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The Market for Dead Ideas

September 8, 2010

The boys at SF Signal recently asked me to participate in one of their Mind Melds.

This time round, I was asked which genre tropes need to be retired and my response was to completely dodge the question.  I’m a slippery fuck that way.  The problem is that there already is a system in place for dealing with tropes and ideas that have had their time.  It’s called ‘The Market’.

The people who make their living in the various aspects of the entertainment industry tend to have a pretty good idea of how healthy an idea is because when ideas get old they stop selling things and when things stop selling, it is time to go out and find some new ideas to sell things with.  Remember when, post-Jurassic Park everything had dinosaurs in it?  When was the last time you saw a dinosaur film or TV series?  The market reacted to saturation and the idea of dinosaurs was discretely put on a shelf until it is time to dust it off again.

The pressures affecting the life-cycle of a trope can be observed in Hollywood’s recent fondness for ‘re-imagining’ old films and TV series.  Consider, for example, the progress of Glen A. Larson’s horrific disco Star Wars rip-off Battlestar Galactica.  Between the series’ heat death in 1979 and its re-emergence as a mini-series in 2003, numerous attempts were made by the likes of Glen A. Larson, Bryan Singer and Richard “Apollo” Hatch to secure funding for a new film or TV series.  I can imagine them pitching to studio executives and being met with stony-faced refusal because memories of the old TV series were still too strong and the waning power of TV Star Trek combined with the rising popularity of teenaged vampire-slayers to make a new BSG series or film seem like an utterly preposterous idea.

But then times changed.

Studio power structures were re-shuffled, trends in popular culture shifted, the right slant on an old idea was found and suddenly the fallow land of BSG was in bloom again.

Film Poster for the film that attempted to re-launch the X-files

Working out where an idea is in its endless cycle of death and rebirth requires a keen understanding of both the entertainment industry and popular culture as a whole.  I imagine that there are a number of producers working right now whose job it is to know whether the time is right to relaunch an old franchise.  Make your move too soon and you get comparative failures like X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), get it right and you get huge successes like the rebooted Doctor Who.

Make your move too soon and you get this :

From CBS’s 1997 TV movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes (in which Holmes is unfrozen in the modern era and pressed into a second caeer as a private eye).

Make your move at the right time and you get this :

In fact, I know someone who works in the film industry who is right now trying to secure funding to launch a production company that will trawl through the archives in order to buy up all the rights for deeply unfashionable films and TV series that may or may not be lying dormant and awaiting their moment to come out of retirement.

3 Comments
  1. September 8, 2010 8:10 am

    Remember when, post-Jurassic Park everything had dinosaurs in it? When was the last time you saw a dinosaur film or TV series?

    Primeval was first broadcast in 2007, 15 years after Jurassic Park came out, and is currently filming its fifth season. Dinosaurs aren’t dead yet.

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  2. September 8, 2010 10:25 am

    True. You have un-manned me sir. I stand refuted.

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  3. September 21, 2010 11:50 am

    As someone who works in the so-called entertainment industry my feelings are the Market is rarely a conscious shaper of ideas; rather it knee-jerks to fit in with suspected trends. Indeed, the degree of luck and chance in the whole process is alarming, as is so with all creative endeavour. Certainly old formats are often re-energised, but this is often for cynical economic reasons (don’t have to pay wtiters to come up with new ideas, some evidence the audience already exists) than a Bohemian urge to re-embrace. It’s true that timing is everything though. Polanski’s ‘Pirates’ died a death (partly because it’s awful) but 15 years later ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ is one of the dominant Hollywood franchises. Partly it’s the latter’s execution tapping a hunger for fantasy and CGI animation; but it’s also because the audience always wants to see something its not seen before (all the old adages of showbusiness remain true – ‘the same but different’ being the most obvious). Or as the saying goes, when everybody else ‘Zigs’, it’s time to ‘Zag’. But the chaos is very real, and everybody is panicked by ratings constantly. Calm planning it is not.

    Indeed, this is why certain left leaning visions that depict the Entertainment Industry as some sort of ‘mind control’ experiment led by clandestine authority figures are just silly. It’s routed in conspiracy theory and denies the chaotic reality out of which so much dross (and so much good) actually emerges. Anybody who’s worked in TV / Film simply couldn’t buy such a reading of global entertainment because they actually spend their days surrounded by moronic inpetitude and cynical second-guessing. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, hence William Goldman’s famous adage about Hollywood.

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