01/07/2014 02:45 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2014

When it Comes to Hollywood, Familiarity Breeds Comfort


2013 was a fairly successful year for Hollywood. The New York Times noted that the top five highest grossing films of the year -- Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Fast & Furious 6, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Monsters University -- had something in common: They were all sequels/prequels (and two of them -- Iron Man and The Hunger Games -- were also based on pre-existing media). Which begs the question: Why?

The first real challenge facing any filmmaker is the ability to entertainingly convey a complex story in a finite amount of time in order to capture and hold an audience's attention. During this time, the audience must willingly suspend their disbelief and become completely engaged in the story on screen. But peoples' attention spans are short, and only getting shorter. Movies must compete against expanded episodic content and even YouTube for a share of the audiences' fiction fix.

Most of us love good storytelling, and this love predates motion pictures, going back thousands of years. Not much has changed. A story can only be good if the storyteller skillfully conveys the characters to us. We need to have a relationship with the characters in order for us to become engaged in the story, which makes characters with whom the audience can identify all the more important. This is where sequels, prequels, remakes and films based on a pre-existing bodies of work have a huge advantage.

The movie business is always a crapshoot. Critically acclaimed films with A-list talent can be financial debacles, while critically panned and seemingly drivel-ridden films can be hugely successful. In short, the success of a film has little to do with artistry, substance or even special effects. But success often has much to do with identifiable and familiar characters -- whether they are likable or despicable. And although nothing is a sure thing in Hollywood, your odds are improved when making a movie where the audience quickly comes to know the character. It is already a nearly impossible task to tell a story involving multiple characters, often spanning decades, to an audience (with thousands of other choices at their fingertips) in less than 2 hours.

By making a movie based on preexisting media like a novel or comic book, or if you are lucky enough to justify making a sequel, you are spared valuable time otherwise devoted to introducing and familiarizing the audience with the characters because they already know them, thereby increasing the likelihood of success. The financial success of numerous superhero films is a fine example.

When it comes to comic book heroes, there's such a familiarity already instilled in the audience that the director and writers are not forced to establish context and backstory immediately. From the moment the film begins the audience already knows who these characters are. In that regard, sequels can essentially afford to fail at educating the audience and still be successful. Alternatively, if filmmakers were to create a superhero -- complete with the standard superhero traits such as strength, ability to fly, etc. -- they would be at a complete disadvantage, and even the slightest failure to educate the audience on the characters could result in failure.

Disney has built a very successful business by understanding the psychology of and the financial reward associated with capitalizing on characters which audiences have come to know. No other studio has taken the positive exploitation of characters to the level Disney has. When they have stuck to their knitting - whether it be their homegrown characters, the purchase of Pixar or the Marvel acquisition -- it has paid off in spades.

The superhero films are based on comic book characters and part of their blockbuster appeal is that the characters have existed in the psyche of people for decades. Furthermore, even if you're not an avid comic book reader, you're surely cognizant of Batman, Superman, The Wolverine, Iron Man and what they stand for. It doesn't even matter which actor -- save for the Ben Affleck uproar, which I doubt will keep the film from being financially successful -- is playing the superhero. Can you even recall how many Batman leads there have been over the past 25 years? But the character is already so well-established, so identifiable, it is ultimately beyond the individual wearing the suit. This pre-established, built-in relationship the character has with the audience is a critical advantage that superhero films have versus films with original material.

It's hard to contest what increases the odds of making a financially successful movie: Base it on pre-existing media. But that still means lots of risk and lots of money. If you want to base your movie on a successful book, you are going to pay handsomely for the rights and the author and market will expect that you make a top notch film, which means expensive talent and production costs. If you are making a sequel, the audience will also be sitting back waiting to see how you have topped your last performance. All that makes for high stakes.

In today's marketplace, given the viral expansion of outlets through which media is available to audiences, there are more options than ever before. With the advent of technology and the bombardment of information and choices, audiences have a need for greater complexity in storytelling -- something that often cannot be delivered in one sitting. A film's time constraints combined with increasing availability of devices and outlets underscore why we are experiencing a shift in the popularity of episodic television. This shift means TV is generating more money, thereby attracting the best available creative talent to write, direct and star in these new shows. Moreover, television is afforded the ability to develop characters over dozens of hours, thereby diminishing the need to buy pre-existing content. A series can become anything it wants to be, providing a wealth of possibility for story arcs and themes. This allows us to venture away from old stories while satisfying the audiences' need for familiarity with the characters.

Ever-expanding and available via an unlimited number of delivery systems, television (episodic content) has the luxury of developing characters over time, and with more depth than a film. The popular adage, "life imitates the movies," is not entirely accurate. Life is actually much more complex than the movies, and television is able to explore those complexities and nuances, making shows such as Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Boardwalk Empire so successful because the audience is engrossed in a character on multiple levels. The Walter White character from Breaking Bad is an example of how characters are able to evolve, or this case devolve, and develop and/or decline over the course of a series. When we first meet White, he's a good person, a family man. By the end of the series, he has completely transformed into a veritable monster, an evil killer who has further devolved with each sinful act.

And TV can do one thing we hate to love that a movie is forbidden to do -- something that widely successful authors like Dan Brown mastered with The Da Vinci Code -- and that is leave us hanging on a cliff until the next chapter or next week's episode.

People will always love good storytelling, but good storytelling hinges on compelling and identifiable characters. Sequels, remakes, stories based on books and comics, and historic characters have a clear advantage when it comes to mass audience appeal. Hollywood will always be a crapshoot, but if you want a higher likelihood of success you need to capitalize on material which already exists in the hearts and minds of the audience.


David Bergstein is the CEO of Cyrano Group. He is a board member of the Sheriff's Youth Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing Los Angeles County youth with safe facilities, planned programs, and the vital tools they need to thrive and succeed in life. He is founder of the Leonard and Sarah Bergstein Learning Center at the Conejo Jewish Academy.