural staples in past years, “safe” spin-offs by famous directors still pervade the airwaves because they’re sure money-makers, unlike new concepts from unknown creators which will likely never see the small screen.

This phenomenon extends beyond visual media. The advent of audio streaming services like Spotify (really, only Spotify — sorry, Apple Music and Tidal) has contributed to the homogenization of music as a whole. While most small artists are welcome to make their albums available on these platforms, Spotify’s curated playlists leave unknown artists out, favoring top-100 performers to draw listeners in. Consequently, newer musicians are encouraged to mimic the sounds of already-established bands in order to be considered for a spot on these coveted playlists and reach new audiences. The resulting generic lyrics and formulaic melodies are exhausting. Really, does anyone need yet another indie-folk band that sounds just like Mumford & Sons?

The literary world might be the most egregious example of the trend away from risk-taking; in publishing, an author’s name (and pre-established fame) is far more important in selling a book proposal than the content of the book itself. It’s an industry truism that if you don’t have a recognizable name, your manuscript’s going in the trash. The shelves of Barnes & Noble are stocked with tell-alls written by (or more likely, ghost-written for) YouTubers, models, reality stars and singers. “Insta-poets” like Rupi Kaur and Robert M. Drake dominate their genre due more to their enormous social media followings than their literary talent. Big-name pop-fiction authors like John Grisham and James Patterson practically owned the New York Times bestsellers’ list last year, despite that Patterson only co-authored (read: put his name on the cover of) four out of his five books on the list. Patterson’s contemporary, Tom Clancy, died in 2013, but his name is still emblazoned across a book that came out just last month (with the real author’s name in tiny print at the bottom of the cover, because “Marc Cameron” just doesn’t have the same selling power). Publishers don’t want to read story outlines, even if they contain the next “Great Gatsby” — they want to know how many followers the author has on social media, how many famous people they can get to help sell the book, and how well promo material fits into a Tweet.
The outlook for creative types may seem bleak, but none of this means that art is dead. Creators are out there as they always have been, with brilliant, wild ideas and the talent to back them up. The problem, even in our hyper-connected world, is finding them when most major companies refuse to give them the resources and exposure they need to bring their dreams to an audience. Until these hidden artists find a way to break into the modern creative industry, we’re all going to be stuck with more “Gucci Gang,” Spiderman remakes and Rupi Kaur copycats. And eventually, if not already, we’re all going to be so sick of it that we demand originality again.

At its core, this creative stagnation is an economic issue — it’s the prerogative of studios and publishing houses to decide what to promote, and in 2018, many have decided to prioritize tried-and-true profit machines over the inherent risk of something new. It could be the result of consumer tastes, too; in an era when our politics, technology, and culture all seem so precarious, the comfort of nostalgic movies and books can feel like a tether to a simpler time. But soon, something’s got to give. Already, audiences are flocking to original movies like “Lady Bird” and “Baby Driver,” and innovative shows like “Black Mirror” and “Masters of None” have become major commercial successes. The market for original content is growing, and hopefully with it will come a resurgence of culture-defining art for the twenty-first century.
Whatever the causes of our current creative standstill, I hope it reverses course soon — or else 40 years from now, we’ll have run out of ‘80s movies to remake and we won’t have built any new culture to look back on.

Megan Cole is a fourth-year literary journalism and English double major. She can be reached at coleme@uci.edu.

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