Why Does Hollywood Keep Missing The Mark With Public Domain Characters?
While Ralph was breaking the internet this past weekend and Adonis Creed was fighting the past, another hero with a much longer history and greater name value also made an appearance for another big screen adventure: Robin Hood. The Lionsgate film from director Otto Bathurst stars Jamie Foxx and Taron Egerton in the latest cinematic depiction of the legendary outlaw.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Robin Hood bombed, debuting in 7th place at the box office over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with a meager $14.2 million five-day haul. Given its budget, that may make Robin Hood 2018's biggest flop. It would be easy to chalk it up to competition or marketing or as an isolated occurrence too, if it weren't for the fact that Robin Hood is just the latest example in a long line of disappointing and underperforming films based on public domain characters.
Robin Hood, King Arthur, Peter Pan and Dracula: characters known the world over that, in recent years, have struggled to find success on the big screen. It makes sense that Hollywood keeps trying. Public domain characters don't come with hefty licensing fees, and they have strong name recognition. Why Hollywood continues to make Robin Hood movies is obvious, but why do they keep failing?
If it were only Robin Hood, or only one movie, the answer might be easier to pinpoint. But because we're talking about multiple characters and many movies, the answer may not be simple. But nevertheless, read on as I try to suss out why Hollywood keeps missing the mark with public domain characters.
The Characters Are Overplayed
Maybe the answer is simply that Hollywood keeps going to the well too many times with these public domain characters, and it has long since run dry. We often discuss the concept of fatigue in the superhero realm and it's possible that audiences are just not interested in another Robin Hood or King Arthur movie. There may be a 'been there, done that' mentality, that the audience has seen this story one too many times before.
Even if it has been a while since the last studio attempt at these characters on the big screen, it can still feel like the last Robin Hood or Peter Pan movie was just yesterday. Also, just because superhero fatigue hasn't set in -- and may never -- doesn't mean that the same applies to these public domain characters. After all, they've been around much longer and have been depicted many more times. This can make films about public domain heroes feel unnecessary and exhausting. That can sap the audience of any sense of urgency to check out a new take.
The Stories Are No Longer Relevant
Hollywood's films featuring public domain heroes might keep failing because the stories and characters no longer resonate or feel relevant to a modern audience. Tastes change and for some, these characters may feel boring, stale, or rote. Not every subject enjoys everlasting enthusiasm. Westerns aren't what they once were on the big screen; the same goes for musicals and the same may be true of Robin Hood, Peter Pan and their public domain brethren.
However, as a counterpoint, there is a reason that these characters have endured for so long, centuries for some, and that's because their stories are universal and evergreen. In an era of vast income inequality, you would think there would be some receptiveness to the story of an outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. And Game of Thrones has proven how much audiences will buy in for a medieval setting with fantasy elements, surely King Arthur could tap into that same interest. Plus, who among us couldn't use an escape to Neverland?
An Overemphasis On Origin Stories
A common trend in Hollywood in general, and especially among these public domain characters in the past decade or so, is to give us origin stories. You can understand the impulse too. Hollywood studios are attempting to entice audiences to check out a film by promising them a story of these characters that they've never seen before. But in so doing, they may be missing what made these characters special and so long-lasting in the first place. These aren't superheroes and we don't necessarily need a gritty origin story for them.
Dracula Untold, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Pan were all origin stories, some of which were intended to start franchises but none of them did. When origin stories don't succeed, we never get to the meat of the story we wanted to see in the first place. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, probably the last traditional Robin Hood film, told us everything we needed to know in the opening act. These characters are legend for a reason. Show us that, not 120 minutes of prologue. Origin stories may miss the mark because they are too different, which brings me to my next point...
Modern Takes Are Too Different From The Traditional Stories
Personally, I really like Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, but it is not really King Arthur, and that's indicative of another possible problem Hollywood is running into with public domain characters. That 2004 film attempted to do a realistic take that bore little resemblance to the traditional story that people have in their heads when they hear King Arthur. No magic, no grail quest, no Green Knight -- it lacks many of the elements we associate with Arthurian legend.
In its attempt to give audiences something that feels fresh and new, Hollywood does gritty origin stories and gussies these public domain characters up with modern style. The result of this practice isn't that Robin Hood or Peter Pan or Dracula look more interesting, it's that they look like every other generic action film on the market. Shots from the trailer of this latest Robin Hood look like they are from The Matrix, complete with pillars being shot up, and moderate explosions. And while it has its defenders, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword lacks the Lord of the Rings-esque grandeur the Arthurian legend should have.
The Quality Hasn't Been There
It might not matter that films based on these public domain characters were origin stories or that they bore little resemblance to the traditional tellings if they were good, but that has not generally been the case. To find a generally well-reviewed film about Dracula or Robin Hood or Peter Pan there's a good chance you're going back a decade or more. So if all of the films you've seen about these characters of late have been mediocre to terrible, it makes it hard to get excited about a new one.
For example, the last great Robin Hood movie for many people might be Disney's animated film (my pick would be Prince of Thieves). If you haven't seen that, you may not know or care about the character. Combine that with the fact that kids these days may not be reading about these characters growing up, and you have a recipe for apathy. I don't think these public domain characters have the cultural capital that Hollywood thinks they do, but I still like to think that quality is king. Give us an unquestionably great Dracula or Robin Hood or King Arthur or Peter Pan movie, and it will be impossible to ignore.
I don't feel as my colleague Matt Wood does that Hollywood needs to stop making Robin Hood movies altogether, because there are success stories and reasons on the horizon to hope for better. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. have taken a public domain character and had a ton of success with him by retaining what makes him special and making entertaining films for modern audiences. Sherlock Holmes 3 even is on the way.
Also, Disney is basically adapting all of its animated classics into live-action and Peter Pan is getting a remake from Pete's Dragon director David Lowery. In addition, a remake of The Sword in the Stone is in development for the Disney+ streaming service. So Hollywood will continue to try with public domain characters, but it is clear that at the moment, something isn't working and whatever it is, it needs to be addressed before any film can have hopes of starting a franchise.
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Nick grew up in Maryland has degrees in Film Studies and Communications. His life goal is to walk the earth, meet people and get into adventures. He’s also still looking for The Adventures of Pete and Pete season 3 on DVD if anyone has a lead.