We frequently have to contend with the realisation that the artefacts of our global culture—the things that make up the parts of our life that aren’t working or eating or pooing or sleeping—are, in the large part, the outputs of commercial activity.
To put it another way, the things that inform our culture are akin to widgets on a warehouse shelf: designed to be sold and subject to market forces that seek to minimise risk while maximising return. The quality and indeed value of the widget is generally only thought of to the extent that it impacts upon the calculation of risk and return. Questions beyond this inherently cynical calculation are rarely, if ever, a factor in the equation.
The commercial reality behind media and therefore culture is something we all know, I’m sure. We know that we have amazing television shows because they are (or at least, were) intended as vehicles to sell soap and appliances and cigarettes to us. While nowadays the thing being sold is less a product (ignoring, for a second, pernicious product placement) and more about selling subscriptions to the plethora of streaming services, the underlying commercial imperative is broadly the same. And likewise, films drive us into cinemas to buy movie tickets and printer-ink-tier priced popcorn (or again, subscribing to subscription services) and video games drive us to buy consoles and on and on it goes.
I do suspect this commercial reality is not always front and centre in our minds when engaging with and appreciating cultural artefacts, or rather cultural products. We naturally focus on the creative, aesthetic and narrative qualities. But ignoring the commercial reality can, I think, negatively effect how we consume and relate to cultural products.
I have emphasised the above because the commercial imperative to control risk and revenue are central in understanding the current dire state of the manufacture of cultural products—that is, that we live in an unprecedented era where sequels, remakes, remasters, and adaptations dominate the cultural landscape. Almost all cultural avenues are lousy with what I am going to call for brevity’s sake non-original IPs.
Take the below chart which I made by referencing Box Office Mojo data and then investigating each film’s Wikipedia entry to determine if it was an original or non-original IP (where it was not immediately apparent to me). You can see the ratio of original IP titles is steadily decreasing in favour of non-original IP content. I suspect charts for television shows and video games (and perhaps to a lesser degree for books and music and podcasts) would broadly show the same trend.1Could and would do so, but for my incredible laziness!
I must disclose my media and culture biases—although I think it may already be quite clear from the tone of this essay—in general, I generally enjoy original IP content far more than non-original IP content. When I think of the things that have stuck with me over the past few years (or indeed, since I’ve started logging my media consumption here) they are generally new stories, stories that take creative risks to expand and challenge our culture, rather than simply giving me more of an existing thing. There are certainly pleasures to be had from more of the same, yet I can think of no clear demonstration of the law of diminishing returns than a sequel to something I have already liked (to say nothing of a second, third, etc sequel). The nuance here is that it is not a high vs low culture divide, as sometimes it is seen as.
On an ideological level, I see exploring and creating new things as being inherently worthwhile as opposed to mere reinterpretation of familiar ideas, stories and characters.2Here I am consciously choosing not to acknowledge a Seven Basic Plots/limited archetypes type argument, which I do not think undermines my point at any rate, however I thought someone might expect me to address it, so here I have! Part of the reason why I think this way is because it promotes diversity and challenges the status quo. By that I mean the people who make the decisions about what media to create are usually the least diverse people there are: white, rich, conservative business dudes. The stories these people are capable of and inclined to support are inevitably narrow and familiar. They are stories that by and large support and reinforce the status quo and existing power structures. Non-original IPs are generally constrained by insular, conservative, and cynical thinking. When your prime goal is to make money, your choices tend to be obviously and predictably constrained.
Looking at best seller lists, or reading about new projects, it is hard to escape this feeling of how cynical the production of cultural products has become: I am constantly imagining a boardroom conversation where someone is saying “well they liked x so let us give them much more of x in a million different ways!” It is a path to cultural ossification. And when a culture ossifies, history tells us, its connected society begins to decline.
Yet with original IPs we at least get a chance of a story that may challenge us in some respect: a new idea, a new experience, or even just a new point of view. It is not even true that original IPs do not make money. The original-IP darling, Everything Everywhere All At Once, made a healthy x10 its budget at the box office. Other original IPs have done extraordinarily well too, both in a business sense and a critical sense. And yet there is greater risk there, a risk that for whatever reason an original IP just won’t find an audience and will instead become a bad investment for a studio. It does not matter even if this risk is real, it only matters that cultural-decision makers perceive it to be so, and thus make decisions to fund yet another unnecessary, worker-exploitive superhero sequel.
Aside from the cultural ossification concern, the predominance of non-original IP is problematic for another reason: There is not an infinite pool of the people that make our cultural products (in contrast to the fact that there are, effectively, infinite stories to be told). There are finite amounts of people with the technical skills required in each stage of creating something. Culture has a bandwidth limit. Over production of non-original IP diverts resources from creating original IP. To put it another way, each new sequel takes away the chance of creating the next Everything Everywhere All At Once, of telling a different sort of story, something that strives towards reflecting our incredible diversity and not merely giving us more bland comforts.
I can think of nothing that will realistically disrupt the rising trend of non-original IP content. So long as creating Blue and Orange Pt 3 is a safe bet for those in charge of creating our cultural products, we will get endless effluent streams of non-original IP content. I am not going to BP you all and say it’s all up to you to single-handedly end this trend. Yet without being aware of the problem, and being mindful of how our choices send signals about the relative risk of different types of media, we become participants in the problem.
It reflects a question that we need to ask ourselves—and then take conscious action depending on our answer—do we want our culture to be largely self-referential and self-reinforcing, where the status quo is bolstered, or instead do we see value in this safe, comfortable image being challenged through investing in new stories, voices and lives? If one chooses the anaesthetising former, then one can simply switch off and do nothing. If, instead, one chooses the latter, then you must consciously support that decision: with your time, your attention and your money. Support a new film from a director with a difficult-to-pronounce surname (and I don’t just mean because the surname is French.3And while you’re at it, actually try to pronounce the surname, even if you get it wrong. To simply refuse to pronounce any non-familiar name is quite the dreadful act of othering. Take risks with your decisions, in the same way you want the creators of culture to take risks.
It needn’t be an all or nothing proposition, but recognise that the path of least resistance always favours the status quo, and so by doing nothing you consent to being a part of the feedback cycle that constrains, limits and threatens diversity, growth and expression. Conversely, and I think excitingly, by doing something, even something small like choosing original over non-original IP, you have the power to magnify and support different voices. This in turn feeds a culture that is inclusive, diverse and truly special. And indeed, alive.
- 1Could and would do so, but for my incredible laziness!
- 2Here I am consciously choosing not to acknowledge a Seven Basic Plots/limited archetypes type argument, which I do not think undermines my point at any rate, however I thought someone might expect me to address it, so here I have!
- 3And while you’re at it, actually try to pronounce the surname, even if you get it wrong. To simply refuse to pronounce any non-familiar name is quite the dreadful act of othering.